Why We Must Renew the Best Starts for Kids Levy


Most people, when asked what ‘M.D.’ stands for, usually answer: ‘medical doctor.’ Although this is true, it’s not the whole definition. An M.D is also classified as allopathic doctor, or a primary care physician who uses drugs, radiation, or surgery to heal. When asked what ‘N.D.’ stands for, they usually take a little longer to answer definitively. ‘N.D.’ stands for naturopathic doctor, or a primary care physician who blends centuries-old knowledge and a philosophy that nature is the most effective healer with current research on health and human systems.

Both are classified as physicians. Both practice medicine and have the same goal, which is to heal the patient. However, they have different approaches to this healing. Different yet complementary. When seeking healthcare, our choices are often limited by the information that we hold. I use this as an example because we relate to it.

In our school system we face similar challenges with the primary-room teacher and the teaching artist. We have the same goal, yet different and complementary approaches. In the school system, we have the primary classroom teacher (my vision of allopathic) and the teaching artist (my vision of naturopathic). We are all familiar with and understand the role of the primary classroom teacher. Yet as a teaching artist, most times people will ask: “What is a teaching artist, please explain?”

A teaching artist is a teacher and educator, who is trained (usually college educated or higher) and equipped to use their artistic discipline (dance, visual, poetry, music, theater, etc.) as a vehicle to learn and educate groups of people. In this instance, K-12 students. As a teaching artist myself, I strive to activate curiosity and consciousness in students, equipping them with tools that are useful in navigating not only the classroom, but also life experiences and circumstances. I emphasize play, exploration, examination, and self-referral as primary ways of educating and teaching.

Best Starts for Kids (BSK) funding allows the primary classroom teacher and the teaching artist to coexist and expand the circle of learning for a well-rounded education with the student. I have years of experience as a teaching artist, working within school systems that are usually limited by city and non-profit organization funding. Although appreciated, the resources and support are usually time-sensitive, and as a result, services go away.

BSK allows teaching artists the time, funding, and resources to provide a variety of arts opportunities that cultivate both relationship and trust building, two things that are imperative for successful outcomes in young people. 

BSK supports multiple avenues of learning during school time as well as out-of-school time — a period of the day that is high-risk for adolescence and youth. It is not one dimensional. Providing opportunities in the school building and in other community spaces like housing developments and community centers is an integral ingredient for teaching artists and educators to take the art to where the students already are. 

BSK provides arts organizations like Arts Corps and professional teaching artists the opportunity to serve Black and Brown children, youth, and families.

BSK ensures that we as educators have the infrastructure and support necessary to create and develop culturally-sensitive pedagogical lesson plans designed for the populations we serve. Cultural and visual arts, etc. expand and complement primary classroom teachers’ knowledge, skills, and lesson plans.

BSK benefits our region’s schools by offering additional resources when budgets for the arts are cut in favor of other priorities. The multiplicity of art, whether dance, poetry, visual art, sculpting, music, theater, or song, adds an element of surprise, curiosity, excellence, and possibility for the student.

We hope you will vote ‘YES’ on KC Prop 1 in the upcoming August 3rd Primary and Special Election so that the learning can continue!

— SUMAYYA E. DIOP, Teaching Artist Coordinator & Teaching Artist

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Sponsor Spotlight: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Discovery Center

Deborah Sepulveda

For the past several years, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Discovery Center has supported Arts Corps as a sponsor for our annual Festa event. The Discovery Center is a free public space that takes visitors of all ages on an interactive journey, bringing the connections we share with others across the globe to life. 
With a vision to educate, inspire, and motivate people to take action through storytelling, the Discovery Center is a key partner in Arts Corps’ work to revolutionize arts education by igniting the creative power of young people. In the words of Deborah Sepulveda, the Discovery Center’s Manager of Youth & Public Programs and long-time Arts Corps partner: “We believe our programs amplify powerful stories of our local community in order to foster inclusion and belonging, convene and connect people, share unheard stories, and highlight opportunities to act.”
Despite having to close its physical doors last spring, the Discovery Center has continued to provide powerful programming. Last March they kicked off a series of free, virtual lunchtime events called In Community We Flourish that highlight community organizations creating change every day. The upcoming series will be in partnership with the South Seattle Emerald and Civic Commons.
The Discovery Center shares Arts Corps’ commitment to youth leadership and prioritizing youth voice. Every year, the center hosts the annual Teen Action Fair, which provides youth with a platform to tell their stories of making a difference. As Deborah sees it, “Youth want to be involved, taken seriously and deserve to be heard. Young people have led the charge on some of the biggest shifts in social change and justice throughout history and we continue to learn from their ideas to change the world… take the time to listen to their questions, ideas and feedback and we will definitely have a better world.”
Arts Corps is grateful to have partners like Deborah and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Discovery Center working with us to cultivate youth creativity and leadership. Their sponsorship helps bring us one step closer to our vision of a world where barriers to arts education no longer exist and all young people can creatively lead the transformation of schools, neighborhoods, and beyond.


