Holding Space By and For Youth in South Phoenix
A few years back, a young man—we’ll call him Aaron—was released from an Arizona federal prison, where he had been incarcerated since he was 14 years old. Before he could return to his home in California, he was ordered to stay in transitional housing in Phoenix. Upon Aaron’s release, community organizing and social services organizations in Phoenix came together to offer support services for his reentry into society from incarceration. RE:Frame Youth Arts Center was among those organizations.
One of its Co-Founders and Core Adult Accomplices, Ashley Hare, clearly recalls that meeting. “Folx were like, ‘Oh, we got you, we’ll get your health benefits, your Social Security card. We’ll help you press charges [against the federal government].’ Sitting there with all these social justice heavy hitters, we felt intimated, like we had nothing to offer. But we also didn’t want to over-offer. We wanted to stay true to who we are.”
Before Ashley had a chance to speak, Paula Ortega, a Re:Frame Youth Staff member and Co-Founder, jumped in. Paula said, “What we can give you is a space where you can just come and chill. We have a bunch of art supplies you can take home, and classes you can attend. We have a whole food pantry and a kitchen. We cook food together. We make beats and then we play our beats with each other, which is kind of cool. But yeah, just come through and chill. We’ll pick you up. We’ll take you home.’
“Some people were looking like, ‘Wait, what? That’s it?’ We got some blank stares that day.”
Months later, when it was time for Aaron to return to California, RE:Frame held a gathering to say goodbye. Hare recalls Aaron saying that “the best part of my stay of transitioning back was RE:Frame. Nobody asked me to tell my story. No one judged me. Nobody was trying to get me to speak on my experience and not pay me. I just went there, made beats, laughed, and made homemade fries. It was just really chill, and I needed that. I needed a space where I could just breathe. Where I didn’t have to be on.”
The Perils of Adultism
Hare, who co-founded RE:Frame in 2018 with a group of eight high school students, explains that if the organization has a single guiding principle, that would be it: Just chill. “The kids say that all the time.” It is an ethos that flies in the face of the stereotype that is put on most teenagers, especially Black and Brown youth, who are often characterized as out of control, overly emotional, attention-seeking drama magnets in need of constant management and oversight to keep them out of trouble, a prejudice that RE:Frame refers to as adultism. “Besides incarcerated folx, young people are the most controlled group in our society. If you are under 18, you can’t own your own bank account, or have private consultation with doctors, or decide your educational pathways. All these things are decided by the adults in your life, who have to sign off on everything. They say it’s because young people aren’t ready to lead their own lives. I argue there are adults I know who still aren’t ready,” Hare explains.
Art as Refuge
But Hare remembers what it was like to crave a safe, calm place. “My stepfather was an alcoholic. There was abuse at home and also bullying at school, where I wasn’t Black enough to hang with the Black kids and I wasn’t quite white enough for the white kids, either. All my same sex relationships were secrets. And so I, just like many young people who come from abusive households, found an outlet,” doing art and theater at a nearby community center. By the time Hare became an adult, “it was a part of my being, no matter where I was living, to find spaces that young people could feel safe.”
Hare became an art and theatre teacher, eventually landing in Phoenix to get their master’s degree in education. “And all these young people started coming to me saying, ‘Yo, Miss, we need a space on the South Side.” (Literally on the other side of the train tracks from mostly white North Phoenix, South Phoenix’s population is largely Latinx and Black, due in part to restrictive covenants that barred non-whites from living in other areas of the city before the 1970s.) “There’s nowhere for us to go,” the kids told Hare. “Our library is the smallest in the city. The hours are cut. It’s only open three days a week. We can’t be loud. Can you help us grow a space?”
Today, youth remain at the center of RE:Frame as its leaders and creators. Half of its board are young people, with full voting rights. Youth on staff are not considered interns but full staff and are paid as much as adults. “The youth run the center,” says Hare. “The adults are ‘accomplices’ that help them with access to what they need. We do those things because we always hoped that somebody would have done that for us when we were young.”
Perhaps as a result, RE:Frame also does not focus on high school graduation and college preparedness that is the hallmark of many organizations serving youth. “We don’t need to put them into a box. Some people don’t want to go to college. Some people want to start their own business at 18. I’ve seen 12-year-olds start a business and do it way better than most adults. There are other ways of being.”
The Speed of Trust
“We move in a very human-centered way,” says Hare. “And that includes remembering that youth move at a different speed than adults.” As an example, Hare points to RE:Frame’s communal agreements, which codify the way in which its members agree to show up at RE:Frame: with the kind of love and respect that can only come with embracing each other’s full humanity. “It took almost two years of conversations before we launched our center with those agreements in hand, because we wanted to build a strong foundation of who we are. People say, ‘move at the speed of trust,’ but they don’t want to do that for youth. There’s this weird saviorism when it comes to young people. But we’re actually really harming them when we try to save them. They don’t need saving. They need resources and for us to get out the way.”
