Accessing Creative Technology with LIT

“The really exciting thing about emerging tech is that it’s constantly changing, and that means that anybody could shape it. And it means that students of color could shape it.” – Netsanet Tjirongo, filmmaker, LIT teaching artist

This year I’ve had the privilege of documenting a revolutionary new program at Arts Corps, in partnership with Reel Grrls, called LIT!

Student holds his arms straight out to his sides while he is scanned by another person with a virtual 360 scanner.
Fabian is scanned so he can be turned into a virtual 360 model.

LIT, which stands for Learning Immersive Technology, engaged students from Big Picture High School in Virtual Reality game development, audio production, and 360 filmmaking in order to develop as artists, technology innovators, and to prepare them for 21st Century Careers in the emerging arts and tech industries. The students were able to explore all three types of technology with expert teaching artists and then dove into one area for their final projects, collaborating between departments as they would in a real-world production environment.

From behind: student and teaching artist look at a music project in Logic on a computer screen and talk about the composition.
Noel works with Matt to create original music in Logic.

When talking with Noel, one of the students focusing on music production, he showed me the four tracks he had created for another student, Fabian’s VR experience. He also mentioned that he really liked music production and that he wanted to continue coming to the studio to make music at Totem Star – one of our partner organizations that runs the recording studio that the students used during LIT – even after the program was over.

Chatting with Vanessa – whom you’ll meet in this short video – I learned that she not only produced music for her friend Faith’s 360 film, but also enjoyed the process so much that she produced music to pair with various paintings that she was creating for a school project on Chicano art murals and the Chicano movement to fight for the rights of farmworkers.

Yet another student, Azariah, recalled how she had been interested in writing screenplays since she was five years old, and through the LIT program, she learned how to professionally format a script. She now sees herself turning her vision into something that people would enjoy watching on screen.

Student helps an Arts Corps staff member put on the VR headset to view the experience.
Eli helps an Arts Corps staff member adjust the headset to view his VR experience.

It’s clear that the students in the program gained much more than the ability to model a virtual world, capture a 360 scene, or put sounds together to make a song. At the culmination, all of the students were finding applications for these new skills in their everyday lives. They were able to talk confidently about the technology, talk about their work, and represent themselves proudly at public presentations in front of friends, family, and industry experts.

This video is a window into these students’ experiences, and it is only a preview. The extended feature will be released later this year.

The extended version of this film will give more context to the landscape of immersive technology outside of just the LIT program. It will explore the possibilities of what the industry could look like if young people who have historically been denied access to emerging technology, are at the forefront of shaping its’ future.

-AMY L. PIÑON, Creative Media Producer

 

 

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It isn’t always easy

It’s not always easy.

As many of you know, Arts Corps is experiencing some unrest and change, and the pain has been palpable. 

In the past several months, we’ve had to navigate the dismissals and resignations of key staff. Some of these changes surprised and disappointed members of our team, who shared that disappointment with the community. Heartbreak was felt all around.

While ensuring first and foremost that our student instruction wasn’t impacted in the short-term, we immediately doubled down on the hard long work of mending hearts and mapping steps to help us come out the other side stronger and more whole.

We held a gathering for our staff and teachers designed as an opportunity for healing and mediation within our organization. We then worked with our board to hire a respected, independent, and professional facilitator. Dr. Taylor was brought in to lead our mediations because she is a highly-regarded expert mediator specializing in equity and inclusion. She is here to guide us and to help ensure staff and faculty are respected and heard around the issues Arts Corps is grappling with. Dr. Taylor has not previously worked with James, or Arts Corps, which was one of many considerations by our board to ensure this facilitator would be unbiased. While some staff declined to participate in our first mediation, we are holding our second mediation tomorrow and remain hopeful staff and teaching artists will work together with us to continue evolving this organization to better serve everyone. At the request of staff, I’ll also, as Board President, be present at the mediation. 

We are looking at everything from organizational hierarchies to how we can increase pay and support for teachers and staff-members at a faster pace than previously thought possible. Our decisions will be made with great care, incorporating the guidance of a representative group of experts, our community, our supporters, and our board.

