Coordinator Lisa Smith reflects on 10 years of encouraging youth expression through art

COURTESY PHOTO:  - A young artist adds to a group painting at Todos Juntos' Sandy location in fall 2021.A decade in and still going strong, Clackamas County Arts Alliance's Youth Arts for Change program is stepping confidently into its next chapter of supporting underserved youth in expressing themselves through art after celebrating its 10th anniversary in December 2021.

From its early days in 2011 as a partnership with the Clackamas County Juvenile Department offering guidance in theatre-based expression, the program has since blossomed into a multi-pronged learning and collaboration opportunity for members of local youth support organizations to express themselves through a variety of mediums.

The program currently offers groups of eight to 14 members with mentorship in drawing, painting, photography, performing arts and more in partnership with the Juvenile Department as well as Parrot Creek Child & Family Services in Oregon City and Todos Juntos, a community-based service provider offering the art program at its Sandy and Canby locations.

"The guiding principle was always this idea of using the arts as a catalyst to promote positive expression and to form some bonds with the community," said Lisa Smith, coordinator for the program.

Smith joined the Alliance in 2015 with a diverse background of career experience ranging from criminal prosecution to photography and arts education. She said her position has evolved over the years from just coordinating to include hands-on instruction and supervision that has helped her better understand how the program can effectively accomplish its mission.

"There was never a doubt how beneficial these programs were for kids, but there needed to be a little bit more clarification on what we're doing," Smith said.

Smith said she found over the years that engaging youth in artistic expression is best done by nurturing each child's unique approach to exploring ideas and themes creatively rather than simply offering instruction of technical skills which may be interpreted as steadfast rules.SUBMITTED PHOTO - Lisa Smith.

"There is no right or wrong way to do it," Smith said. "Because if you tell a kid, 'That's not right,' or 'That doesn't make sense,' then you're just devaluing their thought process. What we need to be doing is encouraging them to be introspective."

"I hear all the time: 'I'm not an artist, I can't draw.' And I'm like, 'That's not how that goes. Let me explain why you can be an artist: Do you have something to say? Do you want to say it? Let's figure out a way to say it, and it doesn't have to be perfect,'" she added.

As the COVID-19 pandemic introduced sweeping health and safety mandates, temporarily halting the Alliance's in-person programming in early 2020, Smith said program organizers were able to successfully navigate the sudden challenge of translating the program to virtual means, quickly pivoting to a remote format which was offered to participants by the summer of 2020.

"I think the most important thing is we learned that we can do art virtually and have it be interactive, have it be successful," Smith said, adding that the time period allowed herself and the team to reflect on the program's prior years and continue developing ways to encourage youth creativity as effectively as possible.

Smith said one-on-one virtual sessions were developed out of necessity due to some confidentiality issues with their partner organizations meeting in groups remotely, which provided her the opportunity to develop a closer relationship with each child and learn what they wanted out of the program.

"What really started to crystallize was that art as a form of positive expression for these kids, it's more than just positive expression…it's getting them to think about how they want to communicate certain ideas, or emotions, or reflections upon themselves, in this visual way," Smith said.COURTESY PHOTO: LISA SMITH - Youth Arts for Change program artworks hung in Baker Prairie Middle School in 2016.

Continuing its online programming throughout late 2020 and early 2021, the Alliance was able return to in-person operations by summer 2021 and now looks to continue expanding the opportunities it offers to youth going forward.

Each program now culminates in a group showing where participant creations are displayed proudly in select locations countywide, including the program's dedicated wall space at the county's public services building in Oregon City.

"How amazing, when you are 13 years old, your piece of art is going to be hanging in this building where the people who make the decisions in the county walk by every day. I think that's really powerful," Smith said.

Smith said the Alliance looks to continue expanding Youth Arts for Change to reach more of the county's underserved youth and will be revamping its website in the coming days to reflect additional opportunities available soon.

"Art can be really important for any group, especially with groups that perhaps have barriers and struggles. And to have a safe space to come in and express those is huge. So we're really gearing towards focusing on more of those groups of kids," Smith said.

To learn more about Youth Arts for Change, click here.

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