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Fellows combine art, activism to find place and belonging in the Central Valley

From left: ArteVism Fellows Joshua Slack, Hana Luna Her, Michael Piña and Paulina Rodriguez Ruiz photo: Eduardo Stanley Photo: / AFSC

We want a world in which all persons are respected. We also want diverse communities to have the resources they need to cultivate positive change. Yet too often, people don’t feel safe to express who they are, and communities lack the resources they need to thrive.

AFSC’s ArteVism Fellowship Program provides the California Central Valley’s youth of color with opportunities to build their own unique sense of place and belonging. Our Fellows create provocative programming that engages the community. Their work paves the way for a more democratic and equitable region.

In 2022, four young people brought this vision to life through their creativity and organizing. It gives me great pleasure to share their work with you.

Paulina Rodriguez Ruiz (left) and Michael Piña. Photo: Tudor Stanley

ArteVism Fellows Michael Piña and Paulina Rodrigues organized Queer in the Valley. The event aimed to create a safe space for Queer Trans Black Indigenous People of Color (QTBIPOC).

“I think when we don’t have physical spaces to come together and understand that our experience is not singular, it can be very isolating,” Paulina told KVPR. The Central Valley needs spaces where people “can be intersectional and you can express all your identities.”

“It really is one of the first times in the Central Valley where we’re able to showcase our talents and celebrate ourselves in a beautiful way,” Michael added.

Paulina and Michael convened five local artists from the QTBIPOC community. They also engaged 10 volunteers, members of their learning groups, to plan the event. More than 100 people from across the state registered to attend.

Although a surge in the Omicron virus forced us to cancel the event, the Fellows regrouped and carried on.

Artist Hana Luna Her in front of her mural. Photo: Eduardo Stanley

In February, ArteVism Fellow and local artist Hana Luna Her unveiled her mural Wings of Change. The mural will live at Stone Soup, an organization founded in the 1980s to provide services to southeast Asian refugees. The group now supports refugee families from the Middle East and other people fleeing war.

Hana was inspired by the migration journey of communities of color that now call the Central Valley home. Wings of Change is a celebration of the cultural diversity of immigrants and refugees.

Photo: Eduardo Stanley

“This mural helped me grow as an artist, but even more so as an individual." Hana said. “That’s the power of art, and how it heals. When we do art, we become expressive, and we embrace our own narratives. We need that more in the Central Valley.”

Joshua Slack performing Code Switch. Photo: Eduardo Stanley

In March, ArteVism Fellow Joshua Slack wrote and performed the monologue Code Switch. The phrase describes adjusting one’s way of life to optimize the comfort of others in exchange for fair treatment, quality service, and employment opportunities.

At the end of his performance, the audience engaged in dialogue about the conflicts of identity generated by racism and discrimination faced by most youth of color. Ultimately these conflicts limit young people’s confidence to be fully engaged politically and socially.

“I use my art as a tool to be radical in a sense, to reach out to communities as well as express myself and whatever it is I’m feeling within the community,” Joshua said. “I’m very appreciative of the ArteVism cohort and the Fellowship for helping me really focus on that aspect of my life – to become a better artist, activist, and ‘ArteVist.’”

Dr. Lea Ybarra, left, and Myrna Martinez Nateras of AFSC. Photo: Eduardo Stanley

Our second ArteVism Fellowship recently concluded with The Struggle Continues, a talk by Dr. Lea Ybarra. She spoke about the United Farmworkers’ struggle for justice and equality. She shared her experience in that movement and how it, along with the Vietnam War, served as an impetus for the Chicano movement.

Dr. Ybarra highlighted the advocates who came before us and the difference they made for the Valley’s current youth of color. These youth must continue the struggle. We are honored to walk alongside them in this work.

About the Author

Myrna Martinez Nateras is the program director for the Pan Valley Institute of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). In 1998 Myrna joined AFSC to found the Pan Valley Institute, a center with the goal of assisting immigrants in becoming active players in empowering their communities.