Postcards for the Arts: Interview with JoAnn Onnembo

Recently, I received a manila envelope in the mail with forty oversized postcards of beautiful reproductions of student artwork on the front. On the back of the cards were the student’s name, age and a brief statement on why my artwork is important to me. The Arts Ed Now logo anchored the lower portion of the card. JoAnn Onnembo, Art Teacher, Bergen County Academies and President, Arts Educators NJ created this project as the first phase in a three-phase advocacy campaign. I knew I had to sit down with JoAnn to hear more and share this incredible model with others.
KW: Tell me about the postcard project?

JO: Legislators get tons and tons of mail. To get their attention, I thought we should approach it as a postcard – oversized, colorful and easy to read. It might just catch their attention. And that handwritten note from students is an eye catcher. I originally wanted to just do that and then I thought of a three-tiered approach. To take it further, including not only the students but also the parents, who are the voters, and the teachers who encourage the students and are part of the stakeholder group.
I wanted to do a little different approach for the parents – this is my child’s work and this is the difference that art has made in their life. And the teachers approach would be a pre-instruction drawing and a drawing after sustained study and then a drawing after further development and the dramatic changes that take place not just in the skill level but the discipline and awareness of one’s surroundings and other cultures. I feel like it is not just developing skill but reaching the students life in different ways and when you can clearly see the development from pre-instruction to several months to years – it is dramatic. So I thought that we have a visual that speaks more than the words need to say. That was my idea. I thought this would be a great way to engage with the launch of Arts Ed Now.
This fit right into my work with the National Honor Society students who work on a project that promotes or advocates and I thought that this fit right into that theme.
There is no specific timeline but I want to sustain it and see if there is another audience that we should be targeting. I will talk about this at the Art Educators conference to see if other teachers can do this same project. I am leading the charge.

KW: What were the instructions to the students?

JO: I told them to choose their best work or a work that they were proud of. And I explained to them the importance of advocating for the arts. We are fortunate here at Bergen County Academies (BCA) but we are doing this not only to sustain our funding and our support and our personal growth but we are also looking to help those that are less fortunate and for the greater good. It is an effort to educate everybody. Not just those of us that are supporters of the arts. If that means we grab their attention for a second because that legislator liked the image and has that postcard on their desk and someone sees it and starts a conversation then we have achieved our goal because we have opened the eyes of someone new. I told my students it is important to advocate for themselves but it is also important to advocate for others as well. And to sustain BCA’s charter to bring our art to the public and do good with it. The students were all in and were very excited about it. I got images left and right and I got images from all of my students and many wanted to participate.

KW: Tell me about the process.

JO: I instructed the students to make a brief statement. This is my artwork and it is important to me because… I wanted it to be honest – be straight up about it. Speak from a fifteen year old perspective. Make whatever you say a powerful as you can. If it changes your life say it changes your life. If it helps you be open to other cultures say that. It doesn’t have to be an essay. Just say what it is. The statements are authentic and are from the student voice.
So when we move to the parents – the statements might be more powerful. I just introduced this to parents last week and they were very excited to hear about it. I gave them background on what the NJAEP has achieved and the Arts Ed Now movement and they were happy to hear that. I gave them information about Arts Ed Now and encouraged them to go on the website. They are willing to join the postcard campaign. I laid the groundwork and they are saying – just tell us what you need.

KW: What feedback did you get from the students?

JO: The kids were really excited. For one, they see their work on a postcard and the fact that it is going to someone of importance and the fact that it might just make a difference was the thing that excited them. They hoped that their voices might be heard in a way that they were comfortable with – visually. They felt empowered that their image could say something that their voice could not. It was impactful. They asked if they could do it again.

KW: Did you send to legislators in the whole state? And have you heard from any legislators?

JO: We had originally thought of targeting just our legislators but then thought to do the whole state and that is why we only put the student’s first name and age on the postcard. We wanted to send it to everybody. I am Sarah and I am sixteen and I am speaking for all of the students in the state. I would love to see if a Legislator’s curiosity was sparked by this and perhaps they connect with the Arts Ed Now website. That would be confirmation that they looked at it and we got their attention.
With the teachers’ phase, I might reach out to performing arts teachers to see what they can add. It might be a picture of a performance with the progress illustrated of a student not wanting to speak in class to look at them now in a performance. I still need to shape this out by talking to those professionals.
Right now this project is limited to my school but who knows – it may end there or become a model for other people. It may spark other ideas.

KW: What change do you want to see?

 JO: I want to see that the students learn that advocating for the arts is important. They need to be reminded of that. And Legislators that may not have thought about it – stop – and when something is proposed and decisions need to be made they might just think back for a second and remember getting the postcards from the students and think that maybe I should listen to what my colleague has to say about the arts. Awareness, education, response, support all of those things are the goals. I am just trying to do my little part to make people aware and listen. My reward comes from the success of my students.

Thank you JoAnn. You are doing a huge part to make a difference. Let’s hope others take on this project and the State House is filled with beautiful, powerful postcards.
– Kristin Wenger

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