MMI: Let’s start with a bit of background on Creative Action. Tell me about the organization’s work, a little about the history and how/when you became involved.
Alberto Mejia: Creative Action’s mission is to spark the emotional, social and academic development of young people through cultural arts and creativity. Owning the fact that I’m relatively new to the team, I know that Creative Action got its start as a collaboration between the University of Texas and a group engaging in theater-based work in 1997. At that time, it was known as the theater action project. They were engaged in theater-based work in response to an opportunity for some funding and momentum in the Austin community for youth violence prevention. The next phase was growing into after-school arts programming, then developing classroom touring programs, while zeroing in on social and emotional learning and anti-bullying for the younger age groups. Then the organization developed summer camps. Eventually they were being asked to co-plan and envision public arts events and celebrations. It wasn’t until 2012 that the theater action project became Creative Action, after surveying the board and the employees on a name that could communicate the deepened work that was happening at that time. In 2014 the organization received an Our Town grant that allowed it to continue to develop, grow and establish a Center for Creative Action in the Chestnut neighborhood of East Austin. Our Town is focused on how arts organizations and artists can have a greater social impact in the places that they find themselves based. So that’s the trajectory of Creative Action.
My role, which is new – and it should be said that the organization has had some pretty incredible growth in the last three or four years in that development phase for the center with the Our Town grant – is to continue developing that intersection that the organization fills between civic engagement and creative place making. As you pointed out, I’m not the head of the programming in the schools or after-school, my work centers on events and programming at or around the center, and activities and collaborations with outside civic or nonprofit groups. Under the community programs umbrella there are several things. There are three teen programs, one focused on public arts, one focused on film, and the other is a theater group. All three are collaborations with other nonprofit organizations. We’re trying to zero in on an arts based public service approach. Of course, we screen some of the teens for their level of capability in the arts, but what’s more important is building community, identifying a partner with whom we can have a community practice, where the teens get the experience of working with a client organization, but a client who serves some greater social good.
Some examples for this year include our public arts group partnered with a newly opened community clinic in the northeast area of Austin. They’re heading into a partnership with the Central Texas Food Bank, which is a huge distribution center and volunteer program, and we’re thinking of a mural program with them. We don’t just show up and deliver though, there’s a process. We gauge our match with the group as far as mission and values are concerned, we do a needs assessment with this client/collaborator and then we execute a project.
The film group is focused on working with another nonprofit that serves young people who have parents that are currently or formerly incarcerated or deported. Our theater program has been one of our longest-standing collaborations. It’s as old as the organization itself, a partnership with a group called Safe Alliance. That group of teens gets together and creates original theater-based work that responds to healthy relationships and preventing violence in relationships, all the way to systemic violence and institutional violence. They create work around that.
Another program is “Continuing Creativity.” As part of the Our Town grant we did a neighborhood needs assessment and a lot of community leaders said, “Hey we really want something for the elders.” So that’s actually a partnership with the Alamo Rec Center, which is part of the Austin Parks and Recreation Department. What it manifests is a creative writing program where we go and pick up elderly folks that are at this rec center and we engage in creativity, particularly creative writing. It has an inter-generational aspect. We’re actually looking at getting young actors to do a biographical performance of these elders’ lives. Then, we’re hoping to perform that in front of teens and community. So, we’re try to create that continuity.
“Social Creativity” is another program that is focused on young adults aging from 16 or 17 to 21 or 22 years old who are on the autism spectrum. It’s a multi-disciplinary arts workshop that is focused on responding to their needs and building community with that group of people.
Another program is “Community Arts Sundays” which is a monthly cultural arts celebration. Our next one this weekend is themed “Creative Allies.” These events are an opportunity to have interactive celebrations where families and inter-generational community can come and be with each other through immersive arts and creative experiences. They can be exposed to some partnering organizations that are doing great social based work, be exposed to performance, interact and have a good time.
The point of these organizations and celebrations is to celebrate and highlight local creativity of artists and other organizations doing good work. In that way, we hope to build community in that work.
Beyond that, the more generic aspect of my role is working on cultivating partnerships with groups outside of the schools, such as social service organizations, housing groups, public health initiatives, even as far as planning, working with neighborhood associations and sitting at their meetings to sort of stay in tune with what the evolving community needs are, their concerns and opportunities. And then finally, my work involves what I call field building in the realm of creative youth development. We have certain practices within creative youth development that we feel are high value to youth development overall. I think in general, artists and arts organizations should really tap into what those things are. I feel like we have a lot to offer the youth development world and sometimes I think there’s a false barrier between teaching artistry or creative youth development and the general youth development and social services fields.
Would you share a bit about your personal background, and how your path brought you to Creative Action?
