Tiffany Owens

Tiffany Owens: Collaborating with Others to Change the Arts Education Landscape 

Throughout her life, the artist, educator, and Individualized Master of Arts (IMA) alum Tiffany Owens has been deeply influenced by spaces on the borders that straddle divides. “I am a person who has always lived in liminal spaces—racially, socioeconomically, educationally, and between artistry and bureaucracy,” explains Owens, who today serves as Program Director of P.S. ARTS, a nonprofit that brings arts education to over 30,000 public school students in the greater Los Angeles area.

As the Programs Director for P.S. ARTS, Owens guides conversations across different disciplines, interests, identities, and institutional departments. She draws on her background in the performing arts and her extensive and multifaceted career in education to do so. “In a way,” says Owens, “I fulfilled a childhood dream of being a translator and interpreter. I just don’t happen to work at the UN. My translation interpretation skills are that I have fluency in practicing professional artistry and educational bureaucracy, and I bridge those spaces all day long.”

Owens grew up in a house with shelves lined with books and walls enlivened by framed replicas of art her parents had seen while traveling through Europe before she was born. Michelangelo’s Pietà loomed over her every day and has now found a place amongst her own collection of art, which contains more varied expressions of the human experience than only those that get included in the so-called “canon of Western art.” 

Making space for more perspectives to hang on the wall is not only a metaphor. Owens has dedicated a large swath of her professional career to using the arts and creative methodologies to create spaces where showing up in all the nuances of who you are is more than enough. In part, this stems from her own positive experience of learning through and with the arts. “Like countless people before me,” says Owens, “I’ll say that the arts opened up a way to have a purpose in the world that was not available to me anywhere else.”

Early Experiences Navigating Education

For Owens, the world of performing arts has long offered a more authentic approach to self-expression than traditional education systems ever did. This goes back to her childhood when her parents instilled a desire that continues to shape how Owens moves through her environments: the desire to view the world from and through as many perspectives as possible.

As a child, Owens spent hours flipping through her mother’s thoughtfully curated albums of photos, postcards, and museum clippings—windows into worlds that reached far beyond the town of Lompoc, California, where Owens experienced what she calls a small-town upbringing. Owens’ mother had also grown up in a small town—hers was a farm town in Iowa—before moving to Minneapolis to become a med tech and x-ray tech. Owens’ father, meanwhile, was raised in West Baltimore, and one of his formative experiences was being the first person of color to ever participate in Boys Nation, the selective annual forum run by the American Legion. He later enlisted in the military and completed two tours of duty in Vietnam. 

The stories of Owens’ parents converged in the 1960s when they met in Honolulu, Hawaii. In the early years of their life together, they lived among people from a wide range of backgrounds, a detail that profoundly impacted their lives and shaped Owens’ life.

Owens’ parents celebrated the multiplicity of heritages and languages in their Lompoc home. They taught her to lead with cultural curiosity and humility. They valued creativity and creative critical thinking. This rich tapestry of family life often rubbed against her broader life in Lompoc. As a public school student in the 1970s and ’80s, Owens navigated education systems where notions of standardized learning prevailed. Divergent thinkers like Owens often found themselves marginalized. Furthermore, she was a biracial kid in a society that prioritized whiteness. She describes this period in her education as feast or famine: teachers either lauded her or thought she was average at best. She says, “Now, as a long-time educator, I can look back and go, ‘Wow, it’s amazing I got through the system at all, given all the different aspects that make up my identity.’” 

Years later, while finishing her undergraduate degree at Antioch University, as she studied with faculty including MeHee Hyun, Andrea Richards, and Donald Strauss, internalized narratives that made her doubt her capacity as a student changed. 

The way these Antioch educators approached teaching gave Owens a different vantage, shifting how she viewed herself as a student and altering her experience of education. “It turns out I’m actually a spectacular student, really good at learning,” she says. The real problem, she explains, was that “I hadn’t had the opportunity to be taught by people who saw me the way these professors at Antioch did.” 

Performing Arts as Education: How the Conservatory Shaped Owens’ Teaching Philosophy

Years before Owens came to study at Antioch, her talent in the performing arts led her to the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts. This two-year, highly intensive program became a fundamentally formative experience that gave breadth to what education could look and feel like. 

The Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts is a two-year program for training theater artists that layers classroom learning with professional experience. Owens attended classes six days a week while also working for the theater company. Her days were dynamic and long, often spanning more than twelve hours of moving between classes and working different sides of company productions. In this immersive and intense approach to learning, Owens found a community that resonated with her. “On a personal level,” says Owens, “I got to experience belonging in a community that, despite its imperfections, felt like being with my people.” This was one of the first times Owens experienced a strong sense of belonging within the context of education.

