Last week we sat down with our new staff from Streetside Stories to get to know them better and hear about their passion for arts education! We discussed their entry into the arts and nonprofit work, their experiences with arts education growing up, and the role of the arts in a holistic education.

Photo: Van Nguyen-Stone (left), Caira Ortiz (right)


Could you start by saying your name, what you do at the Workshop and what you did at Streetside Stories?


Caira: My name is Caira Ortiz, I am the Associate Program Manager here and I was a Program Coordinator at Streetside Stories.


Van: My name is Van and I am the Program Manager here. I started out as a Teaching Artist at Streetside for five years and then became the Program Manager.


Was there an experience in your life leading up to working in nonprofits and arts education that inspired you to pursue this career path?


Caira: I actually went into this career path because of an experience in college. When I was a senior, this nonprofit came with their documentary about North Korea and what was happening there. They were called Liberty in North Korea and they were resettling refugees. They showed a documentary about the struggles of North Korea and that pretty much inspired my work afterwards. I was studying Business and Japanese at the time because I really wanted to go into corporate America. It sounds kind of funny, but after I went through four years of this – and it was an intense study – I was in this business leadership program and it taught me that corporate America wasn’t really jiving with me. I really wanted something that spoke to my values and I couldn’t find it in corporate America.

So when I saw this documentary I was like, “This is it. I want to give back.” Growing up, I felt like I was super dependent on community events and community programs, so once I graduated I became an intern with this nonprofit and decided that nonprofits were where I wanted to be.


How did that translate to how you began working at Streetside Stories?


Caira: After Liberty in North Korea I thought, “I need to make money, I need to pay student loans.” I went over to another nonprofit based in Santa Ana. They were a nonprofit that had after school activities for students, so it was kicking off to my curiosity and interest in empowering students and giving them an opportunity to learn more about themselves and build their skills. That was a natural transition into thinking about what was outside Southern California. I saw this post by Streetside Stories and said, “That’s it.” So I applied there and got the job and moved up!


What was your transition like from Streetside Stories to the Workshop?


Caira: It’s funny because it seems seamless. It’s weird because I spent three years at Streetside Stories as a Program Coordinator and really enjoyed it. I don’t know if it’s because Van’s here or because our missions are so aligned, but it was really like one day I was at Streetside Stories and one day I was at Performing Arts Workshop. It seems like the line between them is blurred because it was so seamless from one to the other.


Van I know you started as a Teaching Artist at Streetside Stories, was there anything that happened growing up that made you want to do that work?


Van: Yeah. Well, originally when I went off to college I thought I was going to be a marine biologist, and then I got into filmmaking. I started out with photography and I used to work in journalism and go shoot punk bands, so I guess I’ve always been into art. When I started doing filmmaking, what was really important to me was it wasn’t diverse. I was in a program that wasn’t very diverse. A lot of the students there were great and very creative, but I really wanted to make films that talked about different things, partly because of my experience of being a child of refugee parents. I grew up in a community that wasn’t diverse either and dealt with a lot of experiences of not liking what my identity was. So when I discovered filmmaking and the fact that it could actually be used as a tool, I started exploring how I could use filmmaking and bring it back to the community.

One really big moment was when I moved up to San Francisco. I was very gung ho, I had just graduated and I was going to change the world with my filmmaking, but then the breaks stopped. I called up a particular organization in San Francisco and talked to one of their film teachers who was working out in the Tenderloin district.

I said, “Hey, I just graduated in film. What can I do to work with young people and teach filmmaking? It’s about voice and I want to be a part of it!” Kind of like you, Caira, when you were like, “I want to do something to give back to the community!” Then he said, “I don’t want to know about your strengths, I don’t want to know what you can do. I want to know your weaknesses because if you come into this neighborhood the kids are going to eat you up. They’re tough and they come from this background…” and this and that.