During my undergraduate years I was a student of cultural studies and also a hip-hop artist. So as a performing hip-hop artist who has had some proximity to youth work I thought it was kind of a natural fit. I started as a teaching artist at a really great organization called “Power of Hope” up in the northwestern United States (Bellingham, Seattle, Washington). They really have a great way of unleashing the creative potential and exploring youth identity in this healthy way through community building practices that are grounded in culture and creativity. I got my start there, and it was really a spark because I saw the transformative power of good teaching artist practices and community-building practices come together.
From working as a teaching artist, I kind of went back and forth between continuing to perform, doing teaching artist work around hip-hop, but then wandering into direct social services as case manager with groups like the YMCA. I always noticed that the strongest response I ever see from a young person is when I leave some element of creativity or tap into their own creativity in case management practices. It was interesting that in getting teens’ basic needs met, I felt like things were much more effective when I had some kind of cultural or artistic element to what I was trying to offer them in being able to be healthy and safe. From there, in continuing with teaching artist practice, I went back to grad school and studied nonprofit management and got my master’s in public administration from the University of Washington. I was really interested in developing cultural arts programs in a way that could impact youth across different cultures. While I was in my graduate studies I interned at the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center. At that time the Director was Randy Engstrom, who is a mentor of mine and is now the head of the Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs in Seattle. I think if folks want to see great civic arts-based work, look at Seattle. There’s lots of good examples but I think Randy has shown exceptional leadership in thinking about social equity and inclusion, racial equity and how that plays out in city arts governance. Excuse the side plug for my friend, Randy. But under his leadership I eventually became teh director of this cultural arts center. The bottom floor housed multiple youth-serving arts organizations, an alternative school, and there arts rental facilities that were accessible to the low-income community in southwest Seattle called Delridge. The top three floors were low-income artist housing. A lot of these relationships weren’t fully formalized but it was an incredible breeding ground and experiment lab to try out a lot of programming.
Following that I had an experience working at the EMP Museum in Seattle where I managed youth programs and set the tone for enhanced community-based partnerships. EMP is a great organization, very smart people and lucky enough to be very well resourced. It was just tying that thread with community a little better because some folks look at that organization as strictly serving outside tourists. So working creatively, I think we enhanced some relationships, whether that’s with the Native American communities or with communities of color in Seattle. We made the museum more responsive, relevant, and engaging space for youth in some of those underserved or unreached communities.
I was most recently a manager of the Dougherty Arts Center, which is part of the City of Austin under the direction of the Austin Parks and Recreation Department. This was a really interesting opportunity. The facility itself was a naval reserve facility that was opened in the 40s, 1948 I think. In 1979 it became a cultural arts center. It’s kind of been this really beautiful hub of interaction between different cultural and artistic communities in Austin for a long time. I served as a manager there and tried to implement some stronger youth engagement practices and programming practices and set the tone for where the center is heading in the future, which is hopefully one day, a new facility. I think they’re very much on track on engagement with community. There’s a large public gallery, a 150-seat theater, and a children’s and adult art school. It’s got this incredible legacy. They’re really on track to evolve and respond to the needs of a changing Austin now.
You’ve really had some diverse experiences.
And in between that I’ve been lucky enough to be invited to engage with some grant reviewing work so I’ve been lucky to serve on the arts review panel for the NEA and with ARTPLACE. And that’s always a great thing. I would encourage arts practitioners on any level to not be intimidated by that because you learn a great deal by looking at what’s happening in other peoples’ work, and find out what passes muster with these funders and what doesn’t. You also get to understand that philanthropy and funders need to evolve to be more responsive to applicants varying levels of capacity and barriers to what I would call the funding discourse. I think that’s an interesting thing that a lot of organizations fall short because they don’t speak funders accepted language. It’s a dual capacity building between funders and arts practitioners, to know each other better.
How are Creative Action community programs developed? How do you engage with different communities to understand needs and find gaps?
Our largest participant base is children and their families in the K-5 range. We also serve middle school age and teenagers, but not on the same scale. Some of those programs I mentioned in the genesis story have been developed over trial and error over time. We have pretty exceptional leadership and pretty incredible teaching artists, many of whom have stuck around so that the practice and the programming becomes informed. My feeling about how programs form well is by emphasizing relationship building from a place of offering. Think ahead about how to highlight, elevate or complement the work of others as the best start. You know, school programs, social service programs, housing sites, places that I think the arts is seeking collaboration – these folks are busy, sometimes overwhelmed. I think trying to do your research beforehand and getting to know what their needs are, where they’re at with the vision of the organization, and their capacity really puts you in a better place. I hope that doesn’t sound too generic or over simplified, but I think sometimes arts folks approach myopically with our own mission or our acute need to get a job or get paid. We don’t do our due diligence on their needs in their context. So, when you go to partner with folks, I think it’s important to ask, “What is their trajectory? What is their capacity? And how can I highlight what they’re trying to accomplish?” and find a synergy and commonality in your mission. For me, that’s great collaborative practice and programming practice. You might look at a school – Could it be that they’re having communication issues amongst the students? Is there tension based on class? Is there tension based on race? You know? Creative Action has enough skin in the game where they ask those questions in a way that sets a good tone. Priming and doing the homework before you do the program is really critical.
