illustrator, writer, and educator
passionate about storytelling.

Making Space To Create

published in The College Hill Independent Volume 46, Issue 8 

    Nothing has taught me more about the Providence landscape than RIPTA bus commutes, and no one has endeared me more to this quaint city than all the people I met beyond College Hill—most younger than 16. It was on Broad Street as a freshman that I first realized the vastness of Providence past Wickenden Street and Downtown. Locals on the bus would run into each other and catch up about husbands, kids, and the chaos of the pandemic all in between two stops until they were forced to part ways. Spanish was used in most interactions, and I saw Puerto Rican and Dominican flags at every corner. The want and need to return to that scene and sense of community was what led me to work for Providence CityArts for Youth.

    From July 2021 to June 2022, I was an artist-mentor and intern for the non-profit organization, which is located near the Ontario stop on the RIPTA R-Line and conveniently next to America’s Food Basket. CityArts provides free after-school arts education and care, primarily serving elementary and middle schoolers studying near the Broad Street facilities. Their workshops span the visual arts, design, music, dance, digital media, theater, and creative writing.

When I walked in every Tuesday and Thursday at 3:30 p.m., I would be greeted by joyful screams and an attack of clinging hugs from the kids—it was homework help time and they were eager for alternative forms of entertainment. After the kids completed a measly couple of multiplication exercises and chowed down a few snacks, the then-programs director, Camille, would announce it was time to play. The news would immediately incite a swarm of kids rushing toward the yard to soccer balls, hula hoops, and at times low hanging tree branches.

At the end of Fall 2022, I learned that the organization planned to shift their operations into Providence middle schools and, due to budget cuts, run fewer classes at the Broad St. location. The news brought me back to that image of the yard, the children waving at cars with family members or school teachers that would pass by and the giggles of kids chasing after each other in a game of tag. The classes would continue, but it wouldn't be the same. With the loss of the space would come the loss of the community, the team, and the place of comfort that anchored so many.

In my search for a community beyond College Hill, I found that place informs the community just as much as people do—endlessly informing one another. Now, I find myself working at Project Open Door (POD), a RISD-affiliated organization. POD provides free, quality art-and-design programming to high school students in Providence, Pawtucket, Central Falls, and Woonsocket through its Saturday Portfolio Program, after-school programming, and summer studios. Led by skilled teaching artists, Saturday classes and workshops are held on RISD’s campus, and students are given college IDs which provide free RIPTA fare and library access. I have been a teaching assistant at POD for almost a year and have encountered a similar sentiment of community, in addition to a supportive and cooperative dynamic ordinarily exclusive to older ages.

I kept asking myself the same questions of its space, students, and the impact of the organization: I wondered what they liked about POD, the space, the people, the classes, the community? What had them coming back?

Avari, a high school junior who has been a POD student for about a year, shared with me that it was the feeling of growth he had found there, as well as the community of artists that made him feel welcomed and inspired.

”I've grown a lot as a person; I'm more confident in myself. If I wasn't able to join this program, I'd be totally a different person,” he said. “[POD] is a very accepting atmosphere, a lot more than school and family for many people.”

Veah, a high school sophomore and student at POD for almost three years, shared that “POD has been a big part of me.” She described the program as a support circle: “POD has helped me come out of my shell, and feel more self-sufficient.” Initially joining due to her interest in art, which she discovered early in elementary school, she ended up finding the people that have now become her closest friends.

Nicole has been part of the program for a year and a half now and is a junior in high school. When asked about what brought her to POD and what kept her coming back, she talked about how her school focused on STEM classes and didn't have any art programs, so she explored her passion at POD. “[At POD] I was able to create a film with my best friend,” she said. “[POD] has helped me discover myself more by exposing myself to different perspectives, since everyone here is an artist.” 

The strong friendships and artistic growth V—a sophomore in high school—has experienced at POD has kept them coming back in the past year and a half. They talked about how POD has supported them during hard times through friendships and mentors. “Overall this program has helped me in so many ways,” they said. “I can't even begin to comprehend how different my life would be if I wasn’t in POD.”

The organization’s interim assistant director, Caitlin Gomes, shared a few of the patterns she has noticed about today’s youth: “They have a lot to say, given time and the space to do so, and aren't afraid to show themselves.” Providence art education spaces, in my view, are that “time and the space to do so.” During adolescence, a space and community to congregate, share ideas, and grow and learn with is endlessly important—and vital for those that don't have the same security elsewhere. Finding myself part of that community for the kids and teens, and