by Ariel Messman-Rucker
[dropcap]O[/dropcap]nly a few months ago, the long-held dream of finding a spacious art studio in Berkeley to help increasing numbers of low-income and homeless youth explore their artistic creativity was only that — a dream.
This particular dream seemed to fly in the face of the real world, and was in danger of being grounded by the cost of real estate. Yet Youth Spirit Artworks held onto their hopes of expanding to provide arts programs and job training for the growing number of homeless youth living on the streets, trapped in at-risk neighborhoods, and attending local area high schools.
This month, in a sudden turn-around, this unlikely vision began to unexpectedly materialize in Berkeley.
The young artists and staff organizers of Youth Spirit Artworks began laying the foundations for their vision by moving into a new and bigger space on October 1 that will allow the organization to help a larger number of impoverished youth learn new skills and create beautiful artwork for the Berkeley community.
Youth Spirit Artworks (YSA) is a nonprofit job-training program that uses art to better the lives of low-income and homeless youth, ages 16-25. Youth are granted stipends to help support themselves while they move through the program, creating art and developing leadership and entrepreneurial skills.
“Our mission is to use art jobs and job training as a vehicle for empowering and transforming the lives of homeless and low-income young people,” said YSA Executive Director Sally Hindman.
Now that the young artists are “graduating” into a larger and better workspace, it is hard to believe that just months ago the idea of moving into a more spacious studio was a dream that Hindman thought would have to be put on hold for the foreseeable future because of budget constraints.
It wasn’t until she found a site with a reasonable rent, and then an artistically based web company stepped in and offered to sublease a portion of the space, that this dream became a reality.
Maheesh Jain, the founding president of YSA, approached Hindman with the idea of his company, 3rd Revolution, an innovative web company that showcases the work of artists, subleasing a portion of the space to offset their costs.
“The process has been truly grace-filled,” Hindman said. “Everything has fallen into place super easily and simply for Youth Spirit. We are grateful to everyone involved.”
The new building is located at 1740 Alcatraz Avenue, across the street from Youth Spirit Artwork’s old studio, and has twice as much space and a large parking lot. Acquiring a bigger studio not only allows YSA to expand the type of artwork they can create, but also means they now have the space necessary to take more underprivileged youth into their program.
“We will have a ton more space for youth to use when they make art and we will be able to diversify the artistic mediums we can pursue, like adding silk screening,” Hindman said.
YSA was recently awarded a $50,000 grant by the Berkeley City Council to enable them to increase the number of youth who can be a part of their program each year. Now that they have a bigger space to accommodate more students, everything is falling into place for an organization that has been helping underprivileged and street youth in the Bay Area since 2007.
In order to receive the grant from the city, Youth Spirit Artworks joined forces with Berkeley’s 2020 Vision program, which is a community-wide effort to put an end to academic achievement disparities between different races, ethnicities and income levels in Berkeley.
As part of 2020 Vision, YSA will use the increase in funds to take more homeless and low-income youth into their program, specifically from Berkeley High School and Berkeley Technical Academy, and increase their involvement with the McKinney-Vento support staff within those schools. The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act was one of the first federal programs to provide money for programs supporting homeless people on a nationwide level.
“It worked out great,” Hindman said. “It fulfilled the goal that [Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates] had to work on closing the achievement gap and then, for us, it allowed us to build staffing into our budget that we really need for being successful.”
YSA is planning to hire a half-time program coordinator/youth advocate to help better serve the high school students coming into YSA from the 2020 Vision program, but the position is one Hindman has wanted to hire for a long time because it will add an extra layer of support for the youth in her program.
Not much else within Youth Spirit Artworks will need to change to accommodate the new students because the program is already equipped to handle the needs of young people who are dealing with poverty and may be struggling in school, she said.
Once a young person starts at YSA, they go through an orientation and training program, then senior artist Victor Mavedzenge teaches ongoing art classes that they participate in. Each YSA artist begins as an aspirant and, as they reach their goals, they graduate to the next rung on the progression ladder until they become a junior artist, a position that comes with much more responsibility.
Each junior artist becomes a mentor to an aspirant, something the young people at YSA take very seriously. Not only do the mentors help their aspirant set and reach their goals within the program, but they become a friend and source of support within the YSA community.
“I like the fact that I have people who can trust me with their information and feel that I am trustworthy enough for them to let me into their lives, help them with their issues and help them prosper and go forward with their life — I like that,” said Toryanna Finley, a junior artist who has mentored multiple aspirants during her time at YSA.
Esperanza Bey, a 17-year-old aspirant who joined YSA earlier this year, has benefited greatly from the one-on-one guidance and support she has gotten from her peer mentor.
“It was really good,” Bey said, “especially in the beginning when I first moved out here, they were asking me all these question to see where I am. They get really involved, help you open up and it’s really confidential. It’s like having an extra person watch over you. It especially helps with people who don’t have like an older brother or older sister to talk to.”
The young artists not only learn practical vocational skills through the use of the commercial arts and money management training while they’re at YSA, but they are also given the opportunity to grow as individuals and become part of a loving and supportive community that models healthy behaviors and choices.
“YSA is a safe space where youth can practice being in a healthy environment when they haven’t been in that kind of environment previously and practice reconciling when there are conflicts and using nonviolent communication and being in a loving community, like a healthy family would be,” Hindman said.
