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Teens engage with the White House

posted by School of Theatre on Fri, May 6, 2011
in School of Theatre

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By Allison Whorton
Education Fellow

The phone rang promptly at 5:15pm on Wednesday afternoon, and the 14 Berkeley Rep teens in the room jumped up and down with excitement and anticipation.

“Hey, this is Kal over at the White House,” said the voice over the speakerphone.

We were on the phone with the White House as a part of the President’s 100 Roundtables with Young Americans, started in an effort to have young Americans across the country engage in discussions about and brainstorm solutions to issues that are important to them. Members of the White House Administration were tasked with participating in at least 100 roundtable conversations with youth across the country. Information from each roundtable will be sent to the President’s Domestic Policy Council. 

Through our Arts Advocacy Committee, which was started this year, the teens have been researching and reflecting upon the importance of the arts and arts education and they have already met with representatives about this subject. I registered our monthly Teen Council meeting for the White House’s roundtable initiative back in March, requesting that a member of the White House Administration join us. And, lo and behold, we received an email from Kalpen Modi, the associate director of the White House’s Office of Public Engagement and the White House’s liaison for Young People and the Arts (better known to the teens for his roles in the Harold and Kumar movies and the TV series House), asking if he could phone in on our conversation all the way from Washington, DC.

To start off the conversation, we went around the table and shared our names and where we’re from. When we were finished, Kal, who attended grad school at Stanford, said, “All of this talk of Berkeley and the Bay Area makes me miss Zachary’s Pizza” (to which everyone laughed).

Kal went on to say that he “is the product of public arts education,” hence his particular interest and investment in our conversation. “This generation of young people is particularly giving, intelligent, innovative, and civically engaged,” he continued. President Obama started the 100 Roundtables because he wanted young peoples’ voices to be represented in national dialogues, as Obama wants all Americans to have “a seat at the table.”

Teen Council members talked about their interests and concerns. The teens spoke personally about the impact the arts have had on them, and why they believe it’s essential that the arts are considered a core subject in Congress’ reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. We spoke about the significance of the “STEM to STEAM” movement (adding the “A” for arts to our country’s current emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math in education). We discussed the innovative skills students gain from arts education, and how the divergent and creative thinking garnered from arts participation is vital for a forward-thinking nation.

As our hour-long conversation (that was originally only supposed to be 20 minutes!) came to a close, Kal wanted to make clear that while there have been cuts to government arts funding in recent months as part of overall government belt-tightening within this financial climate, it doesn’t mean that the government is trying to give up on an entire program. “Arts are critical to this White House,” Kal said. He went on to give us advice as Teen Council furthers its arts advocacy efforts, suggesting that we continue with our current initiatives and engage in grassroots conversations. “This is a very impressive group,” he said. “Celebrate the work you’ve done and don’t undermine the voices you have.”

Our conversation with Kal was the culmination of a lot of hard work throughout the year. After the call ended, the teens clapped and cheered. Emboldened and inspired, the teens relished this proud moment, and I did too.


Congrats guys! That's really awesome!

Christina | Fri, May 6, 2011

Congratulations to the teens on this council and the Berkeley Rep staff who mentor them - sounds like this group of young artists have made an impact for arts education for young people that will be felt all over the country!

Valerie | Sat, May 7, 2011

Kal Penn! How exciting. What an awesome opportunity for the teens!

Cari | Mon, May 9, 2011

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