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LIT: Why I Came Back as a Class Assistant


I come from a high school that specializes in helping students to become self-reliant and learn skills through the student’s interests. This is often done by having students search for internships or be an apprentice. When I was a freshman in October of 2018 I had a vague interest in game development and was short on opportunities. 

One day my advisor Steve announced a new opportunity being offered to Big Picture Students. He told us it was an arts program that taught audio, story writing, and virtual reality development. That last one felt like a wild card. I didn’t know much about virtual reality beyond a few brief appearances in online videos or tucked away in some corner of an arcade. No matter where I saw it, it always seemed out of reach like watching an owl perched on a tree. The fact that it was offered to youth out of all people in this high school made it feel like a one-time calling. But because of my lack of experience, I hesitated to raise my hand when Steve was handing out the tour sign-up sheets. I’m not sure what took me so long to finally raise my hand, but it would change my life forever.

Arts Corps is an arts education organization whose mission is to break educational boundaries and allow youth creative minds to use their art to influence the world through various programs. I joined the first LIT program in January of 2019. LIT specialized in teaching students how to use audio software, film equipment, and virtual reality tools to make their art with the help of specialized teaching artists. It was the first year of the program so some things fell a little off track sometimes, but overall it felt like an artist’s journey. It felt like the program was growing alongside you making it; it felt less like a training course and more like it was your program. 

Each session, we’d have morning check-ins, and even though we didn’t always have much to say it helped establish great community vibes. I loved when we went into the larger parts of Seattle on our trips to art studios. Even though meeting people who work in the careers you see yourself in the future is always a motivating feeling, traversing the streets and buses made it feel like the kind of stories you’d tell your grandkids when talking about your career. I don’t get to be on foot in the bigger parts of Seattle that often so that’s what probably amplified the experience for me.

The first major VR project I worked on when joining LIT was a simple exploration experience where you could move across dream-like worlds, which is my way of saying nothing made sense or followed a theme. It was mostly me trying to get my footing with the technology but it helped that VR is totally badass.

The greatest memory I have of the program was the final presentation of my first year. I wasn’t too confident in my weird VR project. It was also a way later time to present than I was used to so I was ready to go to sleep. To make matters worse we had a lot of trouble getting our showcase equipment set up like finding out who’s headset even belonged to someone. We cycled through students each presenting what we’ve been working on for the past six months. 

When my turn came I felt a strange calmness and pride flow in. Suddenly my project didn’t seem like a failure and I started to see with the smiles of the attendees that it was a success. Whereas once, I was some lonely kid in a computer lab, now was able to work on something most people don’t even know exists. It helped that the presentation room was literally a theater, the whole thing felt like a triumphant cinematic moment on film with lights shining on us. 

I’m one of those people that beats themselves up a lot, but I always seek to improve myself. This was the first time in my life I felt like I’d made it. It started off a long chain of future successes and I realized that I could be an artist if I tried. Since then I’ve only felt my progress of self-discovery moving further.

Arts Corps has helped me find what being an artist can mean and the joy it can bring to people. They helped me get my first taste of what it’d be like to pursue my passions professionally. And it’s given me hope that more and more youth have access to their resources so the world doesn’t miss out on the creations of a young person’s mind before their creativity is limited through adulthood struggles. 

I feel the least I can do is help out Arts Corps the best I can as a classroom assistant so that when I eventually become ready to join the games industry I will have helped make the Arts Corps better for youth than when I first joined LIT. So now I’m helping the LIT team with an upcoming week-long intensive. From April 12th – 16th we’ll be helping students from grades 10-12 learn about using immersive technology for storytelling and game development. Applications are due March 19, 2021. Apply here. 

— FABIAN HERNANDEZ-ANGEL, Classroom Assistant LIT 2021

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See Me After Class

It’s funny how you can lose track of someone for years, and then bam! Something can bring their memory to mind with such clarity that it almost overwhelms your senses. That’s how I felt this weekend upon learning the news that my beloved college professor, Dr. Theodora Ayot, had recently passed away.

