I started my work with Oakland Leaf as an intern in a media arts program called Youth Roots when I was just 13 years old. After I graduated from college, I returned to Oakland Leaf as an After-school Program Instructor and then, later, I was promoted first to Program Manager and then, earlier this year, to Director of Community Programs. I’ve had very different responsibilities in each of these roles, but my underlying goal has always been the same: to cultivate safe spaces for youth to be their full authentic selves.

I have found creative expression to be one of the most powerful tools for fostering authenticity. Talking about personal feelings can make people feel vulnerable, and children especially don’t often have the language to describe what they are going through. And it is not uncommon for young people to be closed off, especially if they feel judged or marginalized by their family or peers.

Nonverbal tools, and especially art activities, help kids identify and express their emotions, and share their authentic selves. Studies show that artistic expression can decrease feelings of anger and depression and can help students regulate their emotions. Creative expression is embedded into both our social and emotional learning and our restorative justice programming.

For example, as part of our conflict resolution work, before facilitating a conversation, we have the students fill out a reflection form sharing their version of events, how things could have gone differently, what harm was done, and how it might be repaired. Students have the option to share their thoughts as words or as drawings. The experience of writing, for many kids, is automatically associated with academics and this stifles their expression. Drawing, on the other hand, is associated with play and this supports many students to open up in a way they wouldn’t otherwise. Similarly, during our mindfulness sessions, we give students the option of coloring or drawing, rather than just sitting or lying still.

When students have positive experiences with the creative processes and tools we expose them to, they adopt them as life-long practices that they can turn to for self-expression, self-regulation, and self-understanding long after they age out of our programs. The skills, knowledge, and sense of purpose and connection that I acquired as an Oakland Leaf youth program participant continue to serve me to this day.

by Isa Gonzalez, Director of Community Programs