Creative Action has a broad range of programming, from in- and after-school programs to community partnerships to activities at the Center for Creative Action. You also have a large staff, and you mentioned there’s been a tremendous amount of growth in the past few years. All of these things, of course, can mean a greater and more meaningful impact. With lots of moving pieces, how does the organization stay zeroed in on mission? Do you have a specific audience you are always thinking about or core values that drive all decision making?
Let me start with the core values. The first is “dream big.” That means not being afraid of big, bold, outside-the-box ideas that work toward enacting the mission. No problem is too large for us to tackle. The second core value is to “create community.” We believe all people have something to learn from one another and that a diverse world is indeed a stronger one. Our next core value “standing up;” standing up to injustice, oppression, and hate through the way we build our company culture, support our staff, manage our business, and educate the families we serve. The second to last is “strive for excellence.” We are dedicated to investing the necessary time and resources to achieve excellence. Our last core value is “having fun.” Life is too short not to enjoy it, and we think spreading joy and love is a necessity in the work that we’re engaged in. Those values definitely guide how we approach opportunities and whether a program is to be divested, sustained, grown or started. All that said we are a learning organization. Going from a theater based project to developing programs, and now a center, there’s still a lot to learn and more possibility with matured structure. Our strategy screen is a living document at this point, but it’s guided by those core values. As an organization we have constant self-reflection processes and we’re engaged with an evaluation consultant right now to zero in and focus more on our theory of change and audience. Obviously there’s need all around us, and we just want to be mindful and effective in how we’re disbursing our energy. Speaking more internally we are focused on seeking and applying frameworks to social and racial equity and how to democratize the workplace. I think this helps steady a ship through the growth period. More people equals more difference and that can be a strength or a difficulty. We have a strong working committee dedicated to realizing social justice objective. We’re learning a great deal about ourselves, each other, and the internal and external factors that can impede or catalyze that our wellness and progress as an organization.
Since you started at Creative Action, what have been your challenges, or things that surprised you most?
Over this period growth, Creative Action has taken big steps to institutionalize the role of the teaching artist by converting many folks to employees. This is an interesting transition as usually teaching artists, as contractors, have the freedom and stress that comes with moving about constantly with different projects and different organizations. Now those same teaching artists are becoming managers and leaders – in addition to delivering arts classes. It’s been really cool to see what happens when you bring a teaching artist’s practice more intentionally into the work culture and the processes.
The other thing that has struck me is the ongoing need for quality teen arts programming. During engagement and outreach I hear people say, “Ok, well can my kids come?” or “Can I bring my whole case load to this program?” It’s been sort of difficult because the programs that we run are application based with limited spots where teens commit through the school year, two nights of the week, 7 to 9 pm. But how do we engage, reach and honor the needs of the rest of the teens who maybe have barriers to committing to demanding teen programs? How do we reach and respond to these youth but still stay within capacity? Since we’re so public, we receive lots of requests to show up at activities. A lot of that need, is concentrated on young teens to the teen audience. challenge at the same time. How can we continue to make the work responsive and relevant. Thinking bigger, Austin is a really interesting place to be. It is marketed as a cultural Mecca for a lot of young people and creative people in general. I question myself, how can Creative Action, our peer organizations, and the city create pathways for the potential young creatives that are here, indigenous to Austin, to have opportunity and inclusivity in these booming creative industries and entrepreneurialism? I think that’s an exciting nut to crack and something I am excited about pursuing.
Alberto Mejia holds a Masters in Public Administration from the University of Washington, and a BA in American Cultural Studies and Political Science from Fairhaven College. Alberto focuses on Creative Action’s community based programs and innovative engagement of the public at large, including teen arts education. Previously, he served as manager of Dougherty Arts Center, Executive Director of the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center in Seattle, WA, Youth and Community Engagement Manager for the EMP Museum and as a site manager with Communities in Schools. He is also an alumnus of the National Association of Latin@ Arts and Culture leadership and advocacy institute and active in cultural policy issues and dialogue. Alberto is an artist in the hip-hop genre and devotes time to the practice of indigenous cultural tradition, community building and dance. Find Creative Action on Twitter and Facebook.