Women’s History Month – In Conversation With Lauren Jobson-Ahmed
This installment in our Women’s History Month series brought us to the home of Lauren Jobson-Ahmed, Ed.M. and arts educator – nominated by her friend Michelle, who told us:
Lauren is an amazing Greenpointer and native New Yorker who works for the Urban Arts Partnership which endeavors to bring innovative art programs to inner city kids. She is also a portrait photographer who is capturing the history and style of her elder Cuban relatives who made their distinct mark on NYC upon arrival in the 1960s. She supports local arts and community centers like Maha Rose, the Greenpointers Market, and more. She also just exudes sunshine and positivity and I find her to be a rare and amazing gal!
Lauren welcomed us in on a cold, rainy night and we talked with her about her experiences growing up in New York and following an academic path all the way to Harvard.
GP: In her nomination your friend Michelle shared a link to your professional bio, and what I think is so awesome about your academic experience is that it combines these two distinct interests in art and education. At what point did those two things collide for you?
Lauren: I’ll start with growing up. My family is half Cuban and half English – both of my parents are immigrants – and my father is a painter while my mother is an accountant, so opposite ends of the spectrum! My dad’s family is very small, so our household was Little Cuba 24/7 – in general he’s a very introverted, painterly type, and the rest of my family is very loud and animated. A lot of Latin drama! As a child, I always found it so fascinating that the Cuban side of the family was so entranced by my dad’s paintings, which are very abstract – of foliage, and water, very poetic things. But they were able to communicate about their feelings about my dad’s art, which was very soothing and pacifying to them, even though they were of a completely different cultural experience than he. So that really gripped me; I wanted to know more about what that was all about. It was kind of like, “Wow – art can calm the mind.” And bring people together.
GP: Did that influence the direction of your undergraduate education?
Lauren: I went on to study psychology and fine art at Fordham, so yes! I wanted to learn about our primal connection to sharing and creating things and communicating about them. This took me, in a very round-about way, into early childhood development, and looking at how art can be used to prevent very traumatizing life experiences. During college I was an assistant to an art therapist at a child-life facility here in New York at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital, up in Harlem. That was a really eye-opening experience, because a lot of the children that were in the hospital were there for chronic biological or psychological conditions and would never really leave, and their best method of resiliency was creating things together. So they were able to discover aspects of themselves that really contributed to coping and learning to manage the way they viewed their treatment and their stay in the hospital. That was really transformative for me.
GP: Was part of the takeaway from that time, and that transformation, a desire to become more of an activist?
Lauren: Yes. I started saying to myself, “Let’s do more of this. Why aren’t there more of these services?” I found a lot of positives in art therapy, but it seemed to me that art therapy focused a lot on children and youth, and viewed them almost as if it was too late for them. Like, “Oh, these children must have post-traumatic stress disorder in order to receive the service.” And I was like, “No, wait a minute. I don’t think that’s the best way to go about this.”
GP: So you were starting to raise your hand and question the system you were working within.
Lauren: I was. I got really vocal in college because I didn’t really see why this type of stuff didn’t start from day one. And it was so easy! You know, pre-K and kindergarten focuses on socialization and communication and empathy – through creative exercises, through song, through theater. So I focused a lot of my attention on researching those areas and the gaps I was seeing.
GP: When did the decision to go to grad school come into play? Did that happen immediately following your college years?
Lauren: No, I waited two years, but it just kind of fell into place that way. Right before college graduation, I was working part-time as a research assistant at New York State Psychiatric Institute, on a research project studying the adverse effects of stress and the positive effects of cognitive behavioral therapies. There had been a promise to have a full-time position doing that after I graduated, but that didn’t work out for funding reasons. So I felt really screwed after graduating! I was still trying to figure out what I should do with these art education/art therapy hybrid interests I had. The field itself is relatively new, so there wasn’t a lot out there. Also, in 2008, 2009, and 2010, there were some serious state reevaluations and budget cuts made to the overall mental health system. So I tried to take a bit of a watchful stance from afar on that. It was a huge incentive to really get moving though; a huge fire underneath me. I had so many aggravating fights with my parents where I had to convince them I was doing the right thing. I said, “I’ll bus tables at night; I’ll make it work.” I worked really hard; I ended up working about four odd jobs that summer just to stay alive.
