I am so excited about today’s guest! Today, I talked to Mario Rossero, the Executive Director of the National Arts Education Association (NAEA). He had an exciting journey as an art teacher before joining the NAEA in January 2020, just before the world exploded. In this episode, we discuss his journey and experiences, but, most importantly, we discuss the direction of the NAEA and its priority as an organization.
02:08 – Mario talks about himself, his background, how he got into art education, his experience coordinating curriculum building for arts education, and teaching leadership through arts.
05:09 – Finding a role in art supervision and administration.
09:47 – Coordinating an arts program at the Central Office.
11:38 – Mario’s experience working in Chicago.
18:02 – Mario talks about his work with neighborhood art communities as the vice president for education at Kennedy Center.
20:55 – How Mario got into the NAEA.
23:20 – The biggest challenge in art education.
27:55 – How strategy and welcoming decision-makers aid art education.
29:40 – How teachers can show the positive value proposition of art education.
32:40 – Resources for art teachers to learn art leadership.
34:22 – The challenge of policy and budget.
38:00 – How the events in 2020 affected Mario’s original vision for NAEA.
44:43 – The NAEA’s equity, diversity, and inclusion policy.
48:14 – Incorporating the ED&I framework into the continuous learning process.
50:37 – How to make space for inclusion and diversity.
52:40 – How a diverse approach to art learning improves art education.
55:20 – How the NAEA team responds to criticisms of the ED&I policy.
56:59 – What part of work is Mario currently excited about.
58:28 – The role of art-making in Mario’s life.
60:18 – Mario’s wall of art and drawing inspiration from them.
61:10 – The artwork that changed Mario’s life and how it aided a second-grade art class.
- National Art Education Association
- Nasco Educate
- Black Lives Matter An Open Letter to Art Educators on Constructing an Anti-Racist Agenda
Be a Podcast Guest: Submit a Voice Memo of Your Art Story (Scroll to the bottom of the page to submit your story.)
Cindy: Hello, and welcome to the Art Class Curator podcast. I am Cindy Ingram your host and the founder of Art Class Curator and the Curated Connections Library. We’re here to talk about teaching art with purpose and inspiration from the daily delight of creativity. To the messy mishaps that come with being a teacher. Whether you’re driving home from school or cleaning up your classroom for the 15th time today. Take a second. Take a deep breath, relax, those shoulders, and let’s get started.
Cindy Ingram: Hey everybody, it’s Cindy Ingram and I am so excited to welcome you to the Art Class Curator podcast. And I have a really awesome guest for you today. Today, we have the executive director of the National Art Education Association in NAEA, Mario Rossero, and he came onto NAEA in January of 2020 right before the pandemic, right before just the world exploded. But what I am so excited to share with you is his, you know, how he came to this role. His story is really exciting and encouraging and inspiring, but also to share with you the direction of NAEA and the priority is that it has right now. I really loved this conversation. I feel like I could have talked him into him for another three or four hours about all of the issues facing our field right now. So I hope you really enjoyed this conversation as much as I did. So, without further ado, welcome to the podcast, Mario Rossero.
Cindy: All right. I’m so excited to welcome Mario Rossero to the podcast. Welcome, Mario.
Mario Rossero: Hi, Cindy, thanks so much for the invite and for having me.
Cindy: So, I am so thrilled to talk to you because you are such an influential and important role in NAEA at this moment. And this has been a very historic time for all of us in the last couple of years, especially with your roles. I’m really excited to dive in and talk to you about that. But before we do, can you tell us a little bit more about you and your background and experiences and what led you to where you are today?
Mario: Sure, and I’ll do my best to keep this concise. I’ll hit the high points. But originally, I am from Southwestern Pennsylvania about 45 minutes, Southwest of Pittsburgh. And I grew up on my mom’s families’ farmland. So we weren’t farmers, but we grew up in a very, very, very rural environment and I attribute that partially to how I found my love and passion for art-making because that was sort of the only thing that I had available to me, where my sketchbooks or materials- like I made lots of puppets and things when I was a kid, so I was constantly making things from as early as I can remember.
And then, as I became more into my teenage years, I definitely fell in love with drawing. And I was obsessed with drawing and comic books and that passion just stayed with me and I wasn’t sure that I was going to go into art education, even though in college, or like planned so that I could. And I made my schedule. I didn’t have to make that decision till probably my junior year if I was going to pull the trigger and do student teaching and all that. It really wasn’t until my senior year when I was student teaching that I realized that I had just as much passion for education as I did for art and seeing those two things married together was- I mean, part of the greatest discovery of my life because it’s just been my path since that point in time.
I taught elementary visual art, in a district just outside of Pittsburgh, Shaler Area, school district. I taught elementary and middle school there. I was there for about 7-8 years before I noticed that I had some burgeoning leadership abilities and qualities. But so often, as in the case in an education setting, the art teacher might not be the first place that folks are looking to for that leadership. But it was coming out of the- it’s sort of like, large scale collaborations with the Andy Warhol Museum and the Mattress Factory Museum and bringing the community together to create these installations. And I was like, “Oh there’s something.”
I understand something about bringing people together and focusing them for the common good. So then I started looking to grad schools. And I thought that I was going to do an MFA and it just- it wasn’t the right… Sometimes my work might be a little bit like social practice. Like the way that I work with people, even though I make tangible two-dimensional drawings and paintings as well. But that wasn’t really something that was formulated yet in the public discourse or that kind of practice.