Since our inception nearly 20 years ago, Arts Corps has strived to be a light for young people in our city, providing music, poetry, theater, visual arts and more to those who couldn’t access it otherwise. We aimed to ensure the teaching artists providing instruction were highly valued in word and deed to reflect the deep respect we have for them and their work.

We are a man of color and a woman of color. Many of our teachers and staff members are people of color coming from multiple intersectional identities, as are the students we serve. But our demographic statistics don’t, on their own, change the imbalance of power felt by many within our own organization or organizations like ours.

Throughout all of this, one thing is clear, and has always been clear: we believe in the importance of empowering and changing the lives of young people through arts education. And we are committed to doing everything we can to listen, learn, facilitate and support this work in the best ways possible for students, teachers, staff and our community. 

It’s not always easy. But it is unquestionably worth it. 

– James Miles and Tanisha Felder

 

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A look into an arts integrated residency

In this residency, Arts Corps teaching artist Meredith Arena integrated monologue writing and performance with the Westward Expansion curriculum. Students learned basic performance skills and used their imagination to write from the perspective of someone in a different historical time, considering both the personal and political lives of their characters. Students considered many perspectives on Westward Expansion. The collaborating teachers challenged themselves to help students understand the perspectives that get ignored in this area of study, the Native Americans whose land was being stolen and the slaves who accompanied the white colonizers on their journey.

 

1 Students rehearse their monologues, gently closing their ears so they can focus on their tools of voice.
Students rehearse their monologues, gently closing their ears so they can focus on their tools of voice.
Students perform for one another and provide peer feedback on their performance and writing.
Students perform for one another and provide peer feedback on their performance and writing.
Students perform for one another and provide peer feedback on their performance and writing.
Students perform for one another and provide peer feedback on their performance and writing.
Students watch a performance and participate in group peer feedback.
Students watch a performance and participate in group peer feedback.
Class edits their monologue scripts together.
Class edits their monologue scripts together.
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A letter from our board president

Dear Arts Corps Staff, Board, and Community,

I first want to say that I hate that I have to send this email. It never crossed my mind that when I took on the role of board president that this would be something I would have to do, and yet here we are.

You know by now, but I want to share with you that we understand that some changes have been made with the structure and staffing of Arts Corps. The Board has been working to understand the ideas and concerns that have been brought to our attention. We understand that some concerns are valid and we are taking steps to implement solutions to address those various concerns.

We know these are not popular changes. We know that it will cause disruption. But we want you to know we are also in agreement about many of the new structural ideas that have been developed by some Staff. We actually are closer to agreement than many of you recognize. It is not solely the WHAT we are challenged by, it is the HOW.

It has become clear that the method used to implement those changes were not inclusive in the way of Arts Corps’ values. We also understand that some of the methods used to voice some concerns were not productive, including publicly complaining about the organization on social media channels and in the office within earshot of other staff, third parties and youth participants.  Evidence is showing that this behavior has continued.

These methods of voicing complaints is not productive in moving towards healing and reconciliation. We expect (and welcome) complaints and concerns pertaining to the Executive Director be brought to the Board (per the Staff Handbook) so that we can work through issues in a productive, private and compassionate way.

Please know that the Board of Directors main role is to protect the organization.We all truly love Arts Corps. It is that love alone that drives us to support decisions that not all agree with, but we are also legally responsible for Arts Corps and James reports directly to us. We are working very closely with him to support and help navigate through this new time and vision. Arts Corps is strong and we believe very deeply in what it stands for. We will be okay. We believe in it and the staff. We ask that you believe as well.

If you have any questions or concerns about any of the decisions that have been made, please reach out to us, specifically me, Tanisha Brandon-Felder (Board President).

— 

Tanisha Brandon-Felder

“One must know not just how to accept a gift, but with what grace to share it.”

Maya Angelou

 

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We Are Arts Corps

Greetings,

The allure of Arts Corps was, and still is overwhelming. I can’t believe such a place existed outside of my brain. An education organization that used arts as a tool to address inequities in a K-12 environment. When Elizabeth Whitford suggested that I apply, I thought no way that they would hire a brotha from Chicago/Brooklyn with only one good ear, and a love for expletives. 