Instantly, my mind conjured up a vivid image of Professor Ayot. Standing in front of the classroom, she was wearing colorful African dress from her homeland in western Kenya, as she always did. Her deep red lipstick popped in contrast to her rich brown skin, and she had a warm smile on her face. Her eyes shone brightly beneath her glasses that were slightly askew.

It might be surprising that my recollection of Professor Ayot is so strong when I only had one class with her; some kind of history class, the subject and title of which I can’t even remember now. But in the short time she taught me, she left an indelible mark. One that I realize only now, in her passing, has a lot to do with why I’m so passionate about my work at Arts Corps.

It all stems back to the first mid-term she assigned us. When she returned our papers, I flipped mine over to find a big “C” on the top with the words “See Me After Class” written in large letters on top. My heart pounded wildly. I had never received these words on a paper before.

I nervously lingered after class while all the other students gathered their things and left. Then Professor Ayot ushered me to her tiny office. (Or maybe it was just tiny in my memory because I felt trapped?) She offered me a seat, looked me straight in the eyes, and said intensely, “I’ve heard the questions you ask in class.”

I can remember to this day what a strange and surprising statement I thought this was. But Professor Ayot continued on and clarified her point. My questions, she felt, reflected a deep intellectual curiosity and scholarly critique. The work I turned in, not so much.

I was a freshman in college and my social nature was getting the best of me. I was staying up late hanging out with friends and talking on the phone with my long-distance boyfriend, and I was not taking my studies seriously. More importantly, and what I think Professor Ayot knew, was that I didn’t take myself seriously.

I always got good grades in school. Honor roll and all that. But, despite the awards, I never saw myself as smart. Nice? Sure. Hardworking? Sure. But an intellectual? Someone to be taken seriously in the classroom? No way.

The conversation with Professor Ayot in that tiny office started to change that. She had heard my questions. I was bright, she thought. I had real promise as a scholar. But I had to take myself seriously, put in the effort, and do the work. It was a life-changing conversation.

The grief and sadness of these past 11 months has felt unbearable at times. For our family, news of Professor Ayot’s passing comes after losing two family friends to COVID related illnesses. We haven’t seen my parents or other extended family in Chicago in over a year. And the social isolation of quarantine and challenges of online schooling are taking an immense toll on the mental health of my elementary aged kids.

Throughout these difficult quarantine times, my work with Arts Corps has been a lifeline. It’s a privilege to work for an organization as flexible, compassionate, and creative as Arts Corps.  Even more, I’m deeply grateful to work for an organization whose mission I believe in so profoundly.

The work that our teaching artists do with young people every day is the same work that Professor Ayot did we me: building confidence, cultivating curiosity, encouraging risk-taking; helping them to see themselves for the smart and gifted young people they are. And like Professor Ayot, Arts Corps teaching artists model pride in their individuality and cultural heritage. In doing so, they open up to new worlds to the students- within and around them.

These are not easy times. But as I reflect on the legacy of Dr. Theodora Ayot, I am encouraged. Our lives matter. The choices we make matter. We can choose to invest in young people- their curiosity, their creativity, their self-expression, their brilliance. And if we do, twenty years later they may just remember it, and attribute much of their academic success and passion to it.


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A Goodbye to James Miles from Arts Corps’ Board

It is with a level of excitement and sadness that we write this goodbye letter to James Miles. We are  very excited for James because we know that every move he makes allows others to see his shine. We are very sad for Arts Corps because that shine is no longer exclusively ours. 

Arts Corps has been very fortunate to have had James’ leadership as Executive Director since 2017.  He has led this growing organization from building and sustaining Seattle and Highline School district partnerships securing high quality arts education for youth in communities of color even during COVID.  So you see, it was a mix of excitement and sadness when he announced his acceptance to join the team of Mentor Washington beginning on December 1, 2020.  

