Every time you buy a there there San Francisco tee, you’re helping the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts put artists to work. The program, called Young Artists at Work (YAAW), encourages young people to draw connections between art and community, and to make projects that address issues that are important to them. It treats art like a real, important job: students are paid for their work, and collaborate with nationally-recognized artists and performers. We talked to their director, Laurel Butler, about what they do and why it matters.
Can you give us some background on your program? What sort of work do you do? Why was there a need for your program?
The Young Artists at Work Program has always been an art-as-activism residency for Bay Area Teens — however, as you know, it evolves and changes its focus every year. Last year, each of the 25 Young Artists created their own community-based art project about the social justice theme that they were most interested in — everything from climate change to health care to homelessness to the bullying of queer youth and more. They created their own murals, photo essays, installations, videos, original songs, full-length plays and presented them all in the YBCA Room for Big Ideas Gallery as part of YBCA’s first-ever Teen Nite party!
What’s next for YAAW? Any new projects or collaborations in the works?
This year, we’ve decided to work all together making art around a central theme. Our curriculum this year is called “Envisioning an Abolitionist Future," unpacking the Prison Industrial Complex to examine the complex matrix of oppressions that collude to inhibit justice and perpetuate mass incarceration in America, and theorizing strategies for intervention, change, and liberation.
It’s a really complicated project, but also exciting, urgent, and deeply engaged in meaningful community partnerships. We’ve done art-exchanges with Hunger Strike organizers at Pelican Bay, written performance poems in response to the Trayvon Martin verdict, created short films and original comics about our own experiences with racism and oppression, made political posters to raise the visibility of prison overcrowding in California, and we’ve only been working together for the four weeks of the YAAW Summer Intensive!
What do you want people to learn from your work, and what do you hope they can teach you?
Youth are agents of power for creating social change. The youth who participate in the YAAW program exhibit tremendous leadership as artist activists. Each YAAW program participant is at the forefront of determining what their artistic and creative desires are and determine what the most important issues are to them and their communities. With program staff support, YAAWs create artistic projects that investigate these issues. This year, the YAAWs decided that the issue they were most interested in exploring is the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) and bringing visibility to mass incarceration. They will create projects and presentations around this issue by being in partnership with fellow artists and educators as well as folks who have been directly impacted by the PIC, including family members, community leaders and justice organizers. We welcome folks who experience our work to take a seat at the table with us and empower youth voices to be the leaders of creating personal and systemic change.
What do you love about San Francisco that you can’t find anywhere else?
One thing that we really love about San Francisco is that art is always at the center of the of the public sphere. San Francisco's diverse cultural and ecological landscape, to us, facilitates this city's presence at the forefront of new media and public access to the arts. We see this in the Mission's dynamic murals, Golden Gate Park as a mecca for the fine and sculptural arts, the street performances that you can often find on almost any corner in San Francisco and the vast amount of music, film and dance pieces that are often presented with free admission. These are just a few examples of how San Francisco is a place where art is for everyone, not just the elite, and that is rare to find anywhere else.
Who else is doing good work in San Francisco these days? Anyone who deserves a shout-out?
Due to the community-based project model, this past year we got to really dig into working with so many incredible San Francisco-based organizations and artists! We created new partnerships with KQED Education, Bayview Hunters Point Center for Arts and Technology (BAYCAT), GLIDE, Electronic Frontier Foundation and Aquarium of the Bay. While also expanding our standing relationships with Out of Site, LYRIC, Off Center, Community Works, Situate, Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC), First Exposures and Youth Speaks, to name a few. We also have been working closely with San Francisco-based artists and community organizers such as Annie Danger, Chris Vargas, Amie Dowling, Freddy Gutierrez, Reggie Daniels and Ivan Corado. These artists and organizations have done tremendous work to give YAAWs the educational resources to bring the change home with them. We couldn't be more grateful for the time and energy they have given us and we are learning so much from these folks and look forward to continuing to build with them!
Any personal anecdotes or success stories you want to share?
One of the incredible things about the YAAW program is that we believe in fostering relationships between working artists and youth coming into their artistic careers. This past year we set up a system where the YAAWs were able to dive into individual community based projects while being mentored and supported by Bay Area artists and arts professionals. One relationship that flourished was that between Robin Epinoza, a second year YAAW participant, and Reuben Telushkin, a working artist YAAW project advisor. Robin wanted to create a mural that addressed the similarities between schools and prisons. Reuben is an expert muralist and preparator here at YBCA. As partners, Robin determined the design of the mural and took the lead in its execution and Reuben was there to guide him through his artistic process, giving him creative support and feedback. Robin and Reuben’s teamwork was so successful that this past June their team, along with 2 other youth-adult YAAW advisor partners, were able to present an intensive workshop, “Artivism as Power”, at the Allied Media Conference in Detroit. Having YAAWs present their work beyond the Bay Area and being in community with artists, activists, youth and educators across the nation is a moment of great pride for us.
Anything else that you think people should know about what you guys do?
People often ask us, why prisons? The Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) effects all of us. According to The Sentencing Project and the ACLU, while the United States only has 5% of the world's population, we have 25% of the world’s prison population. There are over 2.5 million people and growing who are currently incarcerated. Two-thirds of the women who are incarcerated are parents of minor children. 5.3 million of formerly incarcerated persons have been denied the right to vote and participate in the democratic process. One of every three black men will go to prison in their lifetime and 1 of every 15 black men, ages 18 or older is currently incarcerated. More than half of the prison population has been locked up for non-violent offenses. California spends more money on prisons than it does on public and higher education combined while maintaining one of the highest number of prison facilities in the country. The racial, economic and education disparities that systemically put people into prisons need to be addressed. This work is urgent and needs to happen now.
Youth will determine what our world will look like. This is an issue that they identified as being imperative to creating a better, more just society. We are proud to be doing this work and hope that more folks come on board. For more information about who we are, the work we are doing and how to get involved in organizing around issues of mass incarceration, please check out our Facebook and Tumblr.