Conference ReflectionsProfessional Development

The Power of the Arts: Tools for Holistic Transformative Learning in Student Affairs

The arts are weapons of mass construction.

In October 2013, I was sitting in a lecture hall at Carleton University at the opening event for the “Power of the Arts National Forum: Advancing Social Change”. Canadian jazz singer Kelly Lee Evans was there to share her story about how the arts had changed her life. This past summer Kelly was standing at the kitchen sink when a bolt of lightning hit her house and electrocuted her. Her body was affected in many ways, with lost mobility in her legs and arms, but most tragically she lost the ability to sing. She told us what it was like to confront her new limitations, come to terms with what she had taken for granted in the past, and work hard to rehabilitate her body. It was her desire to sing once more that brought her strength, not only emotionally, but also physically. As Kelly started to perform again, it was music that breathed new life into her limbs and set her back on the road to holistic health. Evans’ emotional testament to the transformative power of the arts left the entire room silent and moved.

Madame Jean at PotA forum.

Madame Jean at the PotA forum.

Kelly’s inspiring story was just one of many I heard over the weekend. The forum was an opportunity created by the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean and her film-maker/writer husband, Jean-Daniel Lafond through the Fondation Michaëlle Jean Foundation. In conjunction with Dr. John Osborne, Dean of Carleton University’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, they brought together over 300 researchers, business leaders, legal experts, policymakers, youth, health practitioners, artists, educators, and others to discuss and strategize the ways in which the arts can improve quality of life, reach marginalized populations, and develop our communities across Canada.

I met so many fascinating people who have dedicated their lives to helping the vulnerable, disenfranchised, and disempowered members of our society through the arts. These are people who, as Dr. Osborne put it, “bear witness to the power of the arts as a vehicle to engage and effect change, be it visual arts, film, music, photography, creative writing, or even the circus, to name only some of the most prominent.”

For example, I met Holly Nimmons, the Executive Director of the Coalition for Music Education; they’re the folks who created Music Monday. This is a day when school children across Canada perform the same song from coast to coast to coast, a song usually written and performed by a Canadian pop or rock star. You may have noticed 2013’s song because it was written and performed by Ed Robertson from Barenaked Ladies and Commander Chris Hadfield while he was still on the International Space Station!

Then there was Stephen Leafloor and the Blueprint for Life project, which uses “HipHop as a community development tool and as a model for alternative education and healing.” Listening to Buddha (as Stephen is more commonly known) talk about the healing work they do in Inuit, First Nations, and inner city communities by engaging youth through music and dance was both sobering and inspiring.

Buddha at the PotA forum.

Buddha at the PotA forum.

There was Algerian Canadian singer/songwriter Lynda Thalie, who eloquently spoke about music as her “passport to the world.”

Marc Mayrand from Elections Canada talked about art as a tool to mobilize communities and engage with democracy.

The president of the College of Family Physicians of Canada, Dr. Marie-Dominique Beaulieu, explored the relationship between the arts and the social determinants of health.

Julia Dalman, coordinator of the Global Café at Jasper Place High School in Edmonton, empowers young people as citizens through the arts.

Or Marie Wilson, Commissioner with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, who asked us, “What is art but talking?” She brought the room to tears with stories about the ways in which art and music and storytelling has given voice to pain and truth and identity for those who experienced the Indian Residential Schools system.

Youth award winners & M Jean at PotA forum.

Youth award winners.

It was with these people and many more that I had the chance to explore research, best practices, innovative programs, and grassroots initiatives. More importantly, we collectively produced the first draft of a strategic action plan to create a national agenda about the power of the arts to engage with the following issues: mental and physical health, democratic participation, economic development and social enterprise, cultural institutions and community integration, public safety and access to justice, community and urban renewal, diversity and social inclusion, new technologies and social change, as well as voice and identity.

Rachel speaking at PotA forum.

Rachel speaks at the PotA forum.

So, why does this matter to us as student affairs practitioners? I’ve spent many years supporting students’ holistic development and meaningful engagement within our learning communities, and it is clear to me that the topics we covered at the national forum connect directly with the work we do in student affairs. Are we not community builders? Do we not care about our students’ mental and physical health? Does Ryerson not value the integrated connections we build with our local communities? Do we not work for social inclusion and justice? If we can access another tool to make our work more powerfully effective, innovative, and creative, I think we should start using it as soon as possible.

As a musician and an educator, I have known for a long time through personal experience that the arts have the capacity to tap into sources of power and knowledge within us all that can lead to change and growth. My MA research, which focused on the intersection of music, emotions, and Jack Mezirow’s transformative learning theory (1991), has confirmed what I knew intuitively; that there is great potential for the arts to play a crucial role in the development of intentional and holistic transformative learning experiences.

I welcome questions and opportunities for dialogue about the national forum, transformative learning theory and the arts, my research thus far, and/or my thoughts on how this connects to student affairs in higher education. In the meantime, this is my challenge to all of us: let us think of concrete ways in which we can incorporate creative expression into the programs and services we offer to our students.

Photo Credits: Chris Roussakis (for the Fondation Michaëlle Jean Foundation)

  • John Austin

    Having worked previously at 3 performing arts schools, I can add testament to the power of the arts in providing a truly transformational educational experience. I was also a trumpet player for 13 years, and I think my experience with music made me a better student and a more engaged person. Finally, as an avid lover and supporter of the arts, I rely on my experiences as an audience member to feed my curiosity about human nature, relationships and how the world works. Great job, Rachel; this was an interesting read.

  • Christina Halliday

    Just tonight I’m going to a meeting of the ArtBridges Advisory Board. “ArtBridges is a Canada-wide forum and web-based hub for community-engaged arts and arts for social change initiatives.” Check it out: All of the organizations involved with ArtBridges are about leveraging the power of the arts to shape experience and our interpretation of those experiences. Coming from a family of visual artists, and with a previous life in contemporary dance, I feel very close to this notion. Rachel’s questions are interesting ones to ponder for a Student Affairs community. For me, what resonates most is how both communities (arts/social change and student affairs) are about encouraging individuals to think about themselves as connected and connecting with multiple layers of meaning and experience. Perhaps we’re like-minded??