First Lady Michelle Obama gave the keynote address Wednesday to several hundred people at the first Jane Ortner Education Award Luncheon, a fundraiser for the Grammy Museum held at Club Nokia at L.A. Live. Awards were given to musician Janelle Monae and El Dorado High School teacher Sunshine Cavalluzzi.
Here is a transcription of most of the keynote speech she gave about the role of arts in education, with references to Grammy Museum executive director Robert Santelli.
It is a pleasure for me to be here for the inaugural Jane Ortner Education Award Luncheon.
I want to start by thanking Bob for that very kind introduction, and for his visionary leadership of the Grammy Museum...
I want to thank Chuck Ortner and his family for their tremendous generosity in making this luncheon possible. I want to give a special thank you to your fabulous mayor, Mayor Garcetti. We’re thrilled that he could join us today, and we are grateful for his leadership.
And I’d like to thank and congratulate today’s honorees: my dear, dear friend Janelle Monae, as well as Sunshine Cavalluzzi, who I’m going to meet; I’m going to meet Sunshine soon.
We are so inspired by the both of you, and so grateful for everything you do for our children.
And of course I want to thank everyone here today for your support to bring arts education to young people across this country.
Your work has been at the heart of our vision for the White House right from the beginning, as Bob shared.
Now traditionally, when it comes to hosting cultural events, the White House has always brought in the most renowned performers in the world. And in the past, the audiences for these performances were usually a lot of pretty fancy people: politicians, business people, celebrities, you know, the kind of folks who get invited to the White House all the time.
But when Barack and I first came to Washington, we decided that it was time to shake things up a little bit.
We wanted to do everything we could to make the White House the people’s house. We wanted to open it up to as many people in this country as possible, especially our young people. So when we started inviting performers to the White House...we told everyone that we also expected them to spend some time with young people, doing workshops and these wonderful mentoring sessions.
That’s where all of you came in, and thanks to your generosity, the Grammy Museum has flown nearly 1,000 students to Washington to visit the White house and take part in these programs. And thousands more have participated by video.
Young people have had so many once-in-a-lifetime experiences: They’ve explored soul music with Janelle Monae, Melissa Etheridge, Patti LaBelle. That was good. They’ve learned about country music with Lyle Lovett, Darius Rucker, Kris Kristofferson. And you’ve heard they talked about Motown with Smokey Robinson and John Legend.
I could go on and on. These sessions are amazing.
I have to tell you these are some of my favorite events at the White House. There are these truly intimate moments when the artists and these kids are sitting around in the state dining room. It’s very special, and we make sure they know they are sitting where we host kings and queens and leaders from all over the world. And in that room they’re pouring their hearts out to each other.
They get really close. And they’re not just talking about music, they’re talking about their hopes and their dreams and their fears. They’re talking about the value of hard work, things like staying true to yourself, and picking yourself up when you fall.
That’s one thing I always say to the kids: that failure is your only guarantee in life. They’ve gotta figure that out.
Let me tell you, so many of the young people who have these experiences, they walk away transformed. How can you help but not be transformed with anew sense of purpose and hope.
Let’s take the example of a young woman named Trina Vargas, who attended that first workshop on the music of the civil rights [movement] back in 2010 that Bob talked about.
Now, Trina was raised by a single mother, much like many of the artists who performed and who we have known and loved.
She is from Guatemala. Her mother never had a chance to go to college herself. And while Trina worked hard in school, she wasn’t always sure that hard work would really pay off. But her trip to the White House opened her eyes, and as she put it--and these are just a few of her words--she said, ‘I saw for the first time how education and hard work could open doors I never dreamed possible.’
She said even though it’s easy to feel disturbed at times, she said I won’t stop chasing my dream. Well today, four years later, Trina has graduated summa cum laude from SUNY [State University of New York] Albany, and she’s working on her way toward law school.
I’m sure I could share hundreds of stories just like that.
So make no mistake about it: Programs like this aren’t just about taking a fun field trip to Washington. They shouldn’t just be luxuries for kids who can afford it. Because we know that engagement with the arts can unlock a world of possibilities for young people, especially when it comes to their education.
Studies show that kids who are involved in the arts have higher grades, higher graduation rates, higher college enrollment rates, and when you think about it that’s not really surprising.
Because for so many young people, arts education is the only reason they get up out of bed in the morning. Just like Janelle, they go to school each day because there’s an instrument they want to play, a musical they want to perform in, a painting they are dying to finish. See, and then once they arrive in those classrooms, that’s when we can teach them something else, like math and writing and science.
That is the power of the arts for so many of our young people.
But today as we honor your work to promote arts education and to recognize people like Sunshine and Janelle, we also need to be thinking about all the young people who will never have these opportunities.
In this country, we need to be thinking about the 6 million children in this country who don’t have a single art or music class in their schools. So for every Janelle Monae, there are so many young people with so much promise, they never have a chance to develop.
Think about how that must feel for a kid to have so much talent, so much that they want to express, but it’s all bottled up inside because no one ever put the paint brush, or an instrument, or a script into their hand.
It’s about what that means for our communities, all that frustration bottled up. Think about the neighborhoods where so many of our kids live, neighborhoods torn apart by poverty and violence. Those kids have no good opportunity or outlet, so for them, everythingthat’s bottled up, all that despair and anger and fear, it comes out in all the wrong places. It comes out through guns and gangs and drugs, and the cycle just continues.
But the arts are a way to channel that pain and frustration into something meaningful, productive and beautiful. And every human being needs that--particularly our kids.
When they don’t have that outlet, that is such a tremendous loss, not just for our kids, but for our nation. And that’s why the work you all are doing is so important.
But we can’t stop here. You all have an abundance of riches here in Los Angeles. And yes, we do have a pretty big platform at the White House. People do tend to accept invitations to perform, and interact with young people. We’ve got some leverage!
But let’s not forget that there are theaters and symphonies and museums in cities and towns all across this country and with every exhibit and performance they put on, these folks should be asking themselves, "How can we get some kids in here? How can we get those artists and performers to connect with the young people in those communities?"
In other words, every arts organization in this country should be embracing the mission of the Grammy Museum, because we cannot be satisfied until every child in America has some kind of exposure to the arts. Every child. Every child.
To all the young people here today, I just want to urge you all to take the fullest advantage of these opportunities when you get them.
Try as many new art forms as you can. And take some risks: Don’t be afraid to express yourself. And most important, take the lessons you learn through arts and apply them at school. Take that same passion and dedication to getting the education you will need to fulfill your dream.
Some of you are already doing that, and I am incredibly proud of you all. But today I want to urge you to dream even bigger. Work even harder. Don’t ever give up, no matter what challenges you face. Because if you do that, there’s no limit to what you can achieve.
Remember there are so many people who believe in you: I believe in you. Your president believes in you. And all of these people here today believe in you. So go out there, and make us proud. More importantly, make yourselves proud. Yeah.
To all of you here today who are doing so much to support these amazing young people, I want to end as I started by once again saying thank you. Thank you for your commitment--to their future, to our country’s future, and I do look forward to our work together in the months and years ahead.
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