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Bree Sargent - kind warrior

Nov 03, 2015 04:16PM ● By Nicole LaCour
DO YOU KNOW a child who learns from a teaching artist in one of our public schools? Have you been to Art Walk downtown, the annual Art Expo or had fun at Gulf Brew? Have you seen an exhibit, play or performance at the Acadiana Center for the Arts (AcA)? Have you noticed the public art going up around town on some electrical boxes as you drive to work? Do you know an artist who has found support, funding or employment through the programs at the AcA? If so, then your life has been affected by the work of Bree Sargent.

Bree is a part of a vast team of professionals who make those things happen in our 
 community. She is the AcA’s Education Director. But she is so much more than her title implies. Bree gets things done. If it needs to be done, she just does it. She glides around the AcA, calm and quiet when she’s not laughing out loud with a big, full smile, her carefully managed curls bouncing around her face, usually in a perfectly fit, stylish little dress, effortlessly managing a work load that would confound mere mortals. Beyond her role as Education Director she manages staff and day-to-day logistics, she’s involved in programming, membership, the box office, sponsorship and volunteer management. She’s the ever present smile who seems to be always there.

“We wear many hats,” is the overly polite phrase most non-profit professionals use to describe their range of duties. When Bree says it, she’s exaggeratingly under-selling her contribution to not only her work, but to her family, friends and our community. She makes life look easy. And if you are lucky enough to be within her sphere of influence, you’ll find the kindest, most capable, most supportive mentor and leader you could ever have. She will lift you up and you will be more of who you were meant to be having known her. 

Bree’s mission is implementing arts in education in our public schools. She likes to say she “fell into” the field when she applied for an assistant position at the Acadiana Arts Council in 1999. With a degree in anthropology, it was her organizational skills that got her in the door. “I have a different appreciation for what the arts can do for someone because that’s not where I came from,” Bree said.

That was the first year of the PACE Program (Primary Academic Creative Experiences), directed by René Roberts. Teaching artists were in five public schools. That number doubled every year until teaching artists were in every Lafayette Parish school. Bree became the director in 2005 as the Arts Council became the AcA.

 As the organization grew, Bree’s role organically expanded. “If you have a certain skill set, you step in. When your co-workers need help, you help.” Bree said, another understatement. “Wearing different hats, you’re forced to learn a lot of different things, which is exciting to me.” She excels at just about every new thing she does, bringing her unassailable standard of excellence to every skill. But it’s how she supports others that makes her a good leader. She is adept at calming confrontations with nurturing firmness. Bree will remind you of your integrity while making you feel complimented. She protects and advocates for her co-workers while encouraging them to be and do more. And if you are taking a risk by trying something new and challenging, you won’t find a greater cheerleader in both words and deeds than Bree. And she does it all while laughing, joking, dressing in costumes when necessary and bringing her optimism into the very air.

Arts in Education has changed dramatically since Bree began in 1999. As research began to validate the use of arts to teach more than just art for art’s sake, but also to teach math, science, literature and language arts, the concept of a teaching artist changed. Bree and Paige Kraus, Outreach Director and Bree’s self-proclaimed work wife, embraced the idea of arts integration and built a program of working artists, teaching both art and non-art curricula in Lafayette Parish schools. What many people don’t know is that their program, one of about 108 in the country is a national model of how to implement arts in education. Not everyone does it the way Bree and Paige do. In some other places, artists are given an 
 orientation and goals and then they’re largely on their own. Bree and Paige provide extensive support to their artists. They are trained in how to teach specific curriculum goals. Workshops are held throughout the year for both the artists and the educators. The teaching artists are nurtured and encouraged with Bree and Paige available at all times. That makes all the difference. “Bree carries it off brilliantly,” Eric Johnson of Kennedy Center Partners in Education said. “She provides a mentoring system with a new artist paired with an experienced one. It’s completely geared toward success for the artists. It’s an exemplary model of what arts implementation can be.”

For her teaching artists, she is the best type of leader. “She gives you the freedom to make your own decisions,” Leah Graeff said. “While her job is to make my job as easy as possible. She’s always available. You feel like she’s got your back. She values the artists, the children, the educators...and she’ll do everything she can to support you.”

Art is one of the first things officials look to when budgets need to be cut. For 16 years Bree has been a warrior for arts in education. A shy and even private person by nature, she shines in front of a camera or audience when the subject is the impact of arts in education. She’s negotiated, managed, cajoled, evangelized and advocated with educators, politicians, donors and administrators. Her primary weapon is the passion she feels about the impact of art and the inspiration she gets from the artists. “I’ve come to believe in this very much,” Bree said. “The work these artists do is amazing. It’s hard to fight everyday for 15 years but the artists are never worried about themselves. They ask, ‘What are the teachers and kids going to do
  without this program?’ I’ve never worked with anyone like them.” Her other weapons are her ability to speak eloquently about the science behind arts in education, her calm, persuasive demeanor and impeccable integrity. “She didn’t grow into her position. She stepped right into it and made it wonderful.” Eric said. She’s not the only one fighting. She is one of many who fight to keep arts in education alive every year. But I don’t think many would argue that if not for Bree Sargent, the arts in education program in Lafayette Parish schools might not exist. She is a force of nature. A quietly determined force of nature.