I wasn’t having luck finding the right program and I swear, this is a true story. My first NAEA convention was in New York City and my colleague, Alice, and I submitted a project we are working on this identity project that our fourth graders had done. At the end of that session, we walked to the back of the room and she greets her grad school professor from Bank Street College, and I talked to her colleague. I’m just being friendly and respectful to her colleague and she suddenly starts asking me, “Who are you? What’s your work? What are you interested in?” And I’m telling her, “I’m really looking for a grad school, I can’t find the right next step.” And she reaches into her bag and pulls out a flyer for this program that was supervision and administration in the visual arts.
It was built around a teacher schedule. So, you go in the summer to Bank Street and some of the Upper West Side school for education and then you do the first half of the week there, and the second half of the week, Parsons School of Design in the studio. So it was ideally built for our educator leadership and you got your principal license from it.
Cindy: I didn’t even know that sort of program existed. That’s awesome.
Mario: It was really that rare unicorn but it was the thing that validated some of my instincts around leadership and collaboration, but it also gave me tools to have difficult conversations. Think about a supervisory voice, right? What also keep the artistic creative part in there by the time I’m finished. I’m back in Pittsburgh and I thought, “Okay, I’m ready for a bigger challenge.” And my good friend from grad school is in Chicago and I told my district who was so lovely and flexible. I said, “Thank you so much for the opportunities, I’ve had such a great experience here, but it’s time for me to grow and spread my wings. And I’m going to head to Chicago.” They’re like, “Best of luck.”
I didn’t have a job yet. So I drove- everything was in my hatchback. I drove the eight hours. And Cindy, when I tell you that I went to the convention center for the Chicago Public Schools job fair, there were 700 tables. We had over 400 elementary and the rest were high schools. And they had two different giant convention rooms and they just had tables for every school. And then these little poles with velcro signs for the opening. Some said, ‘Visual Arts’, some said, ‘Fine Arts’, some said, ‘Art.’ I was in my blazer and tie and had my portfolio when I just stood in line and interviewed.
I found this great school called, ‘Harold Washington Elementary’ that was on the south side. Dr. Louis had a real passion for art, the entire school, every flow. It was three floors and was filled with murals. And Harold Washington was a former mayor of Chicago, and they had his Cadillac in the lobby, and a little museum dedicated to him. The school had not had a trained certified art educator before. They had been working with the community artists a little bit, but they just hadn’t had someone who had that background and training.
Even though I had taught for eight years prior, it was a brand new community to me. I was a brand-new individual to the school that I was walking into. And so, what I had to learn was more about how to recognize- I mean, it’s like I have the terminology now, but I probably didn’t have it then. But recognize my whiteness and my privilege and understand that I’m walking into a hundred percent African-American community.
I would like to think that both my kids and I, every day we’re committed to working on that relationship. I showed up every day and then they were like, “You’re showing up every day.” This isn’t always easy and we just kept building on it. I think they thought I was a little crazy because I would be talking about art elements and principles. They were just like, “What are you talking about?” It was like, “Oh, my gosh, art has all these components.” And so we really started to unpack that.
I remember I had 45 seventh graders in a room that had 35 chairs. I have such a soft spot for that. It was a really tremendous experience. But while I was there, I guess it was the end of that first year. I got called to the principal’s office and I thought, “Well, I never get in trouble, I don’t know what this is about.” So I get called to the principal’s office and somebody from the central office is visiting.
Now my good colleague and friend, Carol Ann, she manages The Fine Arts Magnet Cluster program. So it’s like neighborhood schools that have an arts program. She was working to build this program and spread it across the city and she’s telling me the design, if there’s lead arts teachers that have professional development around the arts, and the arts or the core of the community and of the building.
It’s just going on and on and I said, “I’m sorry, no disrespect. I have to interrupt you.” And she’s kind of set back and I said, “If we were one of these schools- I’m the only art teacher here, I would know if we were one of these schools. I think you need my help.” And she kind of laughed and she’s like, “Oh, really?” And sometimes, you know you’re at the right moment, and I said, “I just finished this program. I have really been building my leadership skills. I love my school and I’m really falling in love with Chicago, and I really want to make a difference.” And she’s like, “Okay, great. Nice to meet you.”
And then she leaves, then I go back to class and I finished the year. And that summer, I got a voicemail. The answering machine that was like at your house that you had to call in, you put it at home and she had left a message that they had got this federal grant and she was hiring for a role to coordinate that program at central office.
I was really lucky to go to central office and then work across 60 elementary schools that had arts focus that was across all art forms. It was a program where it was building curriculum community and leadership through the arts. And so we were offering training to art teachers. There were 120 of them across the entire city, which is two big city. Probably six to eight hours a month for at least three years for that grant.
And we started to saw a real change in practice because suddenly they were stepping into these teacher leader roles and they were building the arts into the school improvement plan. And they were assessing the gaps and opportunities at their school in providing professional development and partnerships through the arts.
And through that work suddenly, the principal was like leaning on them and asking them, they part of planning conversations a little bit more and the community was a little bit more invested. I’ll fast forward a little bit but basically, that moment of meeting Carol Ann was just serendipitous. I feel so lucky and I had her mentorship.
I moved my way up through the system over in Chicago about 12 years. I’m one of those rare arts people that have gone deep in the arts to broaden over multiple curricular areas. I was able to manage. I was the director at Magnet schools and programs. So we had a world language, and technology, and a math and science and all these clusters of programs across the city. So it’s interesting to take the art lessons to a broader scale.
