At the intersection of art and community engagement, the McKeen Center’s Alternative Spring Break (ASB) trip, “Art as Empowerment,” explored the realities of arts education and involvement in New York City. Members of the trip looked at elite spaces like the Whitney Museum of American Art as well as a middle school in Brooklyn’s least gentrified neighborhood. 

Led by Maya Reyes ’16, the trip focused on educating participants so that they could continue with long term, sustainable service. The group spent the majority of the week exploring how museums and educators reach various underserved communities. 

“I don’t like the idea of going somewhere for a week, giving yourself a pat on the back, leaving and then never engaging with that community again,” Reyes said. “I wanted [the trip] to be primarily educational so that people on the trip could see themselves in a multitude of positions within the art world and for it to be an impactful experience so that they’ll engage with it later on in whatever community they’re in.”

The group visited a host of museums and educational centers throughout the trip, spending time at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts, Sugar Hill, an affordable housing complex developed by Ellen Baxter ’75, and a gallery directed by Hallie Harrisburg ’90, among others. 

“We talked about how meaningful it is for people to claim a space with art and how art allows people to do that,” said trip member Blanche Froelich ’19. “It acknowledges that those communities have just as much to offer to us, or in my opinion, undeniably more than we have to offer to them.”

The group’s involvement with youth communities, especially those at risk, proved to be particularly insightful.

“It’s important that those means of expression are available to children of every class and race, and they aren’t really because of the funding shortages that exist within arts education,” said Reyes. “It was also important for us to explore the inequality in terms of representation. When you don’t have kids who are exploring art from an early age, they’re never going to become artists or go to museums because they don’t see that as belonging to them.”

“Bringing art to everybody is important because it allows people to realize that their culture is important and that they can understand art and create art that is of equal value to these pieces that have been in museums for centuries or are worth millions of dollars,” said William Schweller ’17, who also attended the trip. “It brings people together.”

Despite the group’s concentration in art and its representations in community engagement, several group members cited a game of pick-up basketball with local youth as one of the more meaningful moments of the trip. 

“I know that basketball isn’t art, but it sticks with you as a community that you may want to be a part of or advocate for in the future,” said Reyes. “Not because it’s so desolate or impoverished, but because you realize that, ‘Hey, there are normal kids here who like to do the same things that I do, but they don’t get the access to the same things I do.’”

“You get to inhabit a different space and learn about work that’s being done outside of the classroom that’s meaningful to a lot of people’s lives,” Reyes added.

For many, ASB trips are opportunities for week-long, intensive public service projects—projects that serve the underprivileged and also help students in their understanding of social and environmental issues. “Art as Empowerment” functioned as an educational trip with the hope of Bowdoin student involvement in the long term. 

“What’s most applicable is our students’ capacity to engage difference critically—to meet people who are unlike themselves and to recognize how they respond to encountering difference,” said Andrew Lardie, associate director for service and leadership at the McKeen Center. “Hopefully it will help students have a more nuanced understanding of what’s going on in their lives here and the life of the campus.”