Insisting on Beauty: The Art of Catholic School Leadership
The obvious trappings that signify schooling in Kisumu, Kenya, are absent here: There are no uniforms, no large, hand-painted signs, and very few students. The outside of the school is a concrete, permanent structure and has been painted and decorated by students...
So writes Dr. Betsy Ferrer Okello, a graduate of ACE Teaching Fellows 7 and Remick Leadership 5, in her field notes on Mwangaza Art School, an informal art college situated in the Nyalenda community of Kisumu, Kenya. Despite its spartan exterior, there is a richness and a resourcefulness to the activity within Mwangaza. A mural spans one interior wall, depicting people trading along Lake Victoria—a preview of the activity Betsy would later witness as she followed the student-artists into the marketplace to sell the fruits of their artistic labors. Light seeps through an opening in the school’s roof, giving the art school its name: Mwangaza, meaning light in Swahili.
During a four-week power outage in 2011, students climbed trees to hack away the branches obscuring the light. In, 2012, when the water supply to the school was cut off, students mixed paints with water collected from boreholes. The activity within this concrete building is a testament to the work of the artist. In all things—darkness, droughts, and limited resources—there is an insistence on beauty.
Betsy’s anthropological fieldwork and action research in the Mwangaza Art School might best be described as an insistence on beauty. She found Mwangaza Art School through an undergraduate research opportunity as an anthropology major at the University of Notre Dame, and she returned when the opportunity emerged to pursue her dissertation research there as a doctoral student at Michigan State University. With a background in theatre, she wondered what performance art might make possible for students living in an informal settlement community with high rates of youth unemployment. Co-writing three plays with the students of Mwangaza Art School, Betsy saw what she otherwise would not have seen.
She watched as artists bargained for second-hand bedsheets that were transformed into sets and costumes. She heard the fiery voice of Shakespeare’s female protagonist drown out the demure voice of Betty, one of only two female students in Mwangaza Art School, cast as the female lead—Kate—in the students’ cultural adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew. These transformations and adaptations countered the dominant cultural narrative of Kenyan youth as idle and dangerous.
Through theatre, Betsy’s students found a way to tell their own story—one that insisted on the innovation, the resourcefulness, and the capacity for beauty in and among the youth of Kisumu. Convinced of art’s role as a force for good in the lives of youth, Betsy and her husband, Zack, a visual artist and musician from Kenya, designed Kipaji Art Center, an after-school arts program that fosters an environment for appreciating and excelling at visual and performance arts through mentoring by local Kisumu artists.
Betsy’s deep roots and experiences in Kisumu continue to guide her work now as the Associate Superintendent for the Archdiocese of New York. Her responsibilities are many: running professional development opportunities throughout the Archdiocese, developing a four-part framework for skillful teaching, and implementing new curricula. Amidst these many responsibilities tied to the enhancement of curriculum and instruction, Betsy remains loyal to the priorities that guided her time in Kisumu. With teachers and principals, she finds time to walk the boroughs and blocks around the schools served by the Archdiocese, insistent on hearing the students’ stories and seeing the world the students see. As she listens and watches, she senses the artist within, and she wonders if work in urban Catholic schools might demand an artistic proclivity on the part of its teachers and school leaders—that penchant for insisting on beauty in every person, place, and moment served by Catholic education.