INDEX-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
May 10, 2022
He was participating in distance learning at Creekside High School, but the staff there never actually saw him, only noticing his icon on Zoom. When he came back to the school in person this school year, he had a difficult time transitioning to the environment—until he discovered its new art program. “This student came alive and was so engaged in his self-portrait plot,” said Liz Liscum, principal of the small continuation high school in Sonoma. “He even shared his experiences with members of the community on a site visit. It was a big moment for him.”
He is enrolled in Building Community and Belonging Through Art, a program originally proposed by Sonoma Community Center (SCC). Sixty-five students in grades nine through 12 at Creekside are taking part, which debuted this school year as a collaborative effort between Creekside, Sonoma Valley Education Foundation (SVEF) and SCC. It was the brain child of Lexi Bakkar, youth program manager for SCC.
“Lexi is passionate about building community and creating opportunities for youth through art,” said Charlotte Hajer, SCC’s executive director. “Lexi develops youth programs that leverage the power of art for kids and teens, and recognizes that programming offered at the community center can be challenging to access for some communities. That drove her to pursue school-based programs, especially for students who otherwise experience barriers to accessing arts and creative activities.” The center approached several schools about expanding arts programming on campus.
“But this program [Building Community and Belonging Through Art] was developed specifically with Creekside students in mind once we reached an agreement with Liz Liscum, the principal, to move forward with a project on their campus,” Hajer said. “The Creekside student population includes a disproportionate number of kids from underserved backgrounds, kids who have experienced trauma—and indeed, few of them have easy access to creative opportunities, even on campus. Though [Sonoma Valley High School] has lots of arts resources, they aren’t accessible to Creekside students.”
When SCC told Sonoma Valley Education Foundation administrators about Bakkar’s idea, and they were all ears. “We loved the idea because it aligned perfectly with our intent to bring art education to underserved communities of SVUSD students and supported our mission to fill gaps in services in the 2021-22 school year,” said Angela Ryan, executive director of SVEF. “In addition, it leveraged the amazingly talented local art and creator community, exposing students to a variety of artistic disciplines. It also allowed students to use art to channel their emotions and self-expression, and combat social isolation caused by the pandemic.”
SVEF approved the program as it was proposed, with no tweaking necessary. The foundation is providing the bulk of the $20,000 annual funding, with additional dollars provided by Creekside, SCC donors and Sonoma Plein Air Foundation. “SVEF’s traditional role has been to fund raise for programs in the school district,” Ryan said. “However, in 2021 the school district, like every district in the country, received a large influx of federal and state stimulus funding, which meant that the need for SVEF’s fundraising was not as significant. SVEF knew that there were still big needs among students and families in the community after COVID and distance learning, so we decided to form partnerships with existing nonprofit agencies throughout Sonoma Valley to increase opportunities to help students catch up, recover and thrive. “Arts education was one of our priorities, so we called for innovative proposals for programs to expand arts education access. Sonoma Community Center responded with a fantastic proposal to bring creative expression opportunities to Creekside students.”
Hajer said SCC was “incredibly motivated to work with Creekside’s wonderful art teacher [Walt Williams] to bring a few art projects to campus specifically for Creekside students.” One of the projects, creating a community mural, was a collaborative effort involving Williams, students at the school and artist Chris McKee of The Monarch Project, a youth organization based in Sonoma County that uses art to highlight the roles of immigrants with a goal to empower and humanize their stories. It is located on the continuation school’s campus, outside the art room. McKee chose the colors for the mural and used the mural depicting Sonoma County activist D’mitra Smith in the Springs as an inspiration for its grid pattern.
“Student voices were used at all levels of the project, from brainstorming to completion,” Liscum said. “The grid pattern allowed all students to have a space for their own self-portrait. This project was 100% student driven.” Liscum also called attention to a raku firing, an ancient Japanese ceramics technique that has been used for many centuries to create a unique finish to wares. “During the firing, I witnessed students who were so proud of themselves,” she said. “We had students taking their art to give to their parents. The clay pieces were beautiful, and I could see us continuing this project and maybe having an art show at SCC. The Sonoma community needs to have an opportunity to see our students’ work.” Hajer emphasized how much the arts benefit students.
“Research has shown that creative activity fosters critical problem-solving skills, promotes positive emotions and moods, cultivates a capacity for empathy and helps build self-confidence,” she said. “In addition, the arts have a proven role in healing depression, anxiety and trauma symptoms. Despite these impactful and healing positive effects of arts education and engagement, access to creative activity can be limited, especially for kids from communities who experience such things as hardship, systemic inequity and trauma—kids who, quite frankly, may significantly benefit from the power of the arts. The pandemic has exacerbated that hardship for underserved communities and has simultaneously reduced access to arts activities.” Stakeholders are working to make the program permanent. Liscum asserted, “Hopefully, we’ll continue this program each year. Creekside High School’s foundation is built on relationships and connections, and art is a driver to continue creating those bridges as well as an entry point that all students can access.” Ryan said that SVEH has no current plans to implement the Creekside arts program at other Sonoma schools, “but we are open to the conversation and continuing in this impactful direction.”