Undercover spy shop? Or super cool free writing program?

Yesterday, while wandering around my friend Meghan’s Chicago neighborhood, I stumbled across this awesome storefront:

In case you can’t read all the tiny print, this sign is freaking hilarious.  It also happens to be a front for the super cool organization, 826Chi – the local branch of a national organization that is “dedicated to supporting students ages 6 to 18 with their creative and expository writing skills, and to helping teachers inspire their students to write.” (excerpt from 826Chi’s mission statement on their website)

I’d heard rumors about this organization before, but had no idea how incredibly cool they were – I’m so glad I stumbled upon their store yesterday!  There is an actual store inside this building, selling all kinds of spy paraphernalia and other products, with the proceeds going directly to the programs that they offer.  I bought a compilation of writings by 826Chi’s students, a wonderful collection of funny, poignant, adventuresome stories written by 2nd graders up to 12th graders.  Behind the store is their classroom space, where they offer all kinds of exciting writing workshops.

Can’t wait to check out their New York branch – apparently it’s called “The Super Hero Supply Store!”

Spotlight: Moviemiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana – San Jose, CA

It was just a handful of youth, but the words coming out of their mouths were powerful, funny, heart-breaking, inspiring. Gathered under the shade of a few trees in a small park bordered by city streets, these youth fought the noise of a nearby construction site to make their voices heard. They represent the multicultural population of San Jose, California, and they are part of MACLA – Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana, an “inclusive contemporary arts space grounded in the Chicano/Latino experience that incubates new visual, literary and performance art in order to engage people in civic dialogue and community transformation.”

This past Saturday I attended Mi Palabra, a monthly youth-run open mic series that just recently got started at MACLA.  Though the group was small, it was very welcoming, and there was a variety of talent to be seen.  Most people shared spoken word pieces, and two youth collaborated on a song.  They even invited me to perform, though I hadn’t come prepared (that’s where cell phones and websites come in handy…).


After the event, as I sat in the office chatting with Rhiannon Beltran, Programs and Curatorial Assistant, one of the youth came in, and they started discussing the low attendance at the event.  She was concerned that no one was coming because it was the timing was bad, but Rhiannon was insistent that they just needed to strategize and do better outreach so people would know it was happening.  She told the girl (paraphrased), “Let’s work on this together. You and I and the Program Coordinator need to sit down and rethink our recruitment strategy. I’m going to make sure you have access to all the resources we have and that you have everything you need to make this a success.”  It amazed me how with just a few words she made the girl an equal partner in the process, gave her a large amount of responsibility, and also an offer of complete support.

MACLA is an organization that, like a few of the others I’ve visited, serves a variety of functions, and operates in many senses like an arts-focused community center.  In addition to their youth programs they have an art gallery, they have a black box theater that serves both as a presenting space for touring performers and community events as well as a performance venue for their own productions, and they run a variety of programs that do community development through the arts.

They have an interesting history, in that they were created in the late 80’s as “the result of a broad community mobilization in the City of San Jose and nationwide on behalf of multicultural arts” (MACLA’s website).  Around that time someone realized that, though a fair amount of money was being set aside for the arts in San Jose, the bulk of that money was going to for-profit, high end arts venues that 1. primarily served an elite population and 2. didn’t really need the money, as they had a strong foundation of private donors.  As a result, MACLA was created out of some of that excess money, to fill the need for a strong local arts organization focusing on the multicultural community.

So if you ever find yourself in the Bay Area, be sure to check them out!

Some overdue highlights from LA

Despite the fact that I have been in the Bay area for a week now, I just loaded my most recent photos onto the computer and realized how much I never wrote about LA!  So here are some highlights from my time there, for your viewing pleasure.

Also, please take a look at the (recently updated) Directory of Organizations page to learn more about all the wonderful organizations I’ve been coming across, as well as my new Photos page, where you can see the complete collection of photos from each city I’ve visited so far.  Enjoy!

Casa 0101 - a theatre company based in Boyle Heights, started by Josefina Lopez (of Real Women Have Curves)

The wonderful Boyle Heights farmer's market, complete with a young, hip group performing traditional Mexican music. That neighborhood is really undergoing a cultural revival!

