I am a committed human rights activist, artist, educator, and advocate for youth based in Brooklyn, New York.
I currently serve as the Founder and Executive Director of Art and Resistance Through Education (ARTE). ARTE amplifies the voices of young people, using the visual arts as the vehicle to galvanize and mobilize them around critical human rights issues in their communities. Through ARTE’s impact, young people in schools, jails, and community centers can discuss and take action to make transformational societal change by addressing issues such as racial discrimination, immigration, gender equity, and mass incarceration.
My GATHER Fellowship focus will be on creating better, more sustainable mechanisms for social change via ARTE. This includes how to cultivate more donor relationships, developing the language for more effective grant writing, and developing more creative, diverse fundraising tactics for sustainability.
I hold an MPA from New York University and an M.Ed. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
What is the need you are trying to meet through your work?
In my work, I have learned that youth of color experience a disproportionate amount of human rights abuses in this country. At a systemic level, they encounter emotional and physical trauma as well as violence through interactions across several institutions, including the incarceration and immigration systems. Exposure to such violence and trauma has life-long effects that negatively impact entire generations.
These experiences of trauma are exacerbated when we lack the language to articulate the wrongs that have taken place. Human rights education, among other things, supplies a vocabulary for this needed demarcation. It empowers those who have experienced trauma to become grassroots leaders for justice. Yet, youth often lack access to the language of human rights. When people are unaware of their rights, it becomes more likely that their rights will get violated. Thus, my vision for ARTE was born, as a space for young people to express their own experiences and reflections around human rights through interactive, multimedia visual arts programming. Students create murals, but even more importantly, they become equipped with the organizing skills that enable them to collectively work more effectively in steering society towards greater justice.
Tell us about the community you come from.
People often assume I am from Brooklyn, New York, given my great love and passion for this great borough in arguably, the world’s greatest city. While Brooklyn is currently home and the place I love most, I am not originally from here, but born and raised in Southern California. I moved here for graduate school several years ago. Although it is up to a real New Yorker to determine my status, I consider it an adopted home in which I strive to give back in whatever way possible.
At a very early age I became involved in activism. I started organizing when I was 8–9 years old and have never truly stopped. In my school cafeteria, I would race to finish my lunch early so that I could position myself next to the trash cans where people emptied their lunch trays. I would set up a table with a photobook of endangered species. My goal was to collect any leftover lunch money from students to donate to organizations that helped protect these endangered species.
As I grew older, I realized that much of my teenage life was devoted to thinking about mass incarceration. At the time, my hometown was best known for its prison, the California Institution for Men. As I became more involved in activism around mass incarceration, I began to question the structural violence that is embedded in this system, which disproportionately affects people of color. From this experience, I began early in life to wonder what I could do to address these systemic inequalities, which eventually led me to pursue the study of Political Science and International Relations.
How does your personal context impact or inspire your work?
I lived near a prison for most of my childhood and routinely saw the resulting negative impacts on the community around me. I knew that there were problems in my community, but wasn’t sure where to begin. The concept of volunteering had been instilled in me at a very young age, particularly at the public library, senior centers, and food pantries, and while I thought such service was, and still is, important, I felt then that I wasn’t able to do anything to address the root causes of inequity.
Particularly as a young person, I wanted to do something to make change, but felt very isolated, especially in high school. I was introduced to activism as a teenager through Unitarian Universalist organizers, a faith-based mobilization of folks addressing issues of human rights and social justice. There I learned more about what activism was, what it meant to feel called to addressing injustice from a spiritual level, and what it meant to organize among others for social change.
It was at this point that I realized that anger can indeed be a gift. I think as a teenager, I was very angry and wanted to be able to channel this energy to make social change. Thus, I think this is the reason that I do this work to support young people—especially incarcerated youth—so that they can realize their own agency to drive meaningful change in their lives and in their communities.
What have learned in the course of doing this work?
There are three things:
It takes time to get truly good at anything. Someone once said to me that realistically it takes about two years to get good at any job. Why would one expect anything different from a start-up/social enterprise? We learn from all of our experiences, especially from experiences where we don’t have a manual or guidebook and have to navigate on our own. This takes time.
First and foremost, take care of yourself. I always felt very uncomfortable thinking about “self-care” as a practice for myself. However, I have recently discovered that none of this work is worth jeopardizing one’s own well-being. A very powerful human rights activist once told me, “we don’t need any more martyrs,” and that has continued to resonate with me.
Look for your clear sense of purpose and share that with others. Across my career with nonprofit organizations and working with thousands of incredible volunteers, I have found one commonality: the desire for impact. Even if a task requires a lot of hard work or seems tedious, a volunteer will continue to contribute, so long as they believe that their efforts are making an impact on the organization and the constituency it serves. I have found that people want to feel that they are contributing to something greater than themselves.
What is one thing about yourself that you want everyone to know?
There is one story I frequently like to share.
At the same time as when I started ARTE, I decided to take a series of Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) classes. In retrospect, this was probably not the best decision at the time, but I have always wanted to be a more useful human being and I feel those in the medical field are some of the most useful and valuable people. During the COVID-19 pandemic, folks are reminded of this more than ever. In my case though, being useful and being an artist / leader of an arts organization, were constantly at odds with one another in the EMT classroom. I remember very distinctly a moment in class where we were learning how to properly make slings, and had practiced on my own fellow classmates.
At one point, I had gotten very nervous and kept messing up the maneuver that was demonstrated to us. After several times of failing, I frustratingly told the group that I was working with, “I’m an artist, I don’t know how to do these kinds of things!” Almost instantly, the sassy, smart-mouthed instructor, who always came in eating a sandwich and joking, looked at me very soberly. “You may be an artist, but that doesn’t give you permission to do things incorrectly. With EMS, this is a matter of life or death.”
Upon hearing those words, I became incredibly embarrassed, but I’ve often shared this story with others, because the lesson learned was so strong. There are no reasons to do things incorrectly, especially when another human life is at stake. As humans, we are allowed to make mistakes, we are allowed to ask questions, but there is no excuse to do things incorrectly, once we have learned from our mistakes. Even though this experience was not directly related to my work with ARTE, it was during the same time I started and the lesson touched me deeply and had a significant impact on how I looked at my work.
“As a GATHER Fellow, I am especially interested in learning with and from an international group of colleagues interested in conflict transformation and who are also dedicating their lives and careers to building more peaceful communities.”