Somehow they hired me, and I moved my family across the country to work at this glorious organization. The first two years were magical. I breathed fresh air for the first time in my life. I went camping. I saw a snake. My kids didn’t have to wear a uniform to school. It didn’t rain as much as New York. I tried Pho, and I went to my first caucus. There were some hiccups: I couldn’t make friends and we were the only folks of color in our zip code. People thought my way of talking was improper. I didn’t under passive aggressiveness. People had emotions I never experienced. I went to my first caucus. 

But we still thrived at Arts Corps. That is until about 3 months ago, or more when we started to spiral out of what I had envisioned for Arts Corps. What I embraced several years ago began to look like a different organization. Something went askew and we tried some new things to help us get back to what Arts Corps was about: revolutionizing education and igniting youth voice. We felt lost as an organization, and I was afraid we were heading towards our demise. I realized I couldn’t let this happen to Arts Corps, to our community, to my family that took this strange trip with me, and that’s when I realized we needed to do something different.

With change, comes a lot of pain and sometimes anger and resentment. Looking at the staff, I knew that though it would be difficult, I had to made a decision to help us grow, as an organization. So  I had to make some staffing changes. I had to fight for Arts Corps the same way that Arts Corps fought for me. 

It wasn’t fun, nor easy, but it was decided that two of our staff members could no longer be part of the Arts Corps fight. They have done so much for Arts Corps, but our paths had to separate. I will always consider them part of our community, and I hope they will consider Arts Corps part of theirs. I know we will bounce back and it will take some time, but I am confident, we will do it. I will need to work closely with programs team to do that. I see us reaching new heights with PDs and workshops that we offer to other schools and school districts. I see us deepening our amazing cs lab work. I see LIT becoming a model for the city and other regions to implement. I see The Residency venturing out on its own, with our support. I know Youth Speaks will still be a platform for unfettered youth expression. I see us shaping the education system to be more culturally responsive and engaging to young people and their families. I see us working in places we have never worked before, that could help subsidize the work we are doing in our communities. I see us working with local government to shift policies and practices. I see us changing the region, the country, and the world.

I am excited for the future of Arts Corps, and I know there may still some lingering thoughts or feelings. If you have questions or concerns, don’t hesitate to reach out to me and/or the Board President, Tanisha Brandon-Felder. Arts Corps is the best thing that happened to me, and I hope it can continue being the light that guides us towards a better future.

Thank you and Much Love,

James

 

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An American in Germany

I just got back from Germany and I’m upset!
 
But, I didn’t know why, until just now.
 
Several months ago, I led a workshop in Montreal, Canada, called “Can Hip Hop Save Lives?” I was invited by my colleague and fellow Open Society Foundation grantee, Merith Basey, whom is the Executive Director of Universities Allied for Essential Medicines(UAEM). On face value Arts Corps and UAEM may seem to have little in common, but our interlocking themes of access, equity and youth-driven campaigning is clear. Our work is stronger and more impactful through out creative connections and shared vision. UAEM’s tag line is “We Have a Drug Problem,” and their mission is to bring awareness to, and change policies that create unequal access to drugs, like insulin, that people need, in order to live.
 
Our workshop led participants through how to use youth culture aka hip hop culture to create social media campaigns that could be used to highlight the inequities in the health care system, in a thorough, yet easily digestible way. In order to do that, we first had to explore our relationship to hip hop culture and the ways that is manifested in the media we digest. For example, there is something called Hip Hop Cupcakes that Duncan Hines sells. Snoop Dogg sells Pepsi. Busta and Missy Elliott teamed up with Tyrion Lannister and Morgan Freeman to hawk Doritos and Mountain Dew. In Seattle, there’s Trap Vinyasa. Obviously, the target ages 18-34 love hip hop culture, yet we often ignore that culture in our schools and in “professional” settings. I proposed we use global culture to make the public aware of public health inequities such as the fact that 1 in 6 people globally have a neglected disease. Those one in six are typically low income, people of color, immigrants, and/or women. The participants were inspired and created songs, Instagram Stories, memes, gifs, and visuals that helped highlight the public health issues facing the world. 
bigpharmameme
 
The workshop was such a success, that I was invited to present at UAEM’s European conference, held in Hamburg, Germany. However, my first stop was in Berlin, where Merith introduced me to the European ED, Priscilla Li, and their staff. In between planning conversations, I was able to see the sights around Berlin. I saw the Brandenburg Gates, which reminded me of Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn. I saw the Berlin Wall and the US inspired graffiti that decorated the walls. As I was walking along the Wall, I was able to read(in English and German) about the rise of Nazism, Communism, and it’s impact on the city and the country. It reminded me of the 9/11 memorial, also in NYC. I saw the memorial to the young people that died in the Holocaust, and to relax, I tried German schnitzel and very tasty schwarz bier that complemented the food very well. Everyone was very nice, spoke English, and when I spoke German, they were very supportive and helpful, even though my German was god awful. 
 
