Back to school. How is that possible?

I’m writing from our West Seattle office where I can hear music and muffled laughter coming through the huge open windows as our team sets up in the parking lot. Masked shouts of love are coming from folks who haven’t seen each other in person for over a year. The energy is contagious, the rhythm is palpable. We’re giddy, maybe even a little awkward, we’re just happy to be together. It’s a much needed salve for my heart. 

Today’s a special day. Our Program Team and veteran Teaching Artists on staff are welcoming new teaching artists to the Arts Corps faculty. 11 new teaching artists will join our robust roster of 25 this fall. Among them are poets, writers, storytellers, music producers, visual artists, theatre artists, and even a puppeteer. As we gather in masks outside on a chilly August afternoon to make art, learn together, and share a socially-distanced meal, it’s clear that these are our people. Artists. Creatives. Educators. Folks who thrive off of sharing ideas. It feels like a rebirth of what it means to Make Art Anyway. 

This school year we plan to hold 60% of our classes in-person. We’re also planning to continue virtual classes. Online learning breaks down access barriers for youth across King County, widening the reach of Arts Corps’ classes. We anticipate that we will assemble and deliver over 5,000 art kits, each of which are unique to each student and their curriculum.  

After walking the tightrope of a global pandemic, a major leadership transition, and navigating the ever-changing education landscape, our organization has taken the last nine months to reflect and build. 

In January, we began the year with a period of intentional deep reflection, beginning with an organizational assessment that helped us learn about and lean into our strengths, identify our warts, and supported us in deciding how to move forward as we begin to search for a permanent leadership solution.

After three months of exploration, we learned that we have a team full of passionate staff and teaching artists. We have a collective commitment to the youth in our programs, to anti-racism, and to our community at large, and that despite the pandemic and other challenges, Arts Corps’ programs have continued to offer the highest quality of creative learning opportunities. It was also clear that we value shared leadership. 

We were also left with some questions:

How is Arts Corps creating a sustainable life for teaching artists? What is our compensation philosophy? How do we manage conflict? To answer these questions, we started at the root. We centered our values of community, equity, and creativity to closely examine how we want them to show up in our daily work.

Community: Our team has been talking about the community we want to build together. What makes a community strong, a place for authentic belonging, where each identity and lived experience is valued, and where each person has a place in important decision making? We know that begins with trust. So that’s what we’ve been building. In addition to programming, we’ve been working to establish radical honesty. In March we began working closely with Praxis Essentials, run by our own Co-Director of Arts Education, Olisa Enrico. Olisa is leading us through team building rooted in equity. 

Equity: An important theme at the heart of our staff conflict in 2019 was inequitable pay. It is a critical piece of who we are at Arts Corps to make sure we lead our region in equitable business practices. We need to ensure that our incredibly talented team can not only afford to live and work in King County, but that our families can thrive and have a healthy quality of life. 

This spring we collaborated to draft and pass an equitable compensation policy as part of a more inclusive budget process. Now we have transparent salary bands. This new plan ensures that no Arts Corps staff member will ever earn less than 50% of the median wage for their particular position in King County. Our highest paid staff member makes no more than 2x that of the lowest paid staff member. We have clear pathways to promotions. We also offer a small bump in compensation for every year folks have been in their role, as well as a COLA every other year. In the years without a COLA, we reevaluate salary bands to ensure we are still offering leading wages in the nonprofit industry. 

We took time to reevaluate the way we compensate teaching artists. Some of the feedback that we heard was that there was too much of a gap between our classroom assistants and our most experienced teaching artists, leaving our newest and often youngest teaching artists most vulnerable. Now we offer 3 bands of flat rate wages that not only exceed national industry norm, but are some of the highest paid teaching artists positions in our region. Arts Corps teaching artists now receive access to a 401K with a match from Arts Corps, access to dental insurance, accident plans, and other benefits. 

Our entire team of staff and teaching artists receive a personal and professional development allotment to use as they choose because we know that having a healthy well-balanced life leads to creative expression.

Creativity: We’ve all learned to expect the unexpected, so we will continue to do what we do best. We are here to make art together. We make art at our team meetings, we play theater games, we do scavenger hunts, and show-and-tell on Zoom. This summer, my biggest source of joy were the pop-up performances that we did at four community housing sites — drumming, singing, and dancing with youth and their families is what we all needed. Creative collaboration and expression is where joy comes from.

As we start another unprecedented school year, we’ll learn and grow with our partners as we navigate the pandemic together. We’ll take high level safety precautions to keep each other safe. We care about our community. We care about our students and we can’t wait to make more art. 

— CARRIE SIAHPUSH, Acting Executive Director

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Sponsor Spotlight: Mahlum Architects

Mahlum Architects Staff

For those in the design community, it comes as no surprise that Arts Corps’ longest-running Festa sponsor is an architecture firm. Mahlum, a Seattle architecture firm established in 1938, has supported Arts Corps consistently since 2008. The value of arts education is not lost on those who spend their days designing built environments that foster a sense of safety, connection, and curiosity — the very same outcomes that Arts Corps’ teaching artists work to achieve with students in the classroom!

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Anne Schopf, a partner at Mahlum and longtime Arts Corps supporter. Drawing the connection between Mahlum’s work and Arts Corps’ mission, Anne described that arts education was profoundly formative for both her and her colleagues. She reflected: “I can’t imagine not having it. Many of us are all so committed to understanding art itself. If not art, what are we living for? We [Arts Corps and Mahlum] care about the same things. We’re just doing it in different ways.”

Equity and community are two values shared by Mahlum and Arts Corps, and a specific way that they play out at Mahlum is in the firm’s design process. They try to center those who don’t have a voice at the table, honoring the culture and traditions of the primary occupants of the space. For example, in preparation for the design of a new hospital in Nome, Alaska, Mahlum’s design team visited with elders, students, healthcare staff, and local villages to gain a deeper understanding of the values and challenges facing the region’s people. This practice integrated Nome’s rich local culture with the hospital’s ultimate design.

It was clear from my conversation with Anne that curiosity is a core component of an architect’s job. When asked what her favorite thing about working at Mahlum was, Anne responded, “I get to learn something new every day. Right now, I’m learning about autism. How wonderful is that? I get to learn about new ideas that I don’t touch, but I’m learning through the work we’re touching.”

This passion for learning is exactly what we work to nurture through our arts education programming at Arts Corps. My conversation with Anne clarified that we at Arts Corps share a commitment to spaces that cultivate learning and creativity with our friends at Mahlum.

We’re immensely grateful for their partnership!


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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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