GP: Searching and hoping for an internship must have seemed really important for keeping a foot in this world you were so interested in.
Lauren: Definitely. In the time that I had between all those jobs, I was reading a lot. When I was commuting between babysitting jobs and busing tables, I was reading a lot about art, spirituality, education, and then educational inequality and attainment. I just picked books out of the library and just read anything that I could. I said, “I’m going to self-educate. If I can’t be working in this now, then I’m going to learn everything I can about it.” It was great, but it was also kind of a dark time. It got a little lonely, because I wasn’t sure what I was doing, and I didn’t know who to talk to about it. There were things I was searching for, like organizations and non-profits, and I know this now but I didn’t then, that during the summer period there’s a lot of programming that’s already been established, that takes so much energy and has such small staffs. The fact that nobody was responding to my emails wasn’t a reflection on my character; it wasn’t personal, they just weren’t in the office! They were out in the field running after-school programs; they were doing schoolyard murals; so it was a long time before I heard back from anybody. And I was really panicking.
GP: And when you don’t yet know what organization will be the best place for you to bring your skill set and interests, it’s really disorienting! You’re trying to find where you belong in the world.
Lauren: Yeah, I think that was the biggest frustration for me at the time. It was sort of like a hero’s journey. You’re in this dark place, and you know that you’re trying to advocate for something, but there’s no home for it yet. People aren’t quite sure what you’re doing, and you yourself aren’t really sure what you’re doing. But it was a very invaluable exercise. I ended up feeling that it was hypocritical for me to feel worrisome, if the people that I ultimately wanted to fight for were experiencing anxiety and darkness in their everyday lives. This was a character test for me with my beliefs, and trusting in who was waiting on the other side. So it was a relief when I finally got an internship with a very small arts organization, which is no longer around today, but they had a really dynamic mural program, they had an after-school program, and Saturday programs. It was just a two-person staff.
GP: How did you find them?
Lauren: I found them on Idealist.org. This was in 2010, and the website was relatively new. Because this organization was so small, I knew I would be underpaid and overworked, but I saw a really good opportunity to seize the moment. Like, “Okay, great – I get to be the program director!” I went from about zero to 300 and it was so great. I was doing a lot of programmatic development, I was working with kids, I was out in the field. And had I not been sleepless reading all that stuff and trying to self-educate, I wouldn’t have felt prepared. I was ready to be put to the test! I was there for two and a half years.
After the first year and a half, my idea of the field was really starting to take shape. There were things that became questionable to me now that I was seeing the ecosystems that a lot of the students were in, from an educational standpoint – in the structure of school, which is where students spend most of their time, and not in a clinical setting. It was a little disturbing in some regards. Especially that these kids are provided with machinated curriculums that teachers don’t even want to implement. There was just this very bogged down, trickle-down feeling of a loss of agency. There’s so much pressure, and it was very glum. Even some teachers themselves – and not all of them, there’s some really great ones out there – weren’t even being fully recognized. Huge burn-out and turnover factor. What made it hard was that the DOE was still on a hiring freeze, so they weren’t hiring any new teachers, and the tenure tracks for teachers were also frozen. So people were just stuck in their careers at this time, and it really showed. It was really stagnant, and it definitely affected the youth in these settings.
So this organization not only did things in schools, but also worked with community partners that were really into restorative justice, going back to work with hospitals, kids with disabilities or who were at risk for developing psychological conditions later on. It all circled back to their early experiences – transitioning from a challenging home life into an even more challenging school atmosphere. It was a very strange problem space; I was collecting a lot of interviews on the side from the kids that I was working with, trying to understand more about how they were perceiving the services that we provided.
GP: And was that something that people didn’t often think to ask? Asking the kids what they thought and really listening to them?
Lauren: Right! That was the turning point for me in deciding to go to grad school. I realized there was so much that really needed to happen. I kind of call it the “educational industry complex” – it was obvious in the children speaking to me, whether they were very blunt about it or beating around the bush or terrified to say it, but the way the system was treating them and their neighborhoods in general was that they needed them to stay disempowered, and not free agents, and not be able to experience what they really needed to feel, whether fear, or inadequacy, or risk. At the end of the day these kids just felt like they had to provide some sort of answer, and they would just tune out. They would rather stay emotionally safe and just not reveal any part of themselves. They either wouldn’t show up to school, or would rather get into other affairs. They felt more pressure from violence, or truancy, or just staying at home. Kind of like, “My family has enough problems, and school is the least of my concern.” People have to stay alive, and for that I couldn’t blame them.