ArtShare Los Angeles - another great youth-focused arts org. They offer classes in theatre, dance, and visual arts, focused on developing youth as professional artists.

Free movie by the Echo Park Film Cooperative's Film-Mobile! We saw a great movie (Hito Hata?) Filmed partially on that very spot 30 years ago.

Rizza, my new friend from couchsurfing, and I at the free movie in Little Tokyo (and enjoying our free Pocky snacks!)

Protection, or barrier?

This past Saturday, I visited a youth program run by Teatro ChUSMA in Los Angeles.  It was a group of young teenagers who are all connected to arthritis or cancer in some way – whether they are fighting the disease themselves or a relative of theirs is.  They have spent the past 10 Saturdays together, playing theatre games and practicing creativity, learning how to make their voices heard and how to make the best use of their bodies for expression.

And yet, there were still so many of them who could not perform in an improv game without giggling – if they got up the courage to join in, in the first place.  It reminded me of how self-conscious we all are at that stage of life, how fragile our egos, and how concerned we are with every step we take, for fear that someone will see us trip. We, in our efforts to appear “cool,” walk through life with our fists up, prepared to battle off any potential offenders, or at the very least to provide a shield to protect ourselves.

In doing so, how many opportunities for discovery and wonder do we prevent ourselves from seeing?  Spoken word poet Sarah Kay addresses this topic beautifully (among many others) in this TED talk I came across yesterday, which I highly recommend that you watch.  It is so important that we help our young people take their guards down, at least a little, both so they can see the beautiful things in this world but also so that they can develop healthy modes of expression. Many of us eventually grow out of this guarded, fists-up way of navigating the world, but I have met too many – particularly young, urban men – who never learn other ways of seeing things and remain unable to express themselves truly.

Girl Power!

Catfish in Balmorhea Springs Pool, my campsite in the deserts of west Texas

Dear oh deary me! It’s been almost a whole week since I last posted!  Apologies for letting time get away from me – I spent the first 2.5 days this week traveling across the desert from Austin to LA and camping along the way – needless to say I did not have internet access, let alone could I charge my computer!  Upon arriving in LA, I checked into a hostel, which, while full of lovely international peeps, was a mite bit crowded and had REEEEEEALLY slow internet.  Plus I think I was catching up on sleep lost while on the road, and adjusting to the two hour time difference.  At long last, I have found a lovely co-op which has taken me in, and am starting to get settled into life in LA.

Ok, enough with the excuses.  Time to get you all caught up!  Today I’d like to spotlight one of the very coolest organizations that I checked out while I was in Austin: Grrl Action!

Program format: Arts mentorship program.
Art form(s):
Primarily theatre, but incorporates many different art forms.
Location:
Austin, TX
Community served:
Girls roughly between the ages of 13-18.
Mission:
To help teenage girls find voice and vision through the power of performance.

Grrl Action is an awesome program that focuses on developing artistic/theatre skills in teenage girls, and in doing so helping them to find their voice.  They are a subsidiary program of the Rude Mechs professional theatre company.  Two cool things about their program: 1. It’s a very safe space for girls to come together and explore things that are important to them, and 2. They have a great mix of girls – because of their connection with Rude Mechs, they get daughters of patrons of the theatre, but they also offer full scholarships and work with public housing, so they get girls from lower income backgrounds as well.  The girls learn a lot from each other and really seem to open up and blossom in the space.

A key philosophy shared with me by co-director Madge Darlington was actress Deb Margolin’s idea that, “Your everyday lives are worthy of performance. Everyone has a story to tell.”  I really connect with what this organization is doing because it resonates so much with what theatre did for me, but it takes it to the next level.  Theatre gave me a voice, it was an outlet for me to experience the world and learn to feel comfortable in my own skin.  Yet this idea that “your everyday lives are worthy of performance” goes a step further: it encourages girls to find the value in their own lives, to examine what they have experienced, learn from it, and create something beautiful to share with the world.

Cool news: a sister branch of Grrl Action is in the works for Boston!

