Intersections Preview: An Interview with Presenter Susan Oetgen

As we prepare for the 2016 VSA Intersections: Arts and Special Education Conference, we are highlighting presenters and sharing information about their sessions. This month, we feature Susan Oetgen, who is co-presenting a session entitled “Students at the Center: Youth Leadership, Self-Determination & the Arts in DC Secondary Transition Initiatives.”


A headshot of Susan Oetgen

Susan Oetgen

Office of VSA and Accessibility: Tell us a bit about yourself and your work in this field.

Susan Oetgen: My work focuses on providing professional development, designing programs, and facilitating interagency collaborations in the arts and special education. I currently consult with SchoolTalk, a nonprofit that prevents and resolves special education conflict in the District of Columbia. At SchoolTalk, I provide leadership in the integration of the arts into a range of direct service programs and interagency initiatives with and for students with disabilities, as well as support the development of operational and strategic goals for the organization. I also work with the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies as Professional Development Institute Manager, where I coordinate the professional development activities of state arts agency arts education managers. Prior to 2014, I lived in Brooklyn, New York, where I was an artist, teaching artist, manager, facilitator and coach with a variety of performing arts and arts education organizations.


VSA and Accessibility: What can conference-goers expect to learn or experience in your session? What do you hope attendees take away from your session?

Otegen: I hope attendees come away from our session feeling inspired and curious about the potential partnerships among arts education and special education stakeholders that very likely already exist in their own communities, and feeling confident that they have some new tools and resources (or at the very least, ideas) for jumpstarting those partnerships. I have been so inspired by the can-do spirit and incredible collaboration that I’ve witnessed here in DC among members of the DC Secondary Transition Community of Practice (CoP). This is a group of colleagues from different government agencies, DC public and charter schools, higher education institutions, nonprofit organizations, and community service providers, and, as often as possible, students themselves, who meet monthly to keep chipping away at the city-wide challenges that too many of our high school students face as they prepare to transition to their post-school life.

Even more importantly, I hope attendees come away with a clear vision of how arts engagement and education can help students attain their transition goals by teaching self-advocacy skills and promoting self-determination. Within the DC Secondary Transition CoP, there have been numerous opportunities—and extensive support—to introduce the arts as a pathway for developing self-determination into the collaborative programs and projects that SchoolTalk facilitates on behalf of the CoP with and for our young people. My colleague Sarah Grime (Program Director, Youth Leadership) and I are excited to share with VSA Intersections conference-goers stories of the exciting work that has taken place this year within our local context of partnerships, and to unpack specific examples of programs and activities that we have found to be successful in our efforts to integrate arts into self-advocacy and transition curricula.


VSA and Accessibility: As you know, a primary focus of the VSA Intersections conference is to advance the field of arts and special education. What do you view as the most important driver in this work?

Otegen: Simply put: the youth! The young people we serve are the most important drivers in this work. In my work at both SchoolTalk and at the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, I am afforded the unique position of seeing what the intersection of arts and special education might look like at the hyper-local all the way to the federal level. Every day I am motivated and encouraged by the work of so many colleagues across the District, across the states, and in federal and national positions who ensure that students’ voices are heard loud and clear in our efforts to advance this field.


VSA and Accessibility: What is the most meaningful learning you’ve taken away from previous VSA Intersections conferences, and what do you hope to take away from this year’s conference?

 Otegen: This will be my third time attending the VSA Intersections conference and I’m looking forward to seeing colleagues from around the country and catching up on the great work I know they are deeply involved in during the year.  I find it very valuable to attend VSA Intersections so I can learn about new initiatives and programs, but I find it even more energizing to see how colleagues are sustaining and deepening their programs, finding new solutions to ongoing challenges, and generally persevering in their efforts to intersect arts and special education productively, day by day, month by month, and year by year. Especially in light of the changes in federal and state education policy that we will all contend with in the coming years due to the passage and implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), as well as the outcome of the presidential election, I’m hoping to learn about how colleagues are planning to take advantage of potential new policy windows and/or maneuver through shifting political landscapes with grace and ingenuity. VSA Intersections is definitely a highlight of my professional year and I’m looking forward to traveling to Pittsburgh to present and attend!


Susan Oetgen and Sarah Grime will present “Students at the Center: Youth Leadership, Self-Determination & the Arts in DC Secondary Transition Initiatives” at the 2016 VSA Intersections: Arts and Special Education conference on Tuesday, August 2, 2016.

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