And then I would go back and I would go deeper in the arts. When I drove from Pittsburgh and Chicago, I really wanted to lead the arts for the city of Chicago, but I didn’t know what the path would be to get there. When I was kind of feeling that itch, that leadership itch again. Chicago had gone through a big change of superintendent, etcetera and Pittsburgh Public Schools had just finished an arts plan and they were interviewing for a director of the arts. And I thought, “You know, there are some things I want to learn about this role that I might need before I can move up in Chicago.” Like I just… I think I need to go deeper.
And so I was able to spend this year in Pittsburgh where they had done the research, they had created a plan. They had a clear direction and I was able to implement a lot of that work. They probably had what? 60-70 schools in the district at the time. So still, it’s fairly large in an urban setting but a different size and type in terms of scope from Chicago. And so after that year, Chicago kept knocking at my door and said, “Come back, come back.” I went back and became the director of arts to the district which is like what I was really trying to do and I was able to take all those lessons and we had that rare moment where we had a superintendent president of the school board and a mayor, Rahm Emanuel, all of whom were arts supportive simultaneously and we had the cultural community. Lending people like or Rene Fleming to champion the arts.
We had a fire that was lit under us because the Wallace Foundation had done a report years prior. That said, “The arts and arts education in these various cities look like this in Chicago. It looks a little bit uncoordinated and folks just aren’t collaborating and working together.” So we had this energy to work together and show… At Chicago, we’re going to show everybody that we can do this. And so we spent about three months talking to a few thousand community members, parents, teachers, students, art partners and artists about what they wanted from the district for arts education, and we created the first-ever strategic plan for the arts. And we were able to look at graduation requirements, and minutes of instruction. And a number of art forms offered, budgets for the arts, and teacher schedules.
And essentially what we found was that most principles, these decision-makers didn’t have a clear set of goals for what they should be striving towards for the arts and what that looked like. So we basically articulated what the goals were, based on the sort of size of your population. This is what the investment in the arts should look like and we created an accountability system and created the art scorecard that was put on each school scorecard, have an Arts indicator.
And that was the game-changer. We added accountability. I am forever grateful- there’s one principal that suggested that idea and when we heard it and then we have the ability to make it happen. We worked really hard not to make it punitive but just make it accurate to say, “school, A.” You’re a sort of level for because of these great Investments. But this other school, just because you have a lower score, doesn’t mean that we’re saving you. What we’re going to do is actually use this as a gap analysis and then focus the funding community to help you address your needs.
So if you can only provide one art form, what can we do about that? If you’re struggling for professional development or you’re struggling for community engagement? Like how do we help bolster that? And it just changed the whole conversation. So when I tell you, I’m the arts nerd that’s a big fan of strategy. I think those are the two things that when you pair them together, it changes the game.
Cindy: I love that story that you talked about you’re discovering your love of teaching or level of leadership and I can see a lot of my own journey paralleled into that. It’s fun to listen to and that’s a really exciting project. Is there reports online I can read? Because I just want to
Mario: We partnered with my good colleagues. Ingenuity was created as an external partner to the district to be side-by-side. They have done all the data capture analysis so you can look up those reports and see the trend. And folks from the beginning thought, “Well, we all know who’s going to get the high score is going to be, these schools in these neighborhoods.” And some of that was absolutely true. What was also true was that schools across the entire city had historic and well-protected arts investments.
So you saw these great tales of arts champions in every corner, in every neighborhood. That was really special because it was a motivator for schools in nearby communities to think about how they might do that too. It wasn’t just the north side, I wasn’t just this particular neighborhood. It was happening in the south side and the west side, it was happening all over.
And folks are also saying, “Hey, we need help.” And finally, we had a well-articulated path forward. Where you work left to your own devices, we are actually providing options in a roadmap. I guess from there, I did that I went to all the subs- I was the Chief of Core Curriculum. I oversaw all the subject areas in the teaching and learning team before I left Chicago. I wanted to try something bigger and some national work. I was researching what national options and which partners I might chat with about growing this work.
I discover that the Kennedy Center was hiring for a new vice president for education and threw my hat in and was really thrilled to be there. So I moved from Chicago to DC and that was a wonderful experience to learn how to work at a national scale when you’re also a quasi- federal institution that is also a presidential memorial. And seeing a portfolio that’s in every state. It was fun to work in an institution that has that kind of reputation and to see the power it had on communities. They have a great program called,” Any Given Child” that goes into communities and does a community analysis of the arts and then helps them create strategy, which is very similar to the work that was one Chicago.
It’s nice to see that this is happening in cities all over. I was there for five years and I had that itch again, and I was like, it would be nice to be the lead person. It will be nice to be that ED role, that CEO role. I started looking around, and I was like, “Oh, NAEA is looking for their next leader.” And I thought it’s played such a critical role in my life. And I’m so grateful, but I also know art educators inside and out. I had worked at some museums early, I worked at the Andy Warhol Museum early in my career. I had that, I was in the classroom. I was in lots of different settings. I’ve taught at the college level, I worked in some central office, I understand a lot of these roles. These are my people, let’s see how this goes and the interview process was really wonderful.
I really mean this, I was so impressed with the board and the staff. This is a group of folks that are really committed and passionate about this work. What a space to walk into, right? And we’re going to be 75 years old in 22. And this is a well-run and well-cared institution that many folks have embraced for a lifelong relationship.
And the other thing is that NAEA had been really- I thought, was working, to be honest about equity, diversity, and inclusion work in a way, that I think many other institutions that baptize two or three years ago. They started that work. Three years ago I started that work and that was a little bit ahead of the curve. We’re having just honest dialogue to say, “Where are we lacking and how do we create the most inclusive association?” And that particularly attracted me because that’s been one of my passions, throughout my career.
