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Using Art for Social Change: Sapphire Johnson Finds Her Life's Work Through a Scholarship

Sapphire Johnson and the ASTEP artistic leaders

Sapphire Johnson's summer began with her first-ever trip to New York City for a six-day experience she shared with 45 other young performing artists from across the country. She won a full scholarship to ASTEP's Artist As Citizen Conference, held at the Julliard School.

The conference helped this theatre major with a music concentration discover her “life's work,” even as she enters her second semester as a WCU sophomore.

ASTEP – Artists Striving to End Poverty – is a New York-based non-profit that connects performing and visual artists with underserved youth in this country and around the world to awaken their imaginations, foster critical thinking, and help them break the cycle of poverty. The conference celebrates, connects, inspires and develops young leaders in the arts by providing them with a transformative artistic and educational experience.

Johnson affirms that she was positively transformed. "I was inspired, introspective and pushed out of my comfort zone," she says. "The experience truly changed my life."

A singer, Johnson believes "that arts are a right, not a privilege. … I want my life's work to aid in the process that turns the STEM education system into STEAM! I believe that arts are fundamental for adequate growth, learning and understanding."

At the conference, Johnson was inspired to establish an ASTEP chapter at WCU, “so we can do more service as a department with the outside community.” She met other student artists who “already have chapters at their schools. Some are out of school and doing the work, others are teaching artists. I was surrounded by people in love with the arts, who want to change the world… .” Johnson has already sought advice from those with ASTEP chapters on their campuses “to see what steps they've taken at their schools” so she can prepare to launch a WCU chapter.

ASTEP's Artist As Citizen Conference chooses participants ages 18 to 25 based on a number of factors, the two most significant being an evident desire to serve the world through art, and the proven capacity to follow through on one's creative impulses. With speakers, seminars, workshops, and plan-building, the program supports participants with the skills to connect the work they do in the arts with the change they want to see happen.

Johnson was awarded the scholarship when she represented the University's Department of Theatre and Dance at this spring's Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival (KCACTF) National Conference.