Taking it Virtual
Karina Esperanza Yánez
How We StartedI launched Greetings from South-Central L.A. (Greetings) in January 2017 as an online resource for the families of students attending View Park Preparatory, a kindergarten through eighth grade (K-8) school located in the South-Central neighborhood of Los Angeles. Since then, it has grown into a flourishing space for young creatives in my community. When I got started, I was a classroom arts educator. I discovered that there was a disconnect between the arts and culture sector and our community. Even though parents were interested in taking students to museums and other cultural events, finding updated information was often difficult. Simply suggesting that parents and students search for information on the Internet was not enough. This paper tells the story of how Greetings was founded, introduces readers to the neighborhood, and shares how we developed virtual arts education programming for local youth.
When Greetings began, I printed out informational brochures for parents and guardians listing local arts and culture institutions along with the names and websites of youth-based arts education programs in both the visual and performing arts. The brochures were helpful but limiting in terms of space, and I also felt that there could be a more sustainable, environmentally conscious way to spread the information. I designed and launched a website that would serve as an arts education online resource for parents and expand the resources available for other educators. Greetings went on to include a map that would geographically locate and list nearby arts and cultural institutions, the primary focus being within a five mile radius of our South-Central neighborhood.
Our name change, from Greetings from South-Central L.A to just Greetings, happened in 2018 when the platform grew from being just an online resource listing arts education programs for interested students to also hosting and facilitating field trips for students. After a few months of hosting the website and referring parents to it, I found that merely listing resources had created another roadblock. For example, simply telling them that an art gallery in our neighborhood was hosting an all-ages art opening was not enough. So, in hopes of making art and cultural centers feel more welcoming, I began hosting field trips during weekends. These trips were optional. Any student in the third grade and above was invited. For the first two years of its growth, Greetings facilitated dozens of art-focused field trips for students in the upper elementary and middle school grade levels. In 2019, our primary focus was on expanding the reach of students attending the summer, winter, and spring break field trips. Toward the end of 2019, we established relationships with local educators and schools, and had plans to continue partnerships in the Spring of 2020.
Our NeighborhoodIn mid-2003, the City Council of Los Angeles voted to change the name South-Central Los Angeles to South Los Angeles on all city documents. This was a move that supporters claimed would "help erase a stigma” that had a grim presence in the southern part of Los Angeles. This “stigma” was brought on by the racist, classist news stories which often portray our neighborhood as having high crime rates and poverty. “South LA” is the official name used by many local businesses, schools, newspapers, publications, and, of course, city documents. Today, this name change remains a symbol of the divide, and the differences of opinion, that our community faces; it is still referred to as “South-Central” by a majority of the 49,728 residents who lived here prior to 2003. However, elected officials, and those typically not from the area, refer to our community as South LA.
The South-Central neighborhood is also experiencing a wave of gentrification brought on by outside developers interested in certain pockets of the community. The University of Southern California (USC) area, near downtown Los Angeles and Exposition Park, has witnessed new development such as high-end apartments for USC students and tourists since the early 2000s. The Leimert Park neighborhood has been gentrifying rapidly since early 2010 when the LA Metro announced that they would be putting in a train going from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to the Crenshaw/Exposition Station. Leimert Park has been singled out as one of several “up-and-coming” neighborhoods of Los Angeles. Similar gentrifying events have occurred in Inglewood, an incorporated city adjacent to South-Central. Most recently, brought on by the tragic death of local rapper Nipsey Hussle, the Crenshaw District and Hyde Park neighborhoods have also experienced higher levels of attention from the media and new development.
Our Plans for ExpansionBefore the pandemic hit, Greetings' plan for 2020 was two-fold: focus on establishing relationships with local schools and families, and continue to expand our out-of-school field trips. Our community engagement plan consisted of emailing, and then physically visiting, schools. My goal as the founder of the organization is to establish solid, reciprocal relationships with at least one educator at each school. This had to happen in person by chatting with educators, helping them around their classroom, listening to them share information about their students, and taking a look at their students’ work. After years of being a classroom arts educator, I’d learned that if just one educator is aware that your program exists, and that relationship is solid, they will advocate for you.
In the months of January, February, and early March of 2020, we worked closely with View Park Middle School and Teach Tech High School, both charter schools in South-Central LA. Students from both schools kicked off their return from the winter holiday break by visiting Lauren Halsey’s exhibition at David Kordansky Gallery, not knowing it would be our last field trip for over a year. Greetings' last field trip of 2020 was on March 5th, in partnership with Teach Tech High School. During both visits to the gallery, students met artist Lauren Halsey and were treated to a lunch graciously provided by the gallery. During all of our field trips, students also worked on an “Art Card” where they spend time writing about the works on view and critically engaging with them. These cards are aligned with English Language Arts (ELA) & Visual and Performing Arts (VAPA) standards to simultaneously hit California Content Standards and be an engaging field trip.