Cindy: Wow. I feel like I can have 6,000 follow-up questions about every single part of that story.
Mario: Okay, rapid fire.
Cindy: I don’t want to go too much into that because that was a cool story and I love just everything that you’ve been a part of. I know you’ve been in all of these different roles and you’ve seen it from the teachers perspective, from the administrator perspective, from the nonprofit perspective, from… I don’t know, I guess they’re considered nonprofit, Kennedy Center. So, what do you feel is the biggest challenge for our field right now?
Mario: Well, there are definitely some competing answers here. But I would say, the thing that I confront the most is the challenge around the value proposition. And what that value proposition looks like to decision, makers. I always talk about this, the inherited narrative of arts education. When I meet somebody new at a function, “What do you do?” “I work in arts education.” Oh, my gosh. I’m so sorry. It’s the first thing to go.
We had this old narrative where we like… This is a little bit of the general public. I think it’s holding on to some of these old tropes around the arts and arts education. And so, what I always ask people, I like put this challenge out to the community to say when someone says that to you, you have to counter that with an arts positive story. So I say, “You know, the arts are- it’s a really uneven landscape across the country especially in schools, but let me tell you about this community that has doubled down and reinvested in the arts and it has really seen these kinds of outcomes.” Those are the stories that we need to lead with. Decision-makers are really swayed by these kinds of narratives. Whether you’re looking at the local principal, the superintendent, the state or regional folks, let alone get to the national. One of those biggest challenges is that narrative is still hanging on.
Even if we look at… We’re looking at career paths into arts education and we’re realizing that there’s not really a pathway set up for our younger learners through middle and high school to consider art education. I can’t imagine a parent wanting to turn their child away from a rich life that Mary’s creativity with a job that’s with it, in a community of folks where you can really make a difference like it’s just such a beautiful pairing. I feel so fortunate, I’m sure you do too, it’s served us so well. It’s actually a great career path. So I think from a 10,000 foot view that’s one of the biggest challenge. We can talk about funding and we can talk about policy and other data but I think that narrative around the value, that’s what I’m always trying to change.
Cindy: I’m glad you brought this up because this is something in the back of my head all the time. I hear that all the arts are the first thing to go thing. And always in the back of my head, I’m like, “Is it?” And I always want to look up the data because I don’t have any proof of that in my world. I don’t see that being true.
Mario: Like I said, I looked at this data both within communities. I mean, many, many cities and communities, but also like rural-urban suburban areas all over the country. Like for example, one of the great things that Kennedy Center would give a National School Board Association award to art support of school board. And there was a rubric that was very much like what I described for Chicago. What are these investments across the board? And so you’re seeing all these towns across the country of small and large size that had made these investments.
I want to make sure I respect our colleagues that are struggling, but there are many places that the arts are thriving, and they have a long-term investment. I think that it’s not Pollyanna-ish, it’s being positive around those stories, it can yield more other positive decisions and actions. The only model is that we think it’s the first to go, then that kind of seeps into the public consciousness a little bit. We can get rid of that.
Cindy: Yes, because I worked in Dallas ISD. And it was probably around the same time as your Wallace Foundation thing, but we had gone to Wallace Foundation grant and they paid for all the arts and music teachers and all those schools and all the elementary schools. And so there were teachers at the time that were getting laid off and furloughed. I forgot why. But as an art teacher, I was like, “Well, my job is safe, my job is covered.” Arts and music teachers knew we were safe. And so I guess maybe I’m coming from that paradigm too. But our district was putting resources and energy and attention into the arts at that time.
Mario: I always forget to tell this particular story about in Chicago, once we had our art strategy and because we spent a lot of time welcoming decision-makers, and leaders into the process that they felt like they had ownership, and they did. This is Mayor Emanuel calls the district and says, “I have 11 million dollars and a TIF money, tax increment financing that I’d like to dedicate to the arts.” He also had a plan for wellness. He’s like, “So, here’s 11 million dollars for arts and PE and Mario and Annie should make a plan for how you’re going to spend that.”
I mean, never in my life is that ever going to have. That’s never gonna happen. I know it’s not gonna happen for everybody but we really had a thorough strategy. Then we said, “How do we use this investment where it’s most needed?” And we needed teachers. And so we created- we could invest those dollars more so in the first year, but then the dollars got smaller over future years so that the school could pick up that commitment cause we’re like, “How do we stretch these out?” And even though you want those dollars to stay forever, isn’t it valuable for those students that maybe never had that arts instruction before to get it? And then you’re starting to whet the appetites of the families and of the principals, and the rest of the community and hopefully, you see some changes in decisions.
Cindy: How do you think as a teacher? I think most of our listeners are probably in the classroom teaching, you mentioned, anytime someone comes at you, with sort of the negative… Or so, the first to cut, you come back with the positive, what are some of the things you think that teachers could do to further show that value proposition?
Mario: A hundred percent. So, A: Ensure that the arts are in your school improvement plan. Every school should have to do that annually, make sure the arts are one of the priorities- so accountability. Number one is, find the path to make your school accountable for the arts. So, school improvement plan is a great way to start. School scorecard is another great place that’s going to take a little bit more than just one person to get that done. But yet to start all the conversations early and often so that whenever you need to make those things happen, you’ve already kind of built up some support. So I’d say, accountability and school improvement plan is a good starting point.