Spotlight: The Neighborhood Story Project

Program format: School and community-based writing workshops, culminating in published books
Art form(s):
Writing, photojournalism
Location:
New Orleans
Community served:
New Orleans’ 7th ward – primarily high school students.
Mission:
Our stories told by us.

The Neighborhood Story Project (NSP) is a unique documentary book-making project that takes the idea of personal/community storytelling to a whole new level.  They began about seven years ago when, while running a writing workshop in one of the most underprivileged high schools in New Orleans, founders Abram Shalom Himelstein and Rachel Breunlin realized that the students in their class had really important stories to tell.

The typical student books

Based in New Orleans’ 7th ward, NSP primarily works with high school students, but also offers workshops and collaborates on projects with other members of the community.  They begin by focusing on writing practice, encouraging their students to write and journal about their own lives.  After they have written a fairly substantial amount of material, they begin to gain perspective on who and what the major players and events are in their lives.  At this point they also begin to work on some photojournalism and interview projects in addition to the writing, focusing in on the discoveries they’ve made about who and what is important to them.

Book created in partnership with Ronald Lewis, a Mardi Gras Indian and resident of the Lower Ninth Ward, about his incredible collection of Mardi Gras memorabilia

The result? A beautiful, professionally published book.  The first set of books that the NSP published came out right before Hurricane Katrina, and at the time they were the second best seller in the city – behind only Harry Potter!  The students also have the option of purchasing an unlimited quantity of their own books at $5 a piece, which they can then go out and sell themselves at the full retail value of $15 – a big profit for the student.

To view (and purchase!) any of their books, visit the Neighborhood Story Project website.

Spotlight: Ashe Cultural Arts Center

A performance at Ashe

Program format: Arts-focused community center offering a variety of programming to serve people of all ages, cultivating and honoring community through the arts and culture. In addition to workshops, they also serve as a presenting space.

Art form(s): All forms, but primarily performance arts such as theatre and dance.

Location: New Orleans

Community served: New Orleans’ Central City neighborhood.

Mission: During this Post Hurricane Katrina recovery phase, to serve as:

  • A community-based center for ReBuild New Orleans activities
  • A strong advocate for culture, community and justice principles in the ReBuild New Orleans effort
  • A leader in the strategy to re-populate the Central City neighborhood with it’s former residents, and other like-minded neighbors who will work with us to establish a community that respects the values of diversity, justice, cultural fabric, strong families, strong educational resources, youth development, and a robust economy available to all
  • A producer and presenter of multi-disciplinary cultural art works throughout the New Orleans Diaspora (Katrina evacuee locations) that inform and guide the consciousness of community, public policymakers, and business leaders about ReBuild New Orleans issues; and
  • Support and assistance for New Orleans artists and culture bearers in their efforts to resume their lives and careers

The Ashe Cultural Arts Center is truly a gathering place for the community they serve.  In the week that I was in New Orleans I attended an end-of-year performance by the Young Audiences youth, a bi-weekly health/dance workshop for women, and a celebration of the Freedom Riders coming to New Orleans, all in Ashe’s space.  In addition to the things I was able to attend, I missed the Kuumba Institute, Ashe’s youth arts education program that runs on Saturdays.

Not only does Ashe provide a wide diversity of programs for the community to participate in, they also have their own nationally recognized theatre troupe, which most recently created a production in partnership with Eve Ensler, of the Vagina Monologues. They maintain a very strong presence in the Central City community – they are at the table of virtually any meeting that takes place regarding their community. This enables them to both remain aware of the current issues of concern (and incorporate this into their performances and programs) but also to remain a trusted face, and to gather support for whatever they decide to work on.

Executive Director Carol Bebelle puts a strong emphasis on the role of culture in their work.  She talks about culture as the origin of art, of creativity, and the idea that every social space has a culture.  It is important to first recognize the culture of the community in which you work, and figure out how to best teach what you need to teach within that cultural environment. She brings up the difficulty of getting past the idea many people have that “artists” are these special creatures and only they can practice art.  Everyone has a creative path, and the importance of this work is in helping people to find that path.