I just listened, and when I got off the phone I was so deflated. Because I was thinking, “I was so excited to work with you, for free…” and also it was really hard to hear this person talk about a community in such a negative way, in such a negative light, like they’re just these tough kids. That was when I began this personal mission of how I could not see a community in a deficit way, but in an empowering way of using these tools like filmmaking or photography for them to express who they are in their words, not in how someone else perceives them.

That’s how a started teaching. I taught out in East Palo Alto working with young people and created video crews. I decided to get my Masters in film production and then just kept teaching, because it kept calling me back. That’s how I got my job at Streetside Stories teaching. We did a whole lot of video back then and then photography.


How did you transition into your program role?


Van: That’s a good question [laughs]. I was a teaching artist and then I moved into doing integration work, working side by side with teachers, integrating media arts projects into their curriculum. Then that grant ran out and I stopped working for Streetside, but then was asked back to fill a position opening up as Program Manager.


What was your transition like from Streetside to the Workshop?


Van: I would have to agree with Caira, I think that it was pretty easy. It was just the location change from where we were at the Streetside office to here. I think the biggest difference is understanding the differences in how things are run, but it’s exciting to see that we mainly worked with visual media arts teaching artists and now we work with different disciplines like dance and music and spoken word. We get to meet artists from the various backgrounds.


How do you see these personal experiences informing your work today?


Caira: I remember sitting in that dark room watching this film, and all four years had led up to people in my program going into finance and accounting – they were going to New York to work with budgets and stuff like that, but that wasn’t interesting to me.

It was really tough for my mom to put two kids through a really strong education and give us skills that we needed to succeed in society. My family was super dependent on going to community activities and classes. I remember one of my first community classes was because both my parents worked and it was hard for them to pick us up, so I was involved in an arts program after school.

As a young kid it was hard for me to communicate. It was really hard for me to go through the ideas I had in my mind and be able to talk with someone about them. I remember that art program really helped me work through a message and discuss it with someone. It really helped me communicate and connect with another person in a different way that I didn’t know was available to me.

So when I was watching that film, I remembered that young girl and thought about how I really wanted to tap back into that. There are so many opportunities out there and I am so passionate, whatever work I’m going to be in I want to pour myself into it, and what I want to pour myself into is giving back to a community that helped raise me. So it was super important to me that I did something meaningful, that I would be proud of the work I did. That’s why I decided to go into nonprofits.


Van: I think for me I was a really shy kid, and I grew up in an area where it wasn’t very diverse; it was a majority white and Latino community and it was very segregated. I always gravitated towards the Latino community, but I didn’t see other Vietnamese people like myself. With growing up in that kind of environment, there’s a lot of self hate or not feeling comfortable in my own skin. On top of being shy, it was really hard to communicate that. I also went through a lot of people just not understanding the differences of different cultures, a lot of teasing and things like that.

I realized that art could be a way of expression and it’s really also a way of healing… Maybe because I was a shy girl and because of what I had experienced I wasn’t able to really express myself vocally – kind of what you were saying Caira, about being able to vocalize how I was feeling and my experience – but I could use photography, like when I was photographing punk bands, and be able to express myself in that way.

Later on, filmmaking was an additional element because now you’re incorporating not just imagery, but moving images and sound and music and a storyline. Early on a lot of my films surrounded honoring ancestors, what it was like to be a refugee, and those had a lot of experimental narratives that explored looking back on ancestors and how that reflects with me now today. To me, that was really a place of healing.

So when I decided to teach filmmaking with young people, I saw a lot of healing in that way too. One, because they were able to share their own story, whatever topic that meant to them, but also in the moment when other people got to see their work. For the most part, that was the time when I saw the most transformation. That reminds me of my experience, so I would say that is what inspired why I decided to be a teaching artist and why I decided to do programming because I wanted to be able to create programs and brave spaces for our young people to do that.


What do you view as the value or the role of the arts in a holistic education?


Van: Oh my gosh…


Caira: Do you wanna take it?


Van: Sure, let’s both take it [laughs]. It’s so big!