Between 2019 and early 2020, we participated in the winter holiday Kingdom Day event in Leimert Park, and Destination Crenshaw’s ground-breaking ceremony during which we hosted booths where visitors of all ages could paint a collaborative mural honoring and centering the Crenshaw District. In February 2020, I was planning our summer field trip itinerary, which included visits to the Institute of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, Corita Art Center, and other art and culture centers in the greater Los Angeles area.
Covid WorldAdmittedly, my first reaction to navigating the shift from in-person field trips and programming to online classes was that it wouldn’t work. So much of teaching revolves around the relationships formed with students and their families. I thought that developing those relationships online would be impossible, but I am glad I was wrong. I quickly had to shift my mindset, and I realized that I had to think about what would make sense for the organization and what was needed. During the months of March and April, most of our time at Greetings was spent asking students how the shift from in-person to distance learning was going. These conversations happened informally, checking in with parents via Instagram or text messaging. We also reached out to a few local educators asking how it was going, and if there was any way Greetings could support them.
Once it became apparent that we would most likely not be going back to “normal,” we piloted an art session beginning the first week of May. Our goal was to establish and develop relationships with local schools and educators. I knew I had to be strategic and really think about a few things. Most importantly, how could a small organization build relationships with parents and schools online? Since we only had relationships with a few schools, how could we as an art organization expand and establish trust? I firmly believe that as organizations were shifting content online, there had to be more intentionality. Simply translating content online was not enough; the content had to be something to entice students, both the ones in our current network and new potential students.
Online Programming: Getting StartedWe are competing for the time and attention of our students. A majority of students here in Los Angeles, while at home, have access to television, the internet, and social media. In practice, of course, this varies. Not all households have smartphones or a computer. However, mobile apps like Snapchat and TikTok have grown into their own entities, and students of all ages can create and participate in “challenges” online. Our students dance, edit, and collage their videos, which are witty and creative. K-12 students today have access to an array of resources that most educators have only dreamed of. Information about mobile apps was important for Greetings because we needed our platform and the ways we advertised to make sense for our population. Text messaging also became very important; though we do not have the personal numbers of each student, asking one student to text their friends zoom codes and links proved to be fairly efficient.
After I made a flyer and promoted it on our website and Instagram page, I sent an email to parents and teachers on our mailing list. That first week we had nine students who attended. Since it was our first session, the assignment was a simple observational drawing exercise using any canned food item students had in their house. The idea of each session was to use materials students may already have at home: a piece of paper, a pen or pencil, and a ruler. Greetings had some funds saved from small donations, so I advertised to any students interested that we could mail them any art supplies they felt they may need.
Adapting to the Climate and Student InterestsIn the classroom, educators are constantly adapting to the needs of their students, and teaching online is no different. Each week’s attendance varied; one session we might have three students, and the following we would have twelve. Each session met at the same time and on the same day of the week and was promoted online on Instagram. Hiccups are expected in the classroom. In person, as soon as students walk in, the classroom energy is obvious, but online it varies. Also, not all students turn on their cameras, so teachers can miss out on facial reactions they would quickly catch in person. In the summer, adjusting to the needs and interests of the students had to happen quickly and carefully.
Though I did plan ahead, each week the news kept announcing more Covid-19-related deaths, and deaths of Black Americans brought on by the police. It became apparent that I had to adjust to students' needs and interests far more quickly and strategically than in the classroom. The protests sparked by the senseless murder of George Floyd and countless other Black Americans led to questions. Students were wondering what they could do from home. These were middle school students, some of whom had disabilities, who could not go out on their own to protest. These students were, have always been, and continue to be, very much interested in having conversations about racism. The pandemic, distance learning, and systemic racism was putting an emotional strain on our Black and Brown students. In the summer of 2020, as uprisings were occurring throughout the country, students became increasingly interested in how they could contribute their voices and use art to express themselves.
Coincidentally, curator and writer Kimberly Drew published their pocketbook, This is What I Know About Art, in July. After reaching out to Kimberly, we were able to coordinate a time where they virtually stopped by one of our sessions and chatted about their book, and their experience as someone interested in art, curating, and advocating for the rights that our Black, disabled, and trans communities deserve.
Our weekly Art Sessions were informal conversations with students, and artmaking was our vehicle. We always used a piece of paper and a pen or pencil as our starting point; we created zines, zentangles, protest signs using 3D lettering techniques, and a few times, we had virtual field trips. We visited the websites of museums, looked at an image or two, or did a virtual walk. Visiting the Art + Practice website, we discussed the work of Sadie Barnett and Amy Sherald.
