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Race Talks: Building Collaborative Youth Projects

Lisa Jarrett and Amanda Leigh Evans

[Published in NCECA Journal, Volume 38, p108-9, 2017.]


Working with our youth in culturally and ethnically diverse communities means Race is relevant by definition. In our communities, Race speaks and it matters. Building collaborative youth projects necessarily extends beyond cultural sensitivity to addressing core societal biases and values, with intention and by design. Race–and by extension racism–raises questions. Who gets to be an artist and/or cultural contributor? Where does “real” art happen? Whose voices are heard? What histories inform our knowledge and practice? How can artists and craftspeople create accessible models to empower our youth? KSMoCA and Cherry Blossom Estates explore these questions via socially engaged art collaborations with youth in Portland, Oregon.


KSMoCA: Creating Meaningful Change—Not Your Everyday Art Museum

KSMoCA (King School Museum of Contemporary Art) is a contemporary art museum operating within the walls of a functioning public elementary school in NE Portland, OR. It is a collaborative project by Portland State University faculty, Lisa Jarrett and Harrell Fletcher, who work alongside students from MLK Jr. School and PSU’s College of the Arts. MLK Jr. School serves over 300 K-8 students from underrepresented backgrounds in rapidly gentrifying communities.


KSMoCA explores cultural heritage within a new system of ideas about the art museum’s responsibility to youth, education, and community. By collapsing the physical and conceptual borders between what represents culture (artifacts in museums) and how it is disseminated (school curricula) the project provides new opportunities for engaging students and communities. KSMoCA is a participatory museum where MLK Jr. School students join in curating exhibits, giving tours, and creating artwork for display. Additionally, the museum houses exhibitions by a diverse array of local, national, and international artists, hosts events open to the community, and offers opportunities for arts-integrated learning for MLK Jr. teachers.

Access and relevance are core values directly addressed within KSMoCA’s collaborative and interactive programming. A recent project, Our Civil Rights History, Revisited, features re-creations of iconic civil rights photographs depicting some of the most pivotal national and local images from the movement. PSU and 5th grade students at MLK Jr. School discussed and re-staged images like: the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott, the 1965 March to Selma, and Signing the 1953 Oregon Civil Rights Bill. This exhibit complimented the elementary school students’ social studies curriculum and the students acted as docents and historians during the opening reception tours. The re-staged photographs remain on display at the school as part of a growing permanent collection. KSMoCA’s new Artist-in-Residence program creates an unusual pairing between early education and internationally renowned artists and their work. In 2017 MLK Jr. students will attend public talks, participate in workshops, and create exhibits with artists like Chitra Ganesh, Hank Willis Thomas, and Laylah Ali. Additionally, the Artist-in Residence program helps close the gap between need and available resources for arts programming at the school.

KSMoCA provides unprecedented opportunities for participants to learn through socially engaged art practice and programs. The project empowers students to create a vital cultural resource in their community in collaboration with Portland State University’s students, faculty, and community partners.

Cherry Blossom Estates: Collaborative Youth Projects in a Collective Home

Cherry Blossom Estates is a multilingual 120-unit affordable apartment complex in East Portland, OR that hosts a long term artist residency program. The building primarily serves single parents, immigrant and refugee families, senior citizens, and people with disabilities. Uniquely spanning age, culture, and language, Cherry Blossom is more than a place to live, it is home. The rental turnover rate in the complex is much lower than the region’s average and many people have lived there for decades. 

The community’s Creative-In-Residence program is supported by Community Engagement, a nonprofit that provides training and funding to socially engaged artists in affordable housing communities.  The program seeks to expand the traditional definition of community building and artistic practice by focusing on impact, authorship, and empowerment. Amanda Leigh Evans was invited to establish long term creative programs at Cherry Blossom Estates as its first Creative-In-Residence.

Evans partnered with the apartment’s preexisting afterschool club and burgeoning community garden to develop youth-led projects that resonate within and beyond the housing complex. Built through community interest, the program includes a network of rotating exhibitions in the building’s eight laundry rooms, a woodworking program for youth to design and build a greenhouse, a gardening initiative to raise vegetables from every country represented in the complex, a weekly craft class for Latina mothers, an intercultural recipe and meal exchange, monthly pottery and pizza nights, and afterschool art projects led by guest artists. Building Democracy, a recent exhibition in Laundry Room #7, engages current political conversations on Race, immigration, and income; all themes that affected many children at Cherry Blossom during the 2016 election cycle. Youth responded with drawings of national needs they would address if they were president and a series of large maps documenting each family’s journey to the United States. The exhibition holds space for students to process and publicly articulate their experiences during a pivotal moment in our nation’s history. 

Cherry Blossom Estates’ Creative-In-Residence program emphasizes the power of collectively driven artwork, the importance of non-dominant knowledge and the possibility for creating alternative forms of interdependence. Youth, artists, and residents work and learn alongside each other to collaboratively build the foundation of a flourishing, resilient community.

Conclusion: Inclusive Narratives 

KSMoCA and Cherry Blossom Estates are working examples of socially engaged projects where art happens in unexpected and overlooked places. Here, underrepresented youth communities are active collaborators. They help create the models we work within. They participate as authors and creative producers to shape sustainable cultural experiences so vital to healthy communities. In these contexts, Race is explored as part of an ongoing dialogue where questions are more important than answers and the dominant narrative is one of inclusion that is driven by empowering our youth. 

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