The youth in YSA take great pride in the work that they create, such as unique paintings on tote bags, T-shirts, candles and mugs which are then sold to the public. Fifty percent of the profits go back into the program and the rest goes directly to the young artists.
“At all of those different points on the progression ladder, they make more money and they have more responsibility levels,” Hindman said. “By the time you become junior artists, you’re making what would be the equivalent of minimum wage as a stipend, and all along the progression ladder, everybody gets to keep a portion of the proceeds of everything that they sell.”
Creating artwork is a great way for young people to express themselves and work out the emotional and social issues they are battling, she said. Each student has a unique perspective often not seen or recognized by society. Selling beautiful works of art is a great way to bridge that gap and open the eyes of people who may disregard or avoid homeless youth otherwise.
“It’s such a vehicle for healing that it’s just perfect that they be involved in making art,” Hindman said. “Also, it really is a way of making their voices heard so that they can say the things that they want to say as youth. That’s really central to what we’re doing. The world needs to know what they are experiencing and what they are feeling and what it’s like being them. So they are communicating a message about who youth are and what youth are going through.”
The youth sell their artwork from the storefront at their studio on Alcatraz Avenue, at farmers markets, in front of the Berkeley Bowl, and at other places around town, often using the bicycle-driven “art cart” they unveiled this past summer. They also sell art at community events and at monthly poetry slams where young artists perform their poetry live.
“I’m in charge of sales,” junior artist Omar Bagent said. “So I make sure I go out to sales every day and I make sure that everybody sells. I manage the sales team and make sure we go out to the Berkeley Bowl or the farmer’s market four days a week, Monday through Thursday.”
Bagent, 18, who wasn’t very interested in art when a friend referred him to YSA close to a year ago, has discovered he is passionate about graphic design and now plans to pursue it as a career. As a double junior artist, Bagent works at YSA for three hours, six times a week, and the money he has earned has allowed him to save for his future and purchase a laptop computer that he is using to learn graphic design.
“If you would never have come to Youth Spirit Artworks, you would have probably not found out that that’s what you’re good at and that’s what you like,” Bagent said. “We’re basically a stepping stone for the future.”
The organization also works on bigger art projects around the Bay Area that teach the youth new skills and push them to reach out to their community. On September 28, YSA unveiled their newest mural, titled “Agua Es Vida” which was painted on a building at the corner of Sacramento and Alcatraz near their studio. And they have plans to paint two murals on the outside of their new building.
The “Agua Es Vida” mural is an extraordinarily beautiful artwork designed by YSA Senior Artist Pancho Pescador. Pescador is the creative artist who also designed several other murals and projects for Youth Spirit Artworks, and has done mural projects for other community groups in the Bay Area. The mural shows the ecological connections and wondrous variety of life on planet Earth. A mermaid embraces a dolphin under the watchful eyes of elephants and bears. An eye-opening array of hummingbirds, zebras, giraffes and black panthers offer the viewer a revelation of the amazing diversity of the life-force of wild nature. And the mural’s brilliant colors help beautify the drab gray street.
The young artists are also starting to lead tile-making workshops in and around Berkeley so that the public can get involved in creating their next piece of large-scale community artwork.
These ceramic tiles will be used to create two large, arched, mosaic-tile signs which will be installed at two different intersections near Malcolm X Elementary School to help make the crosswalks safer, a project they decided to take on after an YSA youth’s sister was injured when she was hit by a car while leaving school.
Taking part in creating bigger, community-driven art projects teaches the youth to take pride in making their neighborhoods better places to live. In addition, YSA does a lot of local social justice work which shows the youth that they have the power to make changes by getting involved and becoming leaders.
“[Youth Spirit Artworks] is a really great community and it’s also really involved in doing social justice work,” Hindman said. “So youth have a leadership role in all kinds of organizing activities that they get involved with — that they decide to get involved with — and then decide how to participate in.”
Last year, Youth Spirit Artworks was heavily involved in fighting against Measure S, the anti-homeless ordinance which was defeated by Berkeley voters, thanks to the work of groups like YSA.
In 2012, the youth created a tile mural as a way to educate the public about the severe health disparity between low-income and wealthy residents in Berkeley. And now the young artists have decided that they want to join the Western Regional Advocacy Project, an alliance of West Coast homeless organizing groups that work together to fight against the civil rights abuses of people experiencing homelessness and poverty.
The young people at YSA are uniquely equipped to work on these issues because they themselves have dealt with varying degrees of poverty and homelessness.
Hindman says most of the youth in her program are struggling with finding housing and many of them survive by couch surfing, constantly moving from one place to the next. “Housing is just this huge, horrible, horrible crisis and so our youth are generally really in a horrible crisis of housing,” she said. “It’s just awful and has a really big impact.”
For many, their housing situation is very tenuous and every winter Hindman finds herself having to drive her young artists to YEAH, a seasonal homeless shelter for youth in the Bay Area.
You can hear the frustration and desperation in Hindman’s voice as she explains the problems facing youth in need of a place to live. “They are just in really, really dire straits and we have a really hard time figuring out how to help them with that because there is nothing to say, there is nothing we can do,” she said. “It just makes me completely crazy.”
But she is ever optimistic that her program and others like it are helping these young people who society has ignored get support and a healthy footing in life.
“A huge percentage of the population in the East Bay, especially youth, are struggling with unemployment and poverty and homelessness and so this is an opportunity for really building up your experience, building up your work experience, learning how to work, really getting your act together with your resume and all of that to really go to the next level in terms of what you want to do,” she said.