From the beginning, we wanted students to feel comfortable; if they preferred to have their cameras off, they should. Though it was awkward for me to talk to an empty screen, over time this camera-optional policy developed a sense of trust. Our Saturday Morning Cartoons class meets a few times a month. Though attendance fluctuates, students have been consistently participating from all over LA County. A few weeks into the class, more started to turn on their cameras when they spoke. Though we would love to see all of their faces, I believe it is also important not to force students to do anything, especially during a pandemic. We must be understanding of their unique home situations and most importantly, we must not assume anything.
Over the last year I have learned a great deal—more than I could ever have anticipated. Each week, our programs are getting stronger and developing more traction. Over the course of the summer of 2019, I’d also planned a College Access program. My hopes back in December 2019 and January 2020 were that Greetings would launch this program with one school and take the 2020-2021 academic year to pilot it. This idea also had to be altered and adapted to fit our current situation.
After weeks of planning and meeting with potential stakeholders and collaborators, one of our Board members and I planned out a rough schedule of potential workshops and programming ideas that would be conducted online. Instead of working with just one school, we would open the program to all high school students who live or attend a school in the South-Central community and surrounding neighborhoods. To promote, we sent out cold emails to educators, and focused specifically on principals, other administrators, and visual or performing arts teachers. We found that most charter schools had email addresses listed for their teachers, but public schools have a form to fill out rather than offering a way to contact administrators and teachers directly. Since school websites tend to provide very little information, our next step was to connect with students via social media.
We follow, and are followed by, many local schools on Instagram. When we posted about our new program, we made sure to tag all the local schools. We also sent direct messages, did a little investigating on who the principal was, and tagged them as well. Though this necessitated a bit of sleuthing on our end, our work proved very successful with the few educators who engaged with us and shared our flyers with their students. Our initial goal of recruiting ten students was surpassed, and we received twenty-one applications for our Art School for College Program.
Our Art School program launched in September 2020, and we now have a consistent group of between thirteen and sixteen students who attend each week; all are juniors and seniors in high school, interested in either applying to art schools or pursuing a career in the arts. We have met with admissions counselors throughout California and across the country, discussed the admissions process for art schools, and provided general tips for students’ portfolio development. Our students are also encouraged to meet with either myself, our two teaching artists (José Chavez and Rhombie Sandoval), or one of our board members, Elizabeth Waner, who provides general help with college counseling and writing. As of March 2021, two students have reported their acceptances to art schools nationwide.
Continuing to Adapt Toward an Innovative FutureThe advantage of virtual programming is being able to engage with a wider pool of students throughout various parts of South-Central and neighboring communities. In many ways, the online platform opened up different and creative opportunities that perhaps we would not have thought of otherwise.
The original idea for our Art School for College Program was to work with either one high school or a core group of students, and meet at a central location each week. An in-person high school program would require resources such as transportation, potential stipends for students, and a large budget for any materials or snacks. Online, we’ve been able to reach a wider range of students, and a higher number of applicants, than we originally anticipated. Though not ideal, online programming has proven to have some benefits. The major advantage of online programming has been being able to serve more students, and being able to invite more guests. During our virtual sessions, we had admissions counselors from various art schools throughout the country stop by to talk with students about their respective schools and their admissions processes. We were also able to invite artists as guests to chat with students about their practice and respective college trajectories.
Taking it week by week and being open to unexpected changes has been highly important throughout this process. Each week there is constant reflection, checking in, and revamping by members of our board and team. Though we are still learning as we go, I have been quite surprised by the immense support, growth, and opportunities that have arisen for students during the pandemic. Artists are eager and open to taking some time out of their day to speak with our students. When we announced the program through our Instagram page, many artists also reached out wanting to be a part of the program.
Saying yes and no when appropriate has also been a huge learning curve. Over the last three years, I’ve run all of Greetings' programs. Rhombie Sandoval and Jose Chavez reached out, curious about volunteer or teaching opportunities. Now volunteer teaching artists at Greetings, Sandoval and Chavez have been an immense asset to our organization and pivotal for our growth. Their extra support has allowed for the program to provide supplemental support for the students we serve.
The upside to conducting programming online has been increased access to artists spread out throughout our city. In Los Angeles, transportation is always an obstacle. It has been amazing to have artists who represent various corners of the city, who grew up in various neighborhoods, speak with our students about their careers. In an in-person setting, obstacles like conflicting schedules and traffic would limit the number of artists who would be able to participate in a brief conversation with students. Online, we’ve had artists such as Star Montana, Patrick Martinez, Alfredo Diaz, Tundae Mena, and Lauren Halsey stop by and meet with students. The idea behind each visit is for artists to get candid about their practice and their college trajectories as Black and Brown bodies in white spaces.