I had that basement art room with the back door to the parking lot and I could close the door and make great art with my elementary kit. I remember that, like, we made great art. We were in our own little world like those days are over. The days where I can just close the door and ignore everybody outside of my art room or over. I really encourage our arts educators to step out of their classrooms and be on the school leadership team, or grade level planning team, or work closely with the school counselor.
When you’re planning any kind of arts event, form a parent advisory board or committee or community. It’s about building this coalition of folks that believe in the art so that you can tap into them. It’s like reach beyond your four walls. I know how great it is to be in the studio and just focus on the art but we also have to step outside. And so, I think my next thing would be around teacher leadership. And like I said, early in my story when I first moved in the central office, we spent three years dedicating time to teacher leadership. We saw results.
That is a single biggest thing that I’ve seen results in a variety of settings is really investing that professional development in art educators as leaders because we are unique problem solvers that no one else can make a dime, it feels like $100 right here. It’s like we’re always resource-constrained, material constrained, and space constrained but we’re still delivering high-quality programs. If you put that into a leadership setting and suddenly, you’re the problem solver of the group. You’re coming up with solutions to things that no one thought of.
Cindy: Yes, I love that. I’ve been in that. My first job, I was inaffordable I did not see anyone, I saw them as they waved their glass to me, but that was it and it’s such a challenge. Do you have any advice for how resources or programs that if someone is interested in beefing up their leadership abilities, is there a good resource that we can send teachers to?
Mario: That is a really excellent question. I’m trying not to do too much self-promotion. But art school for art leaders at NAEA is a really beautiful model and I think talking to any of those alumni would be a great first step for someone who’s thinking about dipping their toes into those leadership roles. The folks that I met from Sal are all considering. I’m ready for the next step in my journey but I need a community of support to help make this happen and they’re really bringing problems of practice that are very true to what school looks and feels like. They’re coming from different roles, museums and community spaces too, but that program does a lot of… Looking at the self first and then building out towards community in action. And I think it’s got a really nice phase to it. That’s the one that comes to mind. That’s the top of mind right now.
Cindy: I have some of my colleagues that have gone through that program and I’ve seen them on Facebook, just commenting back and forth to each other about things and they’ll see an issue and they’re like, “We should bring this up to someone.” And I’m like, “Y’all are just teachers, not random people.” But that was doing your job and you’re feeling empowered to make a difference. As I could see the impact of that program just from the sidelines and it’s exciting. I see.
Cindy: I love that. So, you mentioned, you had competing biggest challenges for our field right now. Is there another one that kind of pops in your head before I talk about some of the other topics today?
Mario: Well, from the values challenge, it’s probably neck-and-neck policy and budget or probably it’s all interrelated. I did a high-level analysis of arts education policy nationally over the past. It was like sixty to a hundred years. I’m just kind of go like a big frame of it. And what we’ve seen is that we’ve gotten more and more language around arts education. All the art forms included in education legislation. So, it’s in No Child Left Behind. It’s in Essa. It comes out in different forms and then that trickles down to the States. So, when you look at that, I always say, “Is that a win?”
Well, it’s definitely a positive. The challenge is where’s the accountability and funding to make that happen? I think our work is around… It’s the storytelling, it’s the advocacy, it’s the narrative. But I also think that there’s a real opportunity how do arts folks, move into more positions of power. And is that a job? Or is that counsel? Or is that an advisory group? I would love to see more art educators from every division think about how do they move into some of those roles because we need to be affecting and influencing some of those decisions. But the power of policy can be real if you understand what’s most effective.
In my time in Chicago, we realized that graduation requirements that local policy for the district was the strongest thing we had because it articulated everything from the earliest grades. You had to do a backwards design thing. So we’re saying, “Oh, well, we had two credits, but you can only get them in visual art and music. You couldn’t get the Fine Arts credits and dance and drama.” So, I had a board president who had a daughter in a theater class that couldn’t get an arts credit. And so we looked at that and we were like, CPS is one credit more than the state of Illinois, so the two credits were good.
But the Fine Arts being limited, only two disciplines was challenging. So we’re able to broaden it to four disciplines. But we also protected a variety by saying, the credits had to be one in each of two different art forms so that we were ensuring that the school would have at least two, but it allowed for dance and drama to start to thrive alongside the others. And in a district like Chicago, we had the sort of space and ability to do that. We’re working with policy and tinkering with it is really exciting because that had a trickle-down effect that really opened up avenues for elementary and middle schools that weren’t there before.
Cindy: Okay, awesome. So, you started at NAEA in early January 2020. I’m sure you had this exciting vision of what you were going to do and where the direction of the NAEA was headed. And then the world fell to pieces and we had the pandemic. We had the Black Lives Matter uprising after the death of George Floyd. How did your original vision pivot once all of those things came into the landscape?
Mario: It was certainly unexpected. When I came into the role, as I said, I was really excited about the organization’s focus around equity, diversity, and inclusion. I have always worked to make sure that every young person in my classroom felt seen and heard and understood and I try to understand their stories. I think that to be excluded is the worst feeling in the world. I always try to make sure that folks feel that they’re part of what’s happening. And that really resonated with me. I had already anticipated that would be a big part of the work ahead and I could never have foreseen that. Alongside that was really the work of saving and securing the association for the future.
Because when the pandemic hit, I know we all remember, everything was moving both so fast and so slow. I was working behind the scenes with the board on a daily basis to assess what was going on with COVID, but also how that was going to impact our convention which was, later in March We all know that everything shut down March 13th, but the thing is, the story that I never got to tell is that we had to delay our decision to protect the association so that we could ensure that- Minneapolis was calling it and that our insurance would be able to kick in and protect us from the loss of cancellation so that the association could be in good financial shape for the future. There was a lot of mechanic.