It was a very disappointing feeling I had, that I had read and had been believing that there was good going on, but what I saw was that that goodness relied on a lot of bad to keep happening. So at this time I wrote a lot, and I mustered up to taking the GRE. I had all my high-school students really aware that I was going back to school, and I was doing it because they were so brave. So we worked together, and I said if they promised me they would take their Regents exams this year, then I would take the GRE. We would sit together in between breaks from painting murals that summer and we would make vocabulary flashcards. I expressed to them that we were equally vulnerable, and I made them understand that I only had a high-school level of math, so we were really on the same page! We were all getting tested, and we were in it together.
I took the GRE, and they took their Regents, and they got just-passing scores, but I was so proud of them, because that meant they could graduate on time. And I had gotten exactly an average score on my exam; I wasn’t never going to get into grad school, but it wasn’t great. So we had a party for our “just okay but passed!” scores. It was a lot of fun. After taking the test, I was also writing my personal statement, and all the other stuff that goes along with an application.
GP: It’s fascinating listening to how this came together for you, because I already know that the end result was Harvard, but you seem to have felt really mediocre about things at the time!
Lauren: Yeah, I really owned that feeling. The summer before, having been so down in the dumps, I started to be okay with some of the terror that was basically pulsating through my body. My boss was really not happy that I wanted to pursue graduate school, and he even told me that he thought I got in because of him. And I thought to myself, well yes, actually I did – because I wrote about how awfully you’re running this ship right now! I had just seen things that were so damaging to youth; I realized that some of the programs had this hidden agenda that was very demeaning, and these youth told me about it in the interviews I had with them.
GP: What kind of graduate programs did you apply to, specifically?
Lauren: I applied to several art therapy programs, arts education programs, and actually the only school I got into was the Harvard Graduate School of Education. I got rejected from Pratt, I got rejected from NYU, I got rejected from City College. When I got the Harvard acceptance letter I thought they had made a mistake! I was crying. I had been starting a fellowship with the Guggenheim in education, and I got the “check your online status” notification in the fellowship class, and I had to excuse myself. There were these hotdog vendors outside the museum that I just screamed in excitement to.
GP: You must have just lost your mind in celebration.
Lauren: I did. I somehow ended up at 59th Street. I don’t even remember what happened between 80-whatever and the rest of the blocks south. I’m sure the rest of Central Park East heard all of it. I just remember it was very cold in March, and my jacket was half on, and the reality set in, and I was just like, “I have to move to Boston!” It was totally crazy. And again, my boss was infuriated, and I noticed him seeking any publicity opportunity to say that our organization wasn’t doing a good enough job – in front of the board, at our fundraisers. It was very demeaning to me and the work I had done. I was a young woman, and I was trying to do something to fix what these younger people in need had expressed to me – I’ve never been treated like that; it was a wretched experience. I felt really powerless. I talked back, but I had to tread lightly so that I wouldn’t get fired, or so that my boss wouldn’t pull the plug on something. I had created a youth mentors program in our organization, but my boss sort of approached the kids as numbers, not really caring what happened to them.
GP: What was it like when you got to Harvard and could start acting on so many of your ideas?
Lauren: The Arts In Education cohort within Harvard’s Graduate School of Education was very diverse, and it was about 35 – 40 people. Ranging from capital “A” artists who work in prestigious galleries, to international students, to folks who had been teaching for years and years and years in the public school system, like history or science teachers, whose passion was actually arts education and integration. So those folks were starting all over. And then there were the hodge-podge people like me. It was great to have that diversity around me. And because we arrived on campus right after the summer, everybody was a little burned out, so it felt like a really great retreat experience. It was a place to be understood.
The building we were in was mostly populated by other Masters students, who were studying policy, or doing things in prevention science, and things in English language literacy, so every class I took, I was surrounded by people who were doing all sorts of stuff in the field of education. And that was very intentional; it was a really interdisciplinary program. They wanted every single part of what you thought you knew about education to be totally turned upside down. And working collaboratively, so that person working on policy and prevention science would never forget the value of what someone else was trying to advocate for, and might later go on to support that. It was very personhood-oriented; we were kind of like the Jim Henson school on campus, seen a little bit as radical, crazy people. We were allowed to take classes at the other campuses, and it was very encouraged. I trickled into the law school a bit.
