Ukiah Daily Journal
February 3, 2006
By Susanne Norgard, The Community Foundation of Mendocino County

Doing it for the kids...

Every once in awhile you meet someone who seems to have a special gift for relating to junior high and high school kids. When I was young, there was a youth leader who attracted kids from miles around. He had been in an early rock n' roll band and would sing the band's one big hit. We loved it and couldn't believe a "star" was in our midst. But his true star quality had to do with what he did for us. Before long, he had a wide following of previously unmusical kids who were signing, playing musical instruments and thoroughly enjoying creating music on a regular basis (an early version of one my nephew's favorite movie, "School of Rock".)

I was reminded of this recently when I received a report on a grant the Community Foundation made to the Arena Technology Center which is staffed by Blake More, "Cybirk" Birk and Kim Swenson. This is a place where people of all ages can come and use the high speed internet or take classes from Santa Rosa Junior College Online and the Regional Occupational Program (ROP). But one of the things that makes the Arena Technology Center special Blake, who definitely earns her title of "Creative Director."

Many people heard about Blake when she and Cybirk worked with Pomo youth to create the acclaimed "Life on the Rez" video, a stark and poetic look at what life looks like the for kids growing up on the rancheria in Point Arena. The video, which also received initial funding from the Community Foundation, eventually ended up at the Sundance Film Festival. Since that time, Blake and her colleagues have branched out to continue to encourage kids to make art that matters. This was highlighted last June at the Arena Theater in a "Youth Create Multimedia Festival" which included 12 videos, three poets with music, and three live bands.

When I recently talked to Blake, I asked her how she began this type of work. "I didn't start working with kids on purpose," she told me. She explained that she had written and produced a play at the Arena Theatre in 1999. After that, on the day after her birthday, a teacher whom she didn't know knocked on her door. The teacher explained that she had written a grant that included money for Blake to come to the school and work with the kids on developing a play. Blake accepted the teacher's offer, she explains, because "A friend had given me a psychic reading from a Pomo woman as a birthday present. The reading said, "the time for alone study is over. You must teach.""

Put yourself in Blake's place, or the place of anyone who is suddenly standing in front of a class and trying to figure out how to motivate a group of high school students. "The kids didn't have any desire to do a play," she said. "No one wanted to do anything." But gradually she gained their trust. "I don't mind making a fool of myself, if that's what it takes." The play that resulted was called "Similar Differences," and it looked at the cliques at the high school. She remembers that all the kids had negative things to say about each clique yet, on another level, they related to some of them and wanted to be a part of them. Through role playing and the play, the kids used words and drama to deepen their understanding of their world. "Kids who have graduated come back and tell me it was the best thing they did in school," Blake said.

Blake is currently working with Latino kids to do a video on illegal border crossing. "On one hand it has the stigma of being illegal. And on the other hand, the society looks the other way because they depend on the Latino workers. It creates confusion for everyone, but especially for the kids," Blake said.

Although Blake loves her work, she finds it only gets harder. "I'm a creative person and have a deep passion for expression and finding new ways to say things. Kids respond to that and see I'm genuine. But all of the standards' testing is taking the creative edge away from the youth. I'm discovering that the kids aren't reaching into themselves. They are getting lazy and it is harder to get them to respond. It's also getting harder to find funding. So there's less money and more work."

When I see the work of Blake and others like her in Mendocino County, it reminds me of the importance of Community Foundation grants that can help support the work of the unsung heroes have the gift of gaining the trust of young people and helping them to learn to trust the expression they find inside of themselves.




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