As someone who is enmeshed in learning environments and devoted to creating ones that accommodate diverse learning styles, Owens reflects on what was unique about her experience at the conservatory: 

“As a learning environment, it was completely different from any learning environment I had been in because it was about theater. It was about telling stories of lived experiences, actually keeping the mind and body connected. It was about working collaboratively toward a common goal rather than just individual notions of winning or achieving. Theater doesn’t really work if the goals and approaches aren’t collective. Good theater is communal. It was certainly not about sitting still all the time and being quiet. It was about creative problem solving and celebration rather than being quiet and being the same as everyone else.”

Paying attention to what stories are told and who decides what stories get uplifted, Owens learned about power dynamics. She also experienced how misogyny and racism can take many forms beyond the headline-grabbing kind. In the inherently collaborative environment of theater, Owens developed a strong sense of how to communicate and navigate social and interpersonal dynamics where many personalities, interests, and opinions were present. She learned the importance of an embodied approach to education. 

Owens carried these foundations into classroom teaching, which somewhat fell into her lap a few years later. While teaching, she gleaned yet another side of the education ecosystem. She considered the different ways she could show up for her students so that they could center their own interests, identities, and experiences. 

Owens taught middle-school drama before becoming the English Department Chair at Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. Over a decade of classroom teaching across different grade levels gave her pedagogical experience, which launched her into yet another side of education and her career: curriculum design. 

Curriculum design and professional development for educators through the arts provided another way for Owens to bring together her interest in education and her love for art. Theater and classroom teaching taught her that creative methodologies and creative-critical thought have the potential to transform educational settings by offering students different pathways to access learning. Finding ways to weave these approaches into different subjects through curriculum was a creative challenge Owens embraced. “I am not in love with the traditional education system, but I think that meaningful, authentic arts learning can make it much, much better,” says Owens.

Owens went on to serve as Curriculum Designer for Literature for Life, which designs curricula based on contemporary written literature. Later, she found a place for herself as District Arts Education Specialist for South Pasadena Unified School District, designing arts curricula for students from K-12. In 2012, Owens was appointed to the Pasadena Arts and Culture Commission, and she served there for six years, the last two as chairperson. 

Educational Challenges Lead to Innovative Pedagogy

Tiffany Owens

During the pandemic, Owens returned to Antioch to finish a master’s degree she began at California State University, Los Angeles. Extenuating family circumstances had led Owens to pause her studies at Cal State LA, where she was only months away from taking the final comprehensive exams to complete a degree in cultural anthropology. Later, when Owens returned to Cal State LA, hoping to finish her degree, she encountered the rigid education system she had been so familiar with in her adolescence. “With life responsibilities—I was caring for an elderly parent and had some health challenges myself—and as an educator, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to revisit my entire graduate degree in six weeks to prepare appropriately for the comprehensive exams,” says Owens. And, she adds, “there was no wiggle room offered.” 

Owens decided that if she were going to complete her degree, it would be at Antioch. She applied to and enrolled in Antioch’s Individualized Master of Arts (IMA) program. The degree’s self-designed nature allowed Owens to draw on her extensive experience and strong intellectual interests to create and select courses that resonated with her unique learning trajectory. Unlike traditional programs with fixed curricula, the IMA offered Owens the flexibility to tailor her courses to her interests and values. 

“The IMA’s pedagogical model is: bring your learned experience because you have moved through so many different spaces with your identity,” says Owens. That is exactly what she did. 

Owens’ IMA degree unfolded at the confluence of the arts, linguistics, and education. Her coursework was guided by questions like: What forms can communication take to encompass diverse learning styles? How can language that conveys power and authority also convey inclusion, invitation, and acceptance? How can educators encourage students to construct meaning from their experiences? How do we ask students to conduct themselves, and why? 

For her final capstone project, Owens showcased how different art and the performing arts are valuable in providing various pathways for students to connect deeply with academic content.

Owens says, “My capstone project revolved around offering, demonstrating, and modeling lesson techniques, exercises, and activities that engaged learners intellectually through approaches that drew on the performing arts. Learning has to be verbal-linguistic, yes, but it also has to be auditory, visual, and interpersonal. Students need to absolutely get up and move their bodies, so it needs to be movement-based. You know, we’re not physically, biologically, or intellectually designed to sit still for eight hours daily with all our joints at right angles.”

Owens continues to consider how classrooms, curriculum, and teaching methods might change if body movement were integral to classroom dynamics. Furthermore, what if educators led with the idea that there are many ways to make meaning and saw their role as being to guide students to find a path that works best for them? 

In her current work, Owens dispels models of education that center on a single or dominant perspective. She collaborates with many people to introduce approaches to teaching that not only invite multiple perspectives into the classroom but also respond to the many perspectives that already exist in a classroom. 

Antioch was one educational setting where Owens saw the importance of creating spaces where everyone can show up as they are—and it’s a place to which she has returned to keep exploring and developing her own pedagogical theories. In her work today at P.S. ARTS, she shows that these ideas can impact the lives of thousands, even tens of thousands, of other students on their own educational journeys.

To learn more about the IMA Program vist here.