That was the most important work we could do. Because we were very wealthy in terms of our people and our members that doesn’t mean were wealthy in terms of dollars. It’s a different thing. And so we spend every dollar so frugally and that’s really served us well, but the convention is the main revenue generator so that was the first and foremost was… Okay. Let’s take care of the convention, let’s make sure the association is financially sound and safe and thank goodness for PPP loans. And of course, we had to do some furloughs and some things that affected staff but we made were able to maintain the whole team that we really looked carefully at every avenue of what we could- where we could have some cost savings to ensure that we could keep providing member benefits which immediately was- how do we help and support folks in new virtual instruction and hybrid instruction? And we were barely able to think about it carefully in purpose and instruction because we have so many questions in early 2020.
And so, we were working with a lot of members and board members and teachers on the ground to create guides and tip sheets and resources. That’s when we launched the town halls because I just felt like we needed to have- I needed to have a real conversation with real people. I love a PDF tool but a PDF is only going to go so far. So, how do we make this real? I really believe in listening, spending a lot of time listening to people and hearing where they are, and making sure we’re serving their needs.
From January 2020 when I started it was like, media and I work strategic vision because it’s time to renew that and then it became very much about survival and sustainability. And then when the Black Lives Matter movement really spiked that summer, and with George Floyd’s death, it was a really hard conversely- not hard in terms of like, we weren’t able to have it, but hard because we felt so emotional about it, it was a hard conversation to have. The leadership of NAEA, because typically, we’re not responding to all the things that are happening in the world. And this here, we’re in a completely different moment in time. We are kind of moving in a new direction and we really care about people and how do we have a people-first approach?
And so, I asked James Rowling our president elected the time and he was the inaugural chair that and I commissioned to, I said, “Could you share as an individual from your perspective? Could you write a response to what we’re living through?” And that’s another conversation that’s invisible behind the scenes. I could ask James could we have a lot of trust between each other, we both invest in that relationship and I said, “I know I’m asking a lot, but I don’t know that the association has a voice yet in this, but I know you as an individual will have something important to say, and I know that’s a big lift. Can you handle it? Can you do that?” And he thought about it and came back and he’s like, “I can do it.” And so, that was one of our first steps, sometimes we need to speak with the voice of an individual to help unpack things.
What we always try to do is just… We know members are facing, we know our educators are facing so many different and new challenges and maybe even some old ones that are reinvented. Not everything is an easy conversation, but we’re trying to say, “Hey, we know this is a burning issue. This is a topic that you’re hearing about. We’re not saying at the take one side or the other, but we do want to provide you with some perspective and some direction to help you navigate.” Because it’s a lot. I just can’t even list all the things that we’ve lived through them. It’s now what, 19 months?
Cindy: Yes, the document that Dr. Rowling came out with that summer was so good. I remember, I read it, I shared, it was so good. And I recently saw him speak in a panel discussion a couple of weeks ago. He mentioned when he was talking that ED&I for NAEA is not just another thing you’re doing. It’s not like, here’s a committee and you’re doing the committee work, but he said it’s now something that is going to inform everything. It’s an anchor for all of the committees and I really loved to hear him talk about it that way. Can you kind of expand on that and tell me what that means?
Mario: So you and our listeners probably know, we went through a big strategic visioning process. Also during that pandemic here, which actually, you’d never know that was ideal time, but it was actually a wonderful container because we could ask folks, “What do you care about? What are you concerned about in terms of visual art, design, media arts education, like what are those things?” And so, the strategic planning process was a listening tour. We heard from every corner of the association and we heard from non-members, we heard from peer organizations.
And we sat down with the board with the ED&I commission, the research commission, some of our editors, different regions and divisions across the country. And basically any time I was in front of a group, I was asking them questions about this and without fail, the number one priority from every group was equity, diversity, and inclusion. And that was the number one topic that they wanted to focus on. And so when we get to the final strategic vision, equity diversity, and inclusion is what we call, ‘super pillar.’ So it’s both a standalone and it’s embedded across the others.
So, of course, learning is the core of what we do. It’s like a course learning is the second pillar and advocacy and policy, research and knowledge, community, vibrancy is core of our work. They’re all interconnected anyways, but especially the ED&I piece because you have to ask yourself questions, “Are my policies the most inclusive policies?” When we’re focused on learning and professional development and instructional design, I think sometimes I always worry, when an individual hears anything- how do we use the letters? Some people say, DEI- whenever you hear equity, diversity, inclusion, do you think one thing? Or do you think like I think where I’m like, Oh, well, okay. Part of that means I have to do some work myself to know who I am, know myself in context, know my privilege and power. That’s not easy.
And then I have to do some work with others. So you and I have to talk and wait to figure out where our trust is and our boundaries and how that works. I’m still the individual and then I have to go, “Okay. I’m going into a classroom, how do I create the safest, most inclusive space for all learners where everyone feels accepted and heard?”
And you’re not even really into the instruction yet, and then you can get into some instructional design. And then my instructional design it’s like, are my teacher moves, the way I set up my class, the way I call them students, the order that I do this, am I being thoughtful and inclusive to all? Let alone, the content and the artistic examples.
There’s so many layers to it, that I really hope that everyone can find their first steps into this because there is an entry point for sure. And it’s not a one size fits all. So when we talk about this work, that’s why it’s embedded across because it’s a little bit of everything. I don’t know that we’ve had the language or the understanding or the platform to talk about it so much before, but we certainly do now.
