Texas Cultural Trust

My Search for Pioneers

When the Texas Cultural Trust asked me to speak at the 2018 Digital Pioneers Institute, my first reaction caught me off guard. I couldn’t stop wondering about digital pioneers. Who were they? What did they do? Did they even exist? I accepted the gig of course, because I love the Trust … and I couldn’t shake the idea of a digital pioneer.

For the Texas Cultural Trust, Digital Pioneers refers to the teachers implementing the Arts and Digital Literacy courses the Trust developed in partnership with The University of Texas at Austin. This series of courses integrate technology and theatre, dance, music and visual arts, using a project-based curriculum design, to develop students skills in both art-making and media production. Pioneering stuff. But I needed more…

I turned to etymology for help and John Kelly’s blog delivered. Pioneer, it seems, entered the English lexicon in the early 16th century to describe the military corp assigned to clear the path for the advancing regime. They dug trenches, cut down trees and cleared the way to make passage easier for the soldiers following them. The notion that pioneers literally paved the way for advancing army aptly described how the hard-working teachers of the Arts and Digital Media courses were paving the way for increased arts access. These courses, because of their content, design and approaches, seem to be attracting new and different students to fine arts course enrollment. New courses, with new curriculum, create more entry points for more students to get involved in learning to make art.

Then it struck me why pioneers and curriculum had such a strong connection. Curriculum, from the Latin currere referring to a track for racing or running. The Pioneers were paving new tracks for our students to run. These new arts and digital media tracks were creating more opportunities for kids who want to study art, but for whatever reasons aren’t enrolling in more traditional classes. They provide another opportunity for these students to find their artistic voice and build their capacity to run.

By the 18th century, I understand “pioneer” began to refer to someone who leads the way or opens up new fields of knowledge. I’m certain this connotation inspired the Texas Cultural Trust to name their conference the 2018 Digital Pioneers Institute. The amazing teachers I met at the conference are indeed leading the way and opening up new fields of knowledge for their students. They use the intersection of art and technology to give students transferable skills and extra earning power, skills that give them a platform to create and the power to imagine possibilities and realize them. The power to express their ideas and share them with the world. The power to write their own narratives and rewrite the narratives that mis-define them. The power to shift from cultural consumers to cultural producers.

Teachers like Christopher Rangel and Angel Leal from Donna ISD are creating these kinds of pathways for their students. They are moving earth, digging trenches, creating courses so their students can imagine the future they want for themselves and build the skills to realize it. They are the real deal, clearing the path and opening up new fields of possibilities for young people. It’s true, Digital Pioneers do exist and they are creating new pathways to help young people create their futures all across the State of Texas.