GP: How great that it was encouraged to do that.
Lauren: Well the dean, Dean Kathleen McCartney, was so awesome. She said on the first day, “Don’t worry about what you’re here to do. Worry about the fact that you’re going to have the hardest fight, more than anybody else.” She was like, “You guys make no money. If you’re here to make money, you’re in the wrong school. But you guys have to prove some of the most difficult things about learning – so you better get in there where the decisions are being made about the children that you teach. You can agree with the decision-makers, or disagree with them, but learn their language.” There’s many false dichotomies in the education sector, and she just reminded us to learn how to work with people. It was refreshing to hear, since I had been so angry with how things had gone in my work in New York. I was actually so angry that I was unfocused when I got to Harvard. The Lauren who applied was not the same as the Lauren who arrived on campus. I was really upset by that!
GP: Did you find it hard to leave the program where you had been working, and your students, when you left for school?
Lauren: I did. I felt very guilty, as did many other educators I met at school. But I made a very strong point to bring my students there. I had them Skype in for class and presentations. So they were able to see how their experiences were part of very large conversations.
GP: What you said about the dean a moment ago touches on a question we’ve been asking throughout this series: are there other women in your field, or in your personal life, who inspire you?
Lauren: For certain, my mom. And my great aunt. They immigrated here from Cuba in 1965. And the education my mom was receiving was right at the cusp of the communist revolution, so things were pretty suspect there. It was so anti-American in Cuba, very filled with hate, and my mom knew internally this was wrong. When she came here, my grandparents were very keen on education, hammering home that it was the only way forward. And whatever that education is, make sure you know all the facts. My grandfather was especially keen on reading newspapers from all angles, and my mom inherited that and passed it on to me, too. And in that way, my mom became saucy with me! There was no padding around her with this stuff – she was like, “Well, you don’t know the whole story yet – here, read a newspaper!” It was kind of tough love: “Children are dying – here’s ten newspapers, figure it out!” I was just like, “Okay, I’m ten, but I’ll try!” But if my mom hadn’t been that fiery, I don’t think I would have developed the cynicism that helped me see problems in the educational system and question them. My great aunt Elsa is very much the same way as my mom. She’s just a little more humorous about it!
There’s also two women in education who inspired me to go forward. One is Dr. Marit Dewhurst, who is now the director of arts education at City College; we met during my difficult arts education organization experience, and she really saved my soul. She is a huge proponent of social justice in the arts, and early childhood development, and she really talked me through some things. It was the best to learn from her as a woman. She had worked for a very large museum, where the people in power also kind of demeaned her as a young person and young woman, and she really got me through the time when that was happening to me. At the time we met, I didn’t know that many years prior, she had actually gone to the same program at Harvard that I ended up in. But I had her academic advisor as a professor, Dr. Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot – a very elegant, incredibly intelligent and wise woman, who just has a real gift for going right into the center of an environment and getting people to take responsibility for their actions in a very elegant way. She’s sort of this zen presence. For women to speak on those levels to other women, I was very grateful and felt that I was on the right path.
GP: So catch us up to the present. What are you up to currently?
Lauren: I’m the program coordinator for an initiative called Everyday Arts For Special Education. It’s part of a larger arts organization called Urban Arts Partnership. It’s the largest arts education organization in New York City, with different initiatives that approach different issues. We work with many different youth populations and we do it very well, very smartly, and it’s very youth-focused. So the initiative that I work with specifically brings me right back to my roots in clinical settings, but it’s in an educational setting. It’s arts education mixed with therapy, and I help to lead a bunch of teaching artists who provide coaching in arts-based strategies to 180 teachers every year across New York City. It’s for children with special needs, primarily autism, to foster social and emotional learning, and communication skills, and classroom community-building. It’s funny to be right back at the beginning with wiser eyes. It’s so exciting. I realized that some things have changed, but there’s still so much yet to be done. Things are percolating!
Thank you to Lauren for spending some time with us to talk about her work and activism in this important field. Women’s History Month will march forward with more posts later this week!