After a day and a half we went to Hamburg together, and I was equally blown away by how nice everyone was, how everyone tolerated my German, and the numerous signs in pubs and establishments that said, “No Nazis Allowed.” 
 
Oh! And both cities were incredibly diverse, much more diverse than Seattle. With the number of refugees that came from Syria other parts of the Middle East, and Northern Africa, I heard multiple languages spoken, and saw multiple cultures represented. I learned that because of socialized medicine and education, everyone was provided free health care and education. Even universities, which are costly compared to other services, are still 100 times cheaper than schooling in the states, and therefore affordable. 
 
I knew I had to modify my workshop a bit, because of Germany’s relatively equitable health care and education system, but it wasn’t until I experienced it first hand, that I realized how much I would need to modify my workshop. I was still able to focus on youth culture, which unsurprisingly, was similar globally. (Everyone loves Migos. Go figure 🤷🏾‍♀️). However I did have to edit the access portion because of socialized medicine and focus on how drugs were tested, and to whom they were readily available. For example 80% of drugs, even those for women, are tested on men. Though health care is free to refugees, they have to pay for things like insulin. It is much cheaper than the states, but it does come with a price tag. 
 
Amazingly, the participants were as inspired as their North American peers. They even recorded a rap song about drug pricing, set to the tune of Coolio’s Gangsta’s Paradise.  The participants and the UAEM team were ecstatic, and they would like for another Arts Corps presentation at their next conference..
 
 
Yet, I was still upset. 
 
When I landed back in the States, went to work, and took the bus around Seattle, I reflected on my experience. The entire time I was in Germany, I acted like a typical impatient American, saying everything reminded me of the US, and was loud and irritable. I took up too much space in places and while I was sightseeing, I barely enjoyed the monuments, memorials, and views around town. What I realized a week or so later was, that I was jealous. I was very jealous that this country has tried to come to terms with their historical atrocities. They didn’t shy away from them, but addressed them head on. They acknowledged that some really bad things (I know that’s an understatement) took place and they have worked for the past 30 years to rectify that. This hasn’t happened in the USA and I’m not sure if it will ever happen. I still see confederate flags. White supremacists have their own social media channels that are widely accepted, because of free speech. I still have to be wary of police officers, as do my 10 year old children. Andrew Jackson is still on the $20 bill. “Make America Great Again” is a slogan that we don’t bat an eye at, even though, in that America, my grandparents couldn’t vote, go swimming in public swimming pools, or even live in the same neighborhoods as their white counterparts. 

I’m aghast at the situation in the USA right now, so I’m going to challenge myself and you to use art to help us come to terms with our history. I’m thinking of the Songs of Civil Rights music that broke color lines and brought awareness to the issues facing society. I’m thinking of the art made by the children to help make sense of the atrocities that they experienced at the Japanese Internment Camps, in Puyallup. I’m thinking of how the documentary, “Surviving R Kelly” successfully ended the career of a predator. 

I’m thinking of how Beyoncé used her platform as an artist to shine a light on black excellence, black colleges and black humanity. Her Homecoming performance breathed a sense of belonging into the culture at a time when we were all feeling distraught and beat down. I daresay that her celebration of the HBCU experience may have indirectly led billionaire Robert Smith to promise to pay off all of the school loans for the graduating class of 2019, at my proud alma mater, Morehouse College. Of course, that is just conjecture, but I know the power of art, and its ability to inspire and empower.

So what are YOU going to do, today, tomorrow, next week, that changes the world so that our children won’t travel the world upset? So that our children won’t feel distraught and beat down. So that our children won’t have to doubt their own humanity. Instead they can say “yeah when the ish hit the fan, my folks promised to Make Art Anyway.” 

 
Bless up,
James
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