On a recent evening in June, 15-year-old Inti Gonzalez could be spotted, soda in hand, amid a swirling covey of business-clad professionals. Her dreamy Eyes of the Wise was among a series of paintings that graced the first floor of the McGuire Real Estate office in Berkeley, Calif. The office was the site of an art show and benefit on behalf of Youth Spirit Artworks, a nonprofit in Berkeley that brings art and job training to homeless and low-income youth.
The first time I saw Inti’s arresting, blue-toned image of two crying eyes, I thought of Fracis Cugat’s 1925 Celestial Eyes, a painting immortalized on the cover of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s iconic novel The Great Gatsby. And while Cugat’s eyes are an allusion to a billboard in the dusty outskirts of New York, a poor community excluded from the Roaring Twenties decadence that makes up the rest of the novel, Inti’s eyes provide witness to those who are marginalized here in the Bay Area. They are the product of a program that acknowledges and responds to the struggle of young people who are facing incredible hardship and grappling with it through art. I was inspired to discover more creativity from the youth here and learn how art is transforming their lives.
Facts: Youth Homelessness
- There are as many as 400 youth experiencing homelessness in Berkeley at any given time
- According to the East Oakland Community Project, families make up 43 percent of people experiencing homelessness in Alameda County, and children make up 28 percent
- According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, roughly 50,000 young people sleep on the street for six months or more in the U.S. and almost 200,000 youth are on the street on a given night
In the Spirit of Compassion
Youth Spirit Artworks seeks to empower homeless and low-income youth through art. Its June event featured the work of program participants in their teens and early 20s and comprised a variety of artistic styles.
I was inspired by Youth Spirit’s mission of combining the joy of art with positive social change. The youth-led program provides art jobs and job training, and instead of charging for its services, it offers participants paid positions, seats on the organization’s board, and help selling their artwork. This blend of passion and compassion provides youth with an outlet for creative expression as well as a source of income.
Sally Hindman, executive director of the nonprofit, founded Youth Spirit in 2007 when she recognized an “incredible unemployment problem” in her South Berkeley neighborhood and was particularly disturbed by the number of youth off the street who didn’t have the experience or the readiness to be able to get employment.
The organization aims to prepare young people for the working world holistically by addressing their emotional needs and especially their experiences of trauma through art while also equipping them with practical skills that will aid in the workforce.
“Our motto is art saves lives,” Hindman said. “The time they spend on our program and the work they do on themselves and in community keeps youth from getting involved in activities that might be dangerous to them emotionally and physically.
“Also, I think that spiritually we provide a whole atmosphere in community that is just very healing and healthy for youth to be able to build up their lives as people who are leaders in the community and who are productive citizens,” she added.
Alvin Jefferson, who’s been involved with the program for about a year, was one of the artists whose work was showcased. His graffiti and cartoon-inspired design, which he credited to such influences as Looney Tunes and Pokemon, was featured at the entrance of the exhibit.
“Students from Berkeley High come and just connect while doing art,” he said, observing the impact of the program on those involved in it.
Youth Spirit creates a relaxed environment for young people who often need a haven from the realities of life in and out of housing. It fosters a community where they can relate to each other’s hardships, even if those hardships are unfathomable to the majority of the population.
Finding Hope through Creativity
“A lot of our youth go through experiences that many people couldn’t imagine,” said Danielle Gibbins, associate director of Youth Spirit Artworks. “Whether that’s their family suddenly losing their apartment, and they’re a senior in high school suddenly commuting from 30 minutes away just to try to graduate. Or they have a book fee and suddenly that fee pushes their family over the edge for a month. They just deal with issues that a lot of us don’t think about.”
Those issues can be isolating if their peers don’t understand what they’re going through.
Located in a county with rapidly escalating housing prices and limited resources for the homeless, Youth Spirit’s focus on transition-age youth makes it relatively unique. It targets a population that often slips through the cracks in terms of help and resources, and it does so through the mentorship of compassionate leaders and by encouraging young artists to pursue their passion.
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