Stories, not Data
Hare recalls the early days of seeking funding for RE:Frame, which proved challenging. “We’re sort of not fully into community organizing, but we’re also not really an arts organization. We sit in the middle. And funders always want a lot of quantitative data. But we don’t collect that stuff. We said ‘no’ a lot.”
Hare explains that instead of data, RE:Frame has stories of how kids are using the space for community, self-care, self-expression, and healing. “We just have stories of these young people that we deeply, intentionally check in with. We talk to them, talk to their parents if they have parents, make sure they’re OK. Yes, we make sure they have clothes they can get from the closet, food in the pantry, a place to do their laundry. But we also do a lot of art. Art is the way that they express themselves. Transformative Justice calls upon us to heal our generational trauma. You have to unpack your own story to do that, and what better way than through an artistic practice?
“That’s how it happened with Aaron. We never asked why he was in prison, how he got there. We never asked or judged him in any way. But months later, we found out while in the kitchen cutting potatoes for dinner. He shared it and we held it. I love those moments when we just stay still and hold each other.”
Holding Space is not Quantifiable
Holding space, says Hare, is at the heart of what RE:Frame does. “We shouldn’t have to think about quantifying that. Those moments, the one we had with Aaron and so many more like it, have transformed how we write grants. With funders, their first question is almost always, ‘How many people do you serve?’ And now we say, ‘We’re not answering that question.’ We’re unapologetic.
“Sometimes our grant report may say that this program we planned didn’t happen, because we had to prioritize holding space.” For example, “We’ve been trying to make a mural forever in our garden. But every time the youth get together, they just need to talk about other stuff. One day we might paint it. The mural itself is not important. That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned as an adult accomplice, is to hold space and to listen, and that whatever is supposed to happen will happen. I don’t think about the outcome or the product anymore.”
Funders, Please Chill Out
Hare is adamant that the answer to philanthropy’s trust issues is quite simple: “People just have to let go of fear. That’s it. But it’s such a weird thing, especially in the non-profit sector because of the scarcity mindset. RE:Frame let go of that. We used to think, ‘Well, we can’t do this because of our funders; we can’t do that because then people won’t come.’ But then we asked, who are we holding ourselves accountable to? If it’s teens in South Phoenix, then everything else doesn’t matter.
“It was hard to let go of that. Funders weren’t giving us money because we are half led by young people. They straight up told us that wasn’t a sustainable or a strong business model. We lost tens of thousands of dollars, ironically from funders that have the words ‘funders for young people’ in their names. Their attitude was, ‘We serve young people; we don’t allow young people in leadership.’ But the youth, they don’t care what funders think. And so, if we ever try to step back into fear, the youth are always like, ‘No.’ Probably because of the uprisings [in Summer 2020], the young people are saying, ‘I’m not dancing anymore. We’re not going to do that dance.’”
Trust Opens Doors
Hare says that, ironically, letting go of the fear of losing funding has led to more funding. “I think people appreciate that we will not budge our value set. It’s opened the door for folx like Satterberg.”
Hare describes that the way Satterberg Foundation reached out to RE:Frame was “wild. They just sent this really chill email that said ‘We heard a lot about you. We just want to talk and learn more and say hi.’ And they had actually done their research beforehand. They didn’t ask any of those questions that funders usually ask, like when they waste an hour of your time to see if you fit into their rubric and then invite you to apply to some lengthy thing that you don’t have time for. Satterberg confused us! I remember one of our youth members was like, ‘What’s the catch?’”
But trust-based funding can make a world of difference. “It means that we have more energy,” Hare says, recalling how they once wrote a 12-page grant for just $3,000. Satterberg’s multi-year, unrestricted funding “has freed us up from the anxiety of how we’re going to pay our people.” Hare describes the stress of having to throw big fundraising events that didn’t fit in with their “chill” ethos and took critical time away from supporting youth. “But now I have time to do a lot more individual check-ins with kids and make sure that everyone’s OK. Now we can build a facilitation training program. It allows me time to answer all the other questions the youth have, to do research on what they need for their art portfolio, or fill out the FAFSA, or look for housing, or buy tomato plants and soil for our garden so they can plant them after school.
“I don’t think that philanthropy trusts the dream list of arts organizations and youth-led, Black-led organizations. But Satterberg was just like, ‘Here’s the money. Go forth and be brilliant.’ And they didn’t just drop and go. The funding comes with a deep relationship that is almost parental, but the good kind of parent. The kind that says, ‘I’ll support you in whatever you want to do but also help you figure out how to make your dreams a reality.’ They really have our backs. I wish there were more funders like them.”
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