James has brought a multitude of accomplishments as Arts Corps Executive Director. To try to capture them all is almost impossible but these are a  few that we would like to thank him for: 

  • Arts Corps continues to reach over 2,800 youths in South Seattle to South King County. 
  • Increased technological arts learning through the development of Learning Immersive Technology (LIT) and Arts Liberation and Leadership Institute (ALLI).  
  • Since 2017, increased our revenue to over 2.5M up until the pandemic hit.  
  • Turned a well-planned usual live annual fundraiser, FESTA, to a Live Stream fundraiser produced in less than two weeks after a state shut down was announced, reaching new donors nationally and internationally. 
  • Arts Corps is on all social media platforms, including consistent communication to our communities through online arts learning experiences delivered by our stellar teaching artists, monthly blog posts, and relentless advocacy for equitable arts education. 
  • Led the creation of online, remote learning arts experiences for youth and community partners- check out the; led the development of art kits delivered to over 400 students.
  • Created more connectivity with staff through weekly “on fleek” meets and elevating the “hipness” and “dopeness” into the office.

James has succeeded in making the Arts Corps tagline, “Make Art Anyway” into a challenge that has been widely accepted by staff, youth, the community, and the board, over and over again. We thank him for the energy, enthusiasm, and momentum that allows Arts Corps to thrive even  during the most trying of times. James will truly be missed and we wish him the very best in his future endeavors. With James’ departure, Carrie Siahpush, Arts Corps current Development Director, will serve as the Interim Executive Director. Carrie’s experience and deep knowledge of Arts Corps culture, great relationship with staff and board members, partners, long term stakeholders and donors would secure a seamless transition. 

Stay tuned everyone. Arts Corps is thriving and doing great things. We invite you to join us in our celebrations and watch as we continue to serve youth and our community. It goes without saying, but even through these hard times, we invite you to sing, dance, paint, draw, print, just Make… Art…Anyway. 

In love and peace,
Arts Corps Board

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Change is in the Air for Arts Corps

The fifth inning of the World Series had just ended, with the Chicago Cubs taking a 6-3 lead over the Cleveland Indians. It was game 7 of a seven game series, and if it’s not clear from my numerous tattoos and all that I talk about when people ask me about anything related to Chicago, I’m a HUGE Cubs fan. I love the Chicago Cubs since I was a baby. Growing up in Chicago, close to the baseball field, Wrigley Field, the one aspect of my life that was certain was my allegiance to the best baseball team in the multiverse, the Chicago Cubs. 

I happened to be in Chicago, with my colleague and dear friend, Jamel Mims, to pitch a hip hop education project to the International Education Funders Group. The presentation was the following day, so we were able to enjoy game with some my high school friends. Though the game was in Cleveland, Chicago’s streets were crowded with everyone spilling out of bars and their homes to celebrate a run for us, and decry a run for Cleveland. 

By the 8th inning, the game was tied. I was bent over at the waist, crying, because Cleveland was looking strong. I hadn’t eaten food really and only consumed beer, which seemed to have no effect on me. All of my Chicago friends looked the way I was feeling: lost and depleted. Executive functioning was limited as our hippocampus refused to hold memories. We repeated the same conversation over and over again. We were all prone to drastic mood swings. Time was mutable for us and each minute seemed to last either a second or an hour. Though the 8th inning ended, we didn’t fully grasp that the 9th inning was the last inning of the World Series. I was fixated on each individual play as if I alone had control over the outcome, and my computational skills were minimal.

Maybe I was feeling the beer after all…

With the game tied after the 9th inning, the rain started to come down hard in Cleveland, causing a rain delay. Time slowed. We waited. We drank more beer. I ate a hot dog and some chips. We barely spoke. Jamel looked at all of us warily, not sure of what we would do next. 

The tenth inning began with Cubs at bat. They started strong and scored two runs, which we celebrated loudly with tears. Cleveland was up at bat next and after two outs, they scored another run. The entire city of Chicago was silent for 2 minutes as the final Cleveland player stepped up to the plate. The pitcher threw the ball, Cleveland hit a groundball up the third base line, which was caught and thrown to the first baseman, who tagged the base for Cleveland’s third and final out. 

Time stopped when we realized the Cubs won the World Series! This was the first time the Cubs won, since 1908!! We jumped in the air, yelled, cried, and immediately went outside to hear others celebrating and crying and screaming too. We hugged strangers, laughed loudly, and even high fived police officers. It seemed as if everyone and their mother, including my own, was outside smiling ear to ear. It was the happiest day of my life. The next day, Jamel and I had a fantastic presentation, made some wonderful connections, and flew back to New York. My euphoria lingered as I went back to work, proudly wearing a Cubs hat and  nothing could bring me down. 

A week later, an alleged criminal was elected to be the next president of the United States of America, and all of the happiness and joy I was feeling disappeared, almost instantaneously. Those same pangs of distress I felt watching the World Series game increased 1000%. My amygdala was overexcited and my cortisol levels increased. My generally healthy lifestyle went by the wayside, my skin broke out, I was depressed, I was angry, and felt this way for the next four years. 

