Youth-led EPACENTER brings art and hope to East Palo Alto
This story aired in the May 10, 2023 episode of Crosscurrents.
What I think is really special is that it's not every day that a young person of color gets to shape what happens in the place where they live.
East Palo Alto often sits in the shadow of Silicon Valley. One place that’s evident is in the options for youth. Only 17% of students have access to art education in school. That’s why, 12 years ago (2010), a group of E.P.A teenagers pushed for an arts and cultural center. After years of classes in schools, shopping centers or parks, last April, E.P.A CENTER, or EPACENTER (Pronounced: Epicenter) opened its doors offering free dance, music, visual arts, acting and culinary classes in a space made by the youth for their own growth. Kalw’s Astrid Fedel has the story.
It’s Friday night in East Palo Alto and EPACENTER is throwing a party for the whole community.
The modern building only opened its doors in April 2022. And for the first time tonight, residents of all ages are gathering for free workshops: metal engraving, painting techniques and drumming.
“Clap your hands one time! Oh, that was so weak... If you mess up, we’re doing 20 Push Ups. 1 time! No time! Ok we’re gonna work it out, everybody says “no worries!” says award winning percussionist James Henry.
For the past few years, James taught online, But this semester, he’s set up in the brand new black box theater.Teacher James hands each person an instrument, and they all join in a Nigerian welcoming song. Then, he brings a “TAMA”, a talking drum from Senegal. He asks if anyone knows the HIT movie this instrument was in.
Deliy’ah, a 10-year-old drummer-in-the making smiles and answers right away, It’s Black Panther. Deliy’ah has been taking classes through EPACENTER for 3 years now. She says that her favorite class is drumming because she get to meet new people and learn new songs.
Today she’s sharing her passion with her mum Nyla, who says her daughter excels in the arts. She adds ”I am happy that there's an organization here in our community that caters to the kids. Deliy’ah interrupts” to provide their needs”. “Yes to provide their needs” Nyla says, smiling.
Drumming and Percussion class
I come back on a Saturday, for the weekly percussion & drumming class where James teaches Deliy’ah, Andrew and other students to find their own beat.
East Palo Alto covers only 2,5 square miles, yet its residents come from all over the world. In this class, students have roots in Latin America, the Pacific Islands, and Asia. “We like to combine all rhythms from around the world,” James says.
Today, 13-year-old Raymond is leading the band, with a beat from home. James explains ”since he's Latin, his ancestors are Azteca. He does a reggaeton. It's very popular in latin pop music today”. He adds ”everyone has their own style of playing and that's what I'm trying to just teach them is that they don't have to sound like nobody except themselves”.
Students have only been coming to the new building for a year, but they already look right at home. After the drum class I meet with Andrew who remembers how his time off looked like before this place existed. “Sometimes, Saturdays, I always don't do nothing. I just stayed at my house and my mom said I need, to learn a lot of stuff and the only reason I'm coming here is to make my mom proud.
Maya, a 9-year-old student who takes Drums, Choir and Piano, had this to say. “I just went nowhere. I just went to my house, played or just like, watched TV”. “Like I always wanted to do piano and I figured out that this place had piano so I joined and I liked it. If I don’t like it I can just switch to a different class” she adds.
Cassie, a native from East Palo Alto who now teaches dance classes at EPACENTER, had the same experience growing up.
For her, this is personal. ”When I grew up in east Palo Alto, there weren't any dance classes at all. My mom, since she was a dance teacher. She would actually take me…outside of East Palo Alto, at the studio that she worked for. Um So I mean honestly if it wasn't for that, I probably wouldn't have any dance experience.
She says her dance practice taught her work ethic, perseverance and confidence. Now she’s passing down her learnings to the youth of her city. At the dance studio, she guides 8 girls through turns and relevés.
“The biggest thing that I teach my students is to have confidence, confidence in their dancing, confidence in who they are, um, confidence to make decisions for themselves…so they can grow up and do whatever they wish to do” she says.
Cassie’s story is just one example of why the art center was created. Nadine Rambeau, the executive director of EPACENTER explains, “EPACENTER as a concept started back in 2010. When youth in the community decided that they really wanted to see change happen in their community”. She adds “and so they were working with researchers at Stanford. And they learned how to conduct surveys of their community. They went to their peers, they went to city leaders, they went to adults who were in charge of other non profits and basically did an asset mapping of what existed in the city for them and what was missing.
She says that, of all the ideas brought to the table, the one the students wanted the most was an art center for the youth. Local philanthropists behind the John & Marcia Goldman Foundation, who funded the research, then donated millions of dollars to see the vision realized. The goal was for students to have a say in all aspects of the project, instead of being’ acted upon.
“They ended up selecting the land that the building is located on. They worked with the architect on the design of the building. And then when it came to the programming, they got involved in deciding what exactly would be the classes that would be offered here”. Nadine says.
They even named the rooms in the building. The dance studio became the vibe, the art atelier, the splat, and the theater the boom.
“What I think is really special is that it's not every day that a young person of color gets to shape what happens in the place where they live. And when I first took some of the students who actually worked on this project into the building on a tour, some of them cried. And I think this is the day I realized the import of the project” Nadine says. One student, a 10-year-old boy, told her something that really stuck with her. She remembers “he felt that buildings like this really only exist on the other side of the 101 highway”.
But kids didn’t wait for the state-of-the-art facility to be built to pursue their dream of arts and culture education. in 2019, EPACENTER started holding classes all around the city.
Now, with a space of their own, kids are building a community where they can learn and grow.
“I'm really hyped and really um happy that I'm there and whenever I'm, I'm practicing all of my friends, I have a lot of friends now that I’m here and they really support me and they’re really good friends” Andrew says, before adding, ”and I have One more thing to say is that I really appreciate my drum teacher, teacher James. He really helps me and he exercises us. He’s like an uncle to me a little bit”.
Adults let them explore, experiment, change direction and make mistakes.”Teacher James, he's okay if we make mistakes… if we make a mistake in the beat, like it turns some of it turns into a different beat that turns like good” Maya says.
Studies show that in under-resourced areas kids who are deeply involved in arts are five timesmore likely to graduate highschool.
That’s why the center also partners with organizations – like the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to learn documentary filmmaking using drones, or the Walt Disney family Museum in San Francisco to learn animation. “that way the students are getting access immediately to the very best and we can continue their education,” Nadine says.
They also get to connect with the greater bay Area. But even more so, they learn how to play a role in shaping their city. “For example, in our public art class… we just had a group of students have their first mural installed at a water tank at an affordable housing complex here in the city. That mural is actually visible as you drive down the 101," Nadine says.
And so the East Palo Alto youth can show passers by from Silicon Valley the colorful way that they see their city.
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