Imagining Philadelphia: An Interview with Cultural Agent Julia Katz Terry

On May 31st, Cultural Agent Julia Katz Terry and a great group of volunteers held “Imagining Philadelphia” (one of 15 Imaginings the USDAC is rolling out this summer) smack dab in the middle of the ArtWell Festival at Oxford Mills, a renovated textile mill complex in the South Kensington neighborhood. USDAC Chief Policy Wonk Arlene Goldbard interviewed Julia about how she and partners from Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, University Community Collaborative, Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture, Art Sanctuary, and other groups organized the Imagining around its stated purpose: “With youth voices at the center, we will use art, collaboration and dialogue to explore and imagine where, what, and how they will learn....and most importantly how we will achieve equitable and creative solutions that serve our youth and honor our diverse cultures and communities.” What emerged from imagining education twenty years on?

Arlene Goldbard: You wrote, “with youth at the center.” How did that work? Where did the young people come from? Who were they?

Julia Katz Terry: Through all of the Cultural Agents’ USDAC training, each week I wrote down a whole new agenda for the Imagining! But I held off on making anything definite till we had our committee meeting. And as much as I thought we had it planned, it changed once we got the students’ energy in the room. We had high school students through the Upward Bound program at the University of Pennsylvania and from an ArtWell program with the Children’s Hospital’s Violence Prevention Initiative. Most were African American, both boys and girls. They really stepped up and they took their roles seriously and they worked really hard.

We told them about the USDAC and how important it was to have their voices leading the conversation, how this was a really unique opportunity to do something different that felt really hopeful and could have some lasting outcomes. We brainstormed activities and themes and people signed up to take a role. They suggested a carnival theme. We talked about superheroes. And then everyone got excited about this fantasy first day of school 20 years from now. There were so many great ideas, it was hard to eliminate, but we also had to come up with what would be feasible in a limited amount of time. They wanted people to be sent through a metal detector like when you enter most middle and high schools; but this would be a creativity detector, an imagination detector. Someone would get a reading like, “You’re off the charts! Come on in!”

In the context of many, many other organizing activities happening—a lot led by youth—what was unique about this one was that it was really planned by the students. They were so excited and that made it fun. They made people really ready for a different dialogue.

Arlene: Tell me about one of the activities you did.

Julia: In brainstorming the first day of school theme, we talked about the rituals of the first day of school. To our surprise, the students were saying “We still have to say the Pledge of Allegiance every morning, maybe we can rewrite that.”

We had a few big pieces of paper on the wall. One said, “I pledge allegiance to…” Another said, “and to…,” and then, “with…”—like how the Pledge is at the end. We had people write different lines on Post-its. Two poets who are ArtWell teaching artists and the students put them in order. They had planned to perform it. I suggested making it call-and-response, because when people do the Pledge of Allegiance everyone takes part. We read a line and then the audience said, “I pledge allegiance.”

Here’s the text:

I pledge allegiance
to one planet in the cosmos
to all beings in the universe
to the people of the people of this beautiful melting pot of colors
to my sisters and my brothers
to myself and others
to love
to the freedom to be me
to the belief that everyone can succeed
to the earth, to the sky, and the seas
to show the world the things we can achieve
to accepting differences, courage, equality
to families growing with joy and support
to open minds and open hearts

And to
to the unyielding pursuit of peace
to the freedom of others who are different from me
to going for broke
to everlasting hope
to the children, our seeds of the future

With all the love & empathy I can conjure in my heart.

Arlene: How did this work in the middle of a festival?

Julia: In some ways the festival was great because the spirit of the day was so exciting and joyous. The momentum of music led so many people to the Imagining. ArtWell events in general attract an intergenerational and diverse audience. It was beautiful! And this whole new audience came, partly because of the Imaging and also because of our outreach efforts to the neighborhood. So in that sense it was really effective to have it in a festival.

 But I couldn’t keep half of the festival guests in the Imagining through the whole festival, and it couldn’t have an opening, middle, closing, which I would have liked if it were an independent event. Because it was open to the festival, people would trickle in and add their piece. It was cool to see all the different phases of it. At one point I went into this huge conference space and there was just a family—a mother, father and their five year-old daughter—and they were all adding things to a list. They had so much to add and they were this family working together: it was awesome.

Arlene: When you consider the Imagining as a whole, what emerged overall in terms of the future of education? Were there qualities that would make it different? Or new things that would happen?

Julia: People wanted our schools to be like their fantasy first day of school: open and interactive and experimental and kids have a say. Somebody said they want students to be empowered and entitled to create a safe space for all, to have schools that are supporting students to make their own culture and kind of space.

A lot of people wrote about safety and sanctuary in relation to the arts. On the sanctuary flags we made in another activity, there was a lot about safety, courage, poetry, leadership. Outlets for expression through arts and culture are really tied to making people feel safe, that they can belong and be themselves in schools.

People also brought up basic resources, like, “I wish that all schools had books, videos, and computers, to help students learn.” Basic needs, like college counselors, guidance counselors, nurses.

Arlene: Any final words?

Julia: I’m excited about the potential for youth leadership across arts, culture and youth-serving organizations. It was an advantage to have this event in Philadelphia because there’s such a collaborative spirit and interest in collective impact across fields and organizations. This would be a really exciting way to harness that energy: to bring youth together across organizations and have arts and culture be a vehicle for that.