One of the only positives during the past four years has been working at Arts Corps. A month after the 2016 election, I flew to Seattle to interview for the role of Executive Director, and three weeks after that, we moved to Seattle. I started on January 21st, 2017, to coincide with Inauguration Day. I counted my days in office, and compared them to our new president’s. Every vile policy, he enacted, we worked to address those actions using creativity and empathy. As he tried to divide, we sought to unite. We brought love into schools, and appreciation into the lives of young people. We shed a light on the power of arts to make change. We resisted and remained resilient. We sometimes bumped heads, but we all believed in the work we were doing. We believed in young people. We grew, we shrank, we grew again. We had good times and we had bad times. We experienced fracture and we made steps towards healing. We worked shoulder to shoulder, until we were asked to stay 6 feet apart. We shifted and we adjusted. We prevailed.  We made art anyway. 

Quickly, November 2020 was coming closer to being a real date, and a feeling of unease built. My family became more emotional and scared of what would happen. Every time I saw one of my neighbors, we could barely manage a congenial hello.The schools where we work were struggling with maintaining normalcy in abnormal times and the election added to their concerns. The future was uncertain. The whole country voted, and then we waited. My screen time increased 120% over the past week, constantly checking the results of the election. It was impossible for us to see what tomorrow could hold because of this sense of inertia.

My parents In Ohio called everyday to check on us. My friends in NYC and California texted regularly that they couldn’t get out of bed. Then on Saturday morning, I hear fireworks going off. I looked at my phone and saw 75 texts. My wife said we elected a new president, a different president, a president that wants to heal, and I felt a release. We felt a release. As an organization, as a city, as a state, as a country. We can see a future where there’s more possibility. Where there’s a black woman in office. Where the White House could look more like the people that it serves. We see a path forward. It will be hard work, progress will be slow, but I think we can all feel a collective weight off our shoulders. I know, this is the first time I breathed a deep breath in a very long time. 

Yet, I also know that racism, hetero-paternalism, and xenophobia didn’t disappear overnight. On Saturday, I was just as likely to be pulled over, arrested, and potentially killed by police as I would have been Friday evening. My kids would still see images of whiteness as a default, and told their brown skin and African curls aren’t ‘beautiful.’ Many of the youth we serve would remain outsiders inside the only country they’ve known, and my non binary friends and colleagues would still have to click ‘other,’ on medical forms. There may have been a historic election of many firsts, but until we no longer need to add the moniker of ‘first (fill in the blank)’ there is still work to do.

Arts Corps will continue the work we have been doing for twenty years, serving over 3000 youth in south King County. Arts Corps will remain one of the only organizations consistently employing teaching artists and providing creative outlets for families across the region. Arts Corps will still make strides in providing our culturally responsive arts based framework to educators across the world. Arts Corps will do all of the above and more, but it will happen without me, as the Executive Director. 

Though the timing is coincidental with the election cycle, my decision was not predicated on the outcome. Working on advocacy and policy has been of interest to me since I quit acting and became a full time educator in New York City. As happenstance would have it, I was recently presented with the opportunity to be the Executive Director of Mentor Washington, and organization that does advocacy and policy work centered on youth development. At the same time, Arts Corps became a tighter and stronger organization, and most importantly, a stable organization.

Leaving Arts Corps has been one of the toughest decisions I have ever had to make, yet I realized that like the White House, new leadership was required. That leadership will come from Carrie Siahpush, our current Director of Development and Communications, who has been with Arts Corps for over four years. She will step in the role as our Interim Executive Director, and I have nothing but faith that she will steward Arts Corps through the next phase, and into another 20 years of amazing arts based programming. Carrie brings with her a focus and acumen needed to keep pushing towards meeting Arts Corps’ mission. She is both an incredibly successful fundraiser and astute at administrative management. She is passionate and she is thoughtful. She is awesome. 

Like the release I felt during the 2016 World Series, like we all felt after the 2020 election results, we are excited about the future of Arts Corps. Though I will no longer work here, I will hold it dearly in my heart, and “stan” from the sidelines. Much love to Arts Corps, to the teaching artists, the board, the staff, the youth, the community, and to our supporters. As I am writing our catchphrase for the final time, I hope we can all continue, no matter what, no matter who, no matter how, to Make Art Anyway. 

Bless up,

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