 “….and she upholsters her couch in her spare time.” Eric observed. Bree likes to say that she’s not an artist but “she knows how to do everything,” Paige countered. She tells a story about one of her first jobs at a daycare center. “I would come home and if we were learning about Australia, I would research Australia and make stuff. My college roommates asked me why there was a 6-foot kangaroo on the floor. ‘I have to show them,’ I said, ‘I have to show them what a kangaroo is.’” That’s Bree in a nutshell. She brings that way of being, one she learned from her parents, to every part of her life. She and her husband Kit Benkert have been remodeling their Saint Street house for eight years, doing most of the work themselves. When she’s not at the AcA, she’s either painting her house, learning to make something new or dancing with her mom at a festival. “It’s rewarding to sit back at the end of the day, sit in the grass and look at something you’ve finished, with a beer. It feels good.” And she always seems to be in the middle of a project for someone’s wedding or shower. She and 
her mom are making a lion costume for her 2-year old niece, Evie. Of course they are. And it will likely be the best lion costume ever made.

You might be tempted to call Bree perfect. But, for one thing, she did get stuck behind a dryer after installing it and had to wait for her husband to come home to get her out. (Yes, she was installing her own dryer.) But the word perfect often carries an undercurrent of cynicism. A person who is called perfect is usually someone who inspires envy or hides their flaws. Bree is too guileless to be called perfect. If you know Bree, if she is in your life, you don’t want to be more like her, you want to be more like yourself. She recognizes and nurtures the gifts other people have and encourages them to stretch and dare and explore. “She’s amazing at connecting the pieces and seeing the potential in people,” Paige said. “She has a generous knowledge of what it takes for an artist to get where they need to be and she’s there, sewing a costume or designing a program along the way.” You’re not changed by knowing her, you’re just stepping closer to the best version of yourself.

The AcA is lucky to have her 16 years of devotion to its mission and her family of co-workers. And she doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. “It hasn’t gotten boring yet,” she said. “There’s no sense of burnout with her,” Paige said. “She’s a key component of Lafayette’s role as a creative hub.”

“I don’t have the skills that they do to actually do this,” she said of her teaching artists. “But I can be there to enable them, to keep the programs going. I know they’re changing kids’ lives. How could you not want to be a part of something like that?” “What else would I do?” she asked. “What do other people do?” 

Arts Integration
Teaching art in school used to be limited to a creative project done for expression, fun and to learn about the craft and principles of art. Art integration uses art to teach two objectives at once; one in an art form and another from the curriculum. So, while kids cut shapes and make collages they are learning about fractions. While they mix colors they might learn about light and wavelengths. A self portrait could be a history or cultural lesson.

Research shows that kids learn through different modalities. Some are visual, auditory or kinesthetic. Many learn through more than one modality. The arts provide children with many sensations at once. They are doing, moving, creating, constructing and collaborating. Learning with art uses more parts of the brain, improving connections. Educators like it too because it gives them new tools in teaching. “Teachers have these “AHA!” moments and tell us, ‘Oh my gosh, my kids finally get this,’ Or ‘I’ve never been able to teach fractions in a day,’” Bree said. Beyond the learning experience, for many children the artists are giving them their first experience with making something and expressing themselves. The first time you create art can be a powerful experience.

The influence works both ways. The teaching artists find inspiration in the way their students learn and approach art. “When you teach something, you have to break it down to its basic components,” Bree said. “It gives you a new understanding of your art form.” “I have to connect my lesson to so many things and I can’t use the language I was told in art school,” Leah Graeff, a 5-year teaching artist said. “I have to break it down for them and it changes how I see my own art.”

“Kids experiment,” Bree said. “They’re not afraid yet, like we are, to fail. So, they do things that adults would never consider doing. The teaching artists say it energizes them and gives them courage to try new things.”

“Children change you.” Leah said. “I don’t have kids but I’ve had a thousand kids over the past 5 years. It’s definitely made me happier.” 

“I come from one of the most incredible families in the whole world,” Bree said of her extended clan. Bree grew up around creativity. There were always a slew of cousins hanging
  around and she and her younger sister Erin put on plays and wrote pretend newspapers. Their motto was, “Fools have more fun.”

Her mother, Anne Darrah describes a quiet, pensive child. “The truth is, she’s the shyest person I know,” she said. Not being shy herself, it took Anne a while to understand that Bree was simply thinking carefully before she did or said anything. The two sisters did very well in school and were leaders in most organizations and clubs. Though Bree cried when she went to kindergarten, separated from her sister-protector, she was “every teacher’s dream.” Quiet, thoughtful and always prepared. She was also rather “prissy,” Anne said. She didn’t like getting dirty or messing up her clothes. It’s hard to imagine Bree shying away from dirty work now and that careful thoughtfulness of a four year old serves her well today as she leads and fights for arts in education.

Bree is married to Kit Benkert. Recently celebrating their seventh anniversary, they’ve known each other for 16 years. Bree is the proud step-mom to 17-year old Aidan. “I’ve known him most of his life,” she said. “I wonder if he remembers a time when I wasn’t there.” Bree counts Kit as her rock. “He’s the most patient listener. Sometimes I just need to say everything and sometimes I need to not say anything. He knows when to leave me alone and when to make me talk.”

 “I’ve always been close to my parents,” Bree said. “I admire all four of them.” Her mom is like a best friend, though both report of some very difficult teenage years. “We’re a lot alike,” Bree said. “If we go more than two or three days without talking, one of us will call and say, ‘What’s wrong? Are you mad at me?’”

Anne can’t say enough about Bree. “She believes intensely in the artists,” she said of her work. “She feels responsible for them and their livelihood. She has no ego and she has a way of making everyone feel good about what they’re doing. She is a thoughtful and gracious person. I’m proud to be her mama.”

The latest joy in the extended family is Evie, a very precocious two-year old who is the recipient of an overwhelming outpouring of love and attention. And Bree and her mom have been making and baking and constructing things for her since her conception. “She’s coming home for Christmas!” Bree said with joy. I can only imagine the hand crafted toys, baked goods and special attention Evie will find in Lafayette.