I think now in today’s time there’s so much in mainstream school where there’s a lot of pressure on kids; there’s a lot of pressure on our students to perform a certain way, and there’s a lot of pressure on our teachers to teach certain things. I was just speaking to a teacher friend of mine, and there’s also missing programming with arts being taken out of schools. With that, when there’s not a space for art for everyone… What do you think, Caira? I think art is another language, but there’s so many different entry points. Maybe you’re not comfortable with speaking but you could be comfortable at drawing, or maybe color speaks to you. Maybe you can’t speak what your feelings are but you can dance it and feel brave to do that. I think that because of budget cuts or whatever reason, art is not always as attainable.


Caira: Yeah, speaking to a point you said before… I totally agree that there’s a lot of pressure on students to be as efficient as possible, which I don’t think is healthy because there’s a really big pressure to be the smartest at math and science, to be almost like a robot and to be able to perform in a certain way. The idea is that once you graduate you’ll be prepared for college and your life will be fine, it’s an upwards scale. Thinking back on myself growing up, I really needed art as a way to balance what was happening inside of me, to get to know, “How do I communicate? Who am I? What is my identity?”

I would say it was impossible for me to just focus on science and math, which I really liked, but it would have been impossible for me to have just done that and gone through my life. I would have burned out so quickly. I would still be asking, “Who am I as a person? I only know efficiency.” So I really needed art in order to tap into who I was, tap into my family background, to be able to really take stock of me as a person, as a whole. I think art is a really good venue to explore that.


Van: You talk about “holistic,” and I think what our students are learning is important. There’s aspects of why we need to learn math, why we need to understand science or history, but that’s one part of ourselves. The other part of ourselves, where art feeds us, is feeding our soul, it’s challenging us to reflect on who we are, what communities we come from or what our everyday challenges are. Art gives a space to be able to speak our other parts of ourselves that we probably couldn’t do in a math or a history class.

If we really look at the importance of how we can live our whole selves, it’s important to have those elements available for everyone. There’s so many stories, there’s so much going on today, if we just look at one side of our kids and it’s only going to be academics, then we’re not truly looking at their whole selves.

I think art also asks our kids to reflect on what they see and what they think about what’s going on around them or their families. Even just being proud of themselves, which certainly can happen in other school platforms because it’s important, but if we really talk about what it means to be holistic…


Caira: …and also what a beautiful way to connect with other people. I don’t think I’ve seen people connect the way they do through art – if they hear a beautiful song, if they see a beautiful artwork, if they see a beautiful dance piece – people are moved by that and there’s a community that comes from that. I feel like that’s so special and so precious; the arts have the rare power to do that. So it’s necessary to have art in schools and have it available to everyone, because we get to see each other through it.


Do you have any final words or other thoughts that you want to share about yourself or your passions with the Workshop community?


Van: For me, even though my background is in film and photography, I’ve always loved dance and I’ve always had a love for world dance. So it’s exciting to be part of a place that embodies welcoming all cultures, dance, thoughts, but also really ties into social and racial justice values. I think that’s really important when it comes to arts being equitable for everyone. I’m excited to be part of the growth of where Performing Arts Workshop is heading.


Caira: Definitely, I absolutely second all of that. It’s so funny, I’m just thinking during this interview, how much of our stories connected with each other. There’s so many touching points about our background, our passions, and where we are now. It’s so fascinating because I feel like the Workshop in general, and the field that we’re in, allows us to build a community where we can support each other and support the community at large. I’m really excited to see, like you were saying, the future of this.

Honestly, when I talk about the work I do here with friends or people I don’t know, I always talk about how the arts are so important and they’re being cut from local schools – and I feel like we are really filling in that gap. It’s important that arts be available to everyone and I think the work we are doing is incredibly vital to people growing up and being able to know who they are, being able to be comfortable with who they are, and being able to get the skills of talking in front of a group and being confident about the work they did. It’s really beautiful, the work that we do and the transformations that we’ve seen in our students.


Thank you so much Van and Caira, we loved hearing more about you and your passions!