Throughout our transition to online we surveyed students to make sure we were meeting their expectations of the program and could accordingly adjust any of our sessions. Online surveying has helped to determine what topics we should be covering, should revisit, or might be overlooking. As student survey responses indicated, one of the biggest highlights for students has been the visiting artists who have stopped by virtually to chat with them about their college experiences and their career trajectories as creatives in Los Angeles. Students expressed how they loved seeing the various career possibilities that the arts offer.
Going virtual also has allowed for us to meet one-on-one with students and provide further portfolio development that is more customized to their interests and specific career goals. We’ve offered further undivided, individualized attention that students would normally miss out on during large group Zoom sessions. During these sessions, I also learned that students have a high interest in entrepreneurial programs, which we will be developing further for the spring and summer of 2021.
We were contacted by a large media company who wanted to lead animation classes. In theory this sounded like a great idea, but after meeting with them, the partnership did not seem like the right fit for us. Authentic partnerships take time and are collaborations, not check marks to appear to be inclusive. Particularly when working with Black, Indigenous, and students of color, programming must be culturally responsive and inclusive. Many nuances have to be considered, such as meeting students where they are, and not approaching programming with the mindset that we know what is best for them. This media meeting allowed for me to think about the kinds of partnerships I would like to be a part of.
This year we were in partnership with The Broad Museum, where we received Art Kits inspired by the artworks in their collection. We then opted to partner with a local educator and lead virtual art lessons for their fourth grade class. For our first lesson, we had students create an onomatopoeic, POP Art inspired artwork. Greetings also collaborated with the Corita Art Center, where I developed a curriculum based on the late artist and educator Corita Kent. We then distributed over 300 Art Boxes containing instructions and art supplies at Hank’s Mini Mart in South-Central and Cruzita’s Deli and Cafe in Huntington Park. We also collaborated on an online art session for all ages inspired by Kent’s work. The results from both collaborations were beautiful, and both collaborations allowed us to reach more students while also establishing relationships with different organizations in Los Angeles.
As our organization grows and we adapt to a new world, we are looking forward to the innovation that will happen as a result. Though virtual programming is not ideal, and I personally am eager for the day that students can enter a gallery again and we can take the metro to an art and cultural center, I am confident that our limitations will force us to think outside the box. As with most things, the lack of certain resources really pushes creatives like myself and my team toward new visions.
It has been really exciting to try to come up with new ways to keep virtual students interested each week while also developing programming that is genuine. Quick surveying has become increasingly important; clear communication and differentiating communication for each platform and age group has become second nature. Being relatively new to the Los Angeles arts education landscape, and being a small organization with limited resources, has also allowed us to creatively reimagine how we can serve our community.
I have lived and worked in South-Central my whole life. My unique knowledge and understanding of both the education and arts sector has also allowed me to finesse situations and think ahead of potential barriers. For example, school websites do not always provide enough contact information for the public, so finding clever ways to follow principals, school administrators, teachers, and school accounts online has helped us immensely. Social media has increased our online presence and has begun to increase familiarity among students, their families, and local artists. Working with and for museums in the past has also allowed me to gain understanding of the gaps large institutions often have when it comes to understanding how to work with certain communities in Los Angeles. I believe Greetings' particular advantage in conducting arts education programming in the community resides in the relationships we have developed over the years with students and their families. As an artist, educator, and now founding director of this small arts education organization, I look forward to the future and our growth.
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- Mike Sonksen, “The History of South Central Los Angeles and Its Struggle with Gentrification,” KCET, September 13, 2017, https://www.kcet.org/shows/city-rising/the-history-of-south-central-los-angeles-and-its-struggle-with-gentrification.↵
- “Los Angeles County (South Central)—LA City (South Central/Watts) PUMA, CA,” Census Reporter, accessed on December 7, 2020, https://censusreporter.org/profiles/79500US0603751-los-angeles-county-south-central-la-city-south-centralwatts-puma-ca/.↵
- Sahra Sulaiman, “Fighting Gentrification with Sankofa Red – a Repurposed Pay Phone” STREETSBLOG LA, December 4, 2013, https://la.streetsblog.org/2013/12/04/can-a-re-purposed-payphone-stave-off-gentrification-in-leimert-park/.↵
- “Content Standards,” California State Board of Education, accessed December 7, 2020, https://www.cde.ca.gov/be/st/ss/.↵
- Kimberly Drew, This Is What I Know about Art (New York: Penguin Workshop, 2020).↵