Cindy: Not bad- where you just said about the self, the others, the classroom, the curriculum, what a great framework. Is that an actual framework you have developed? That’s good.
Mario: Admittedly, it’s how I think about it. But we did an ED&I toolkit last year and it outlines some of that framing. It’s like how to get started with ED&I but we also drew on a lot of resources. There’s so many resources now, but many of them will have those layers and they usually start with the ‘I’ and the work outwards. But I should say, what we found is, it’s certainly not a linear journey. It is cyclical. I’m not going to know the way to be the most inclusive teacher and I’m done, right? My instructional strategies are not done. I’m gonna revisit that over time. I’m going to keep learning and improving. So, that’s I think another thing that I was trying to reiterate, it’s a cyclical journey that where you revisit and we keep learning.
For us, in some ways that works well because we’re committed to continuous improvement and continuous learning because we’re a learning institution.
Cindy: One thing I noticed last summer of 2020, was that so many people that I know. In my personal life, in my professional life, that everybody seemed to- First, they went and worked you know, it was really beautiful to see because I think so many people will look at things like this and they’ll get mad about it and they’ll shout about it and they’ll post about it. But so many people and more than I’ve ever seen stopped and it was like, “What is my role here? How am I complicit in this culture?” And it was so encouraging to watch and people who thought, “I’ve got this covered.” We’re like, no, I don’t, there are still things I need to do and the conversations I was having, it was really powerful. So I love that working on yourself first component and then spreading it from there because I think a lot of teachers can go straight to, “Okay. Well, I’ll just do this lesson plan that is more diverse or whatever.” But they don’t really think about the internalization of the things that are there.
Mario: There are so many layers to it, and I think, I’m spending a lot of time thinking about… I don’t think I know, I think I’m constantly learning, like, I don’t know at all- I’m always open receptive. The first year and a half, I went to every ED&I commission meeting that I could, I spend lots of time with the commissioners to learn about the work and to think about how we were taking up the task force recommendations, but from a leadership perspective, I try to double down on listening, on making space, on inviting in, on stepping aside. Because I think we really need to make space. Many of our diverse colleagues that have not felt welcomed or included or even seen themselves in the association, let alone the field. I’m doing everything I can to make space and to welcome folks. And so, I always encourage everybody. It’s like an open heart and an invitation goes a long way. That’s not going to do all the work but it’s a good starting point.
Cindy: Yes, and one thing I have to noticed about, it’s kind of related but not at the same time is how different all our teachers are. It’s not like Math teachers- well, they might have different teaching styles or whatever. They’re still teaching x+y=b or what mx+y=b or whatever. It’s very straightforward. The curriculum is very straightforward, that teaching is pretty straightforward. But when it comes to art teachers, we have such division in terms of… There’s tad teachers- everybody has their way, they want to do it and everybody thinks their way is the right way. I see a lot of fighting within our teachers about that. I’m wondering if you’re seeing that from your perspective? And also are you seeing that as a side note to that. Are you seeing any sort of push back on any of the ED&I work that you’re doing because of that?
Mario: I’m a big reframer, so I hear what you’re saying and the way I like to look at it is, “Oh, my gosh, don’t we have a tremendous amount of strength?” Because we have so many approaches that we can take. And also, given that arts education is truly a battle. We all need each other. It’s not that I don’t see some of the divisions, but I don’t think that they are important enough in terms of we need each other. We need to be a community and a field that is working together for the betterment of arts education so that everyone can have access to it.
So your approach versus my approach that’s not the only argument, the argument is how do we work together to achieve something greater than ourselves? And so it’s like, “Oh, my gosh, there’s this many different strategies? Fascinating. This many different aspects to art and culture and history, let’s embrace that and learn from each other.” Because I think it’s really easy to have one thing pitted against the other, or to think one approach is better. And frankly, I actually find the standards are actually really helpful, as a touchstone for this because I do feel strongly when folks want to be only skills-focused, I’m personally really challenged by that and I look to the standards that really talk about a more comprehensive picture because art touches- or art reflects history, time, culture, stories, people experiences. It is a medium to do that.
I want to refined my craft. This sounds silly as an example. I remember the first moment that I learned what I could really do with a colored pencil. When I understood the firmness, and the dedication to get that glassy colored pencil, it can almost get photographic, what an amazing skill to learn. But then, how do I put that into practice to something larger? I just think that until we’re all winning. We need to all work together because we really need each other.
Cindy: Yes, I totally agree because I see that- it’s a blessing. You get to be a job or you have so much greater freedom and you can do things as the way you want to do it. And it doesn’t mean that someone else is doing it wrong, but I like that point to the standards, I haven’t thought about it as a
Mario: back to them pretty frequently and the language is from you. It’s written from our peers so it makes sense. And then to the other part of your question, you know. I think- just a little bit earlier, but it’s like, my role is to support all of our art educator members and I really see my role to support the field. Everyone has their own unique journey, and I’m here to support everybody, taking steps forward on their journey. If ED&I feels a little itchy or uncomfortable to somebody, we always- my whole team, we invite everybody in the conversation. It’s like, “Okay, that doesn’t feel good or you’re challenged? Let’s have a conversation and talk about it.”
Cindy: And that step along the journey could be just seeing stuff you put out about it, seeing presentation at NAEA the things like that- those are going to slowly chip away…
Mario: I was thinking of a picture. You only see real change through discomfort and discomfort doesn’t have to be a horrible thing. It’s sort of like, you get to fasten your seatbelt and you have to experience it. But through discomfort, you can see real change and growth. If there’s a little bit of that discomfort we’ll weather it, we are a strong community so I know that we can weather it.
