Social Entrepreneurship in the Arts

Three ideas for student projects that can make a difference.

January 15, 2015
Donald Peters
Classroom teacher

CATEGORIES Out-of-School Learning, In the Classroom

Social entrepreneurship is a hot topic in education right now. The idea that students can identify and solve social problems isn't new. But as more teachers look for ways to combine in-class learning with real-world impact, student projects that extend the learning beyond the classroom walls are gaining momentum. And with the explosion of technology in our homes and classrooms, kids have more knowledge of global issues than ever before. Through innovative student projects, kids are raising awareness for communities across the globe by partnering with local, national, and global nonprofits. In addition, they're working to identify problems in their own communities and finding innovative solutions.

I asked more 6,000 art teachers (I belong to a Facebook group of art teachers) from across the country and around the world how their students are becoming social entrepreneurs. If you're looking to introduce student art projects that have meaningful, real-world impact, here are a few ideas to consider.

The Empty Bowls Project is one of the most well-known projects that helps people in your local community. Anyone can organize an "empty bowls" event, which involves creating ceramic bowls and selling them with a bowl of soup to raise money for a local food bank. I heard about students as young as kindergarten all the way up through high school organizing and participating in these fundraisers. Connie R. Berger, art teacher at Cheltenham High School in Wyncote, Pennsylvania, says, "It is so apparent that students are energized by creating art that can help others. When students are authentically invested in their work, it really shows." At Millis High School in Millis, Massachusetts, art teacher Carol Haggerty said they “switched it up” last year and did ice cream instead of soup to raise money for the Millis Food Bank.

Homes for Haiti through the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund is another project that is easy for students to get involved in. Kids raise money to help build homes for the poor in Haiti. Under the guidance of art teacher Joy Schultz, students at Episcopal Collegiate School in Little Rock, Arkansas, have raised more than $60,000 for this charity and have been honored by Bill Clinton for their work. They have made and sold "houses" at street fairs and raised funds through a recycled fashion show called "curbside couture," in which students designed and created clothing using recycled materials. Students worked after school and on weekends to finish their fashions, which culminated in a runway show at the Clinton Library.


The Memory Project pairs art students with kids who have been neglected, orphaned, or disadvantaged in some way. Teachers and/or students pay $15 for a photo of a child, and the students create a portrait of that child no larger than 9" x 12" on paper or canvas. The organizers of this project ask that only intermediate to advanced art students create the portraits by hand, with beginning students encouraged to create digital collages instead. Once the portraits are created, the teacher sends the completed artworks back, and the student artist receives a photo of the child receiving the artwork they created of them. Students of art teacher Laurie Kahn, at Rosylyn High School in Rosylyn Heights, New York, participate in The Memory Project with amazing results.

What are other ways you foster social entrepreneurship? Tell us in the comments below!