Cindy: Awesome. So, all of that said, it’s really exciting to see how NAEA is tackling all of these issues. Personally, what are you most excited about right now?
Mario: In terms of work?
Cindy: Yes or any
Mario: I’ll give you the work answer. Because I’m a strategic plan nerd, I get really excited like once it’s crafted you move into implementation. And so, where right now prioritizing your one’s action steps and a lot of those are around how do we reach out to and embrace every corner of art education as a field? How do we reach young learners that might be on a path for- on our society or pre-service? But also how do we really hold up and uplift and value our retired art educators? Where this thing about the whole paradigm, I get really excited thinking about, how do we get started in those conversations? That’s the thing. I’m looking forward to right now, and that’s great because we’re looking towards convention in March, and we have a plan for both live and virtual, and we have a way that we can keep those conversations going through that as well.
Cindy: Therefore, I hope this Delta variant calms down so I can be there because I always love when NAEA is in New York City. That’s my favorite place, so fun. I know you are a visual artist, I didn’t want to have this conversation without having you talk a little bit about some of your art. What role does art-making play in your life?
Mario: I feel really lucky. I’m one of those people that always has art-making in my life. I know sometimes it’s hard for folks to get into it or it goes away because you’re busy doing something else, but most readily, I always have a sketchbook. So my sketchbook is often my journal and my planner but it’s filled with images as well. In regular times when I’m travelling a lot for work, I’ll always have it and I’ll be sketching and making work. And then I take those ideas from the sketchbook and then I work on a larger format but most all of my work, I’m just a drawer at heart. Even if I’m making a painting or even if I’m doing a photograph, everything comes from drawing in my head. So I work on 2×4 like nice gritty toothy paper and I am very like multimedia, but I layer and layer and layer and layer with any- if you had any material you had out on a table, I would use.
I use images from comic books and old photographs. I like using text in my work and I layer it and take it too far. And then I played this hide and seek game, where like I start them or wash out or hide elements, or sections of it, or I’ll tear up old drawings. And I have a sticker machine, that’s the best thing I ever bought. Basically, just put adhesive on the back of whatever you roll through it. And so then I collage elements from old drawings on the new drawings. I feel lucky that I always have- I’m looking over to the side because my drawing walls over there, but I always have something I’m working on.
Cindy: I saw your drawing wall in a video. It’s an intro to the video and I saw that and I was obsessed with that. It was so cool. So you just have a wall on your house that you just draw on?
Mario: Yes, it was a dedicated wall, I have this great push pin board material and I put my inspiration images up and then I have a drawing. I like to live with my work so being able to walk past it, or look at it and think about it. I may not be actively drawing every day or making a mark, but I’m experiencing it and then all of a sudden I go. “Oh, yeah, I know what it needs.”
Cindy: Yes and that’s just kind of letting it speak to you.
Mario: Yes, a little bit.
Cindy: That’s awesome. I was thinking about setting one of those up for my children just like a space for them to draw on the wall, but then I got really scared by that too. It’s like, who knows? But that’s just a wall. You can always fix it. I love that. Okay, so I always ask one final question of all my podcast guests. And that is, which artwork changed your life?
Mario: Oh, I think I love my answer. But I also think it’s so funny because it feels like such a traditional painting but I am obsessed with Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth. Every time I see it, I get teared up it just… I have always been. I like illustration and that kind of leans illustrative, but I am drawn to that painting. I just always have been from a young age and I also developed a really amazing unit for my second graders around it. If we have time.
When I taught second grade back in the day, it was the first time that Pokemon was popular and they talked about it all the time and I always ask them, “How did it work?” And they told me, you sort of start as like, one kind of creature, but you can increase your powers and your powers give you these abilities to do these other things. So, you know, like Charmander comes becomes Charizard I’m surprised I remember that. Anyways, I was like, how do I tap into this interest? And so I presented the Christina’s World painting, and I said, “Okay kids, what do we think is going on? Like, what’s going on in this?” They were like, “Why is that girl in the field?” And I was like, “I don’t know. What do you think?” And they’re like, “We think she’s stuck or she’s running away or maybe she’s thinking really hard.” All these stories. And so we started like develop this narrative about like, “Well, Christina, can’t get back to the barn or back to the house, how are we going to help her?” And they’re like, “You bet she doesn’t have some kind of superpowers.” And I was like, “Well, that’s what I’m thinking about.” I was like, “Can you figure out how to give Christina Pokémon like powers?”
So they created this like – they make these little Christina’s and they would add wings and a hundred legs and tentacle. They added all these things that helped her get back home. It was my favorite lesson that I ever did, but I’ve just always been obsessed with wondering what’s really going on because you don’t see her face. You just see her back. I’ve read it, I know who she is, and I know the history, but I think maybe it was the time in art that I realized that presenting a question was more interesting to me than presenting an answer.
Cindy: I love that. I’ve always resonated with that painting too. I had a journal when I was in college, and it was always to me, it was this sort of teen, early adulthood like feeling of not belonging, they’re separate and you’re seeing world happen, but you’re like, you don’t feel good enough, but that was always mine, but I think that’s a beautiful painting and an amazing lesson, that’s hilarious.
Mario: Oh, my God, we have so much Yes.
Cindy: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for sharing all of your insight and experience today. I was really inspired by your growth story, the whole direction of NAEA. And thank you so much for all the work that you’re doing for our teacher’s
Mario: Absolutely. Thank you so much for the invitation. I really enjoyed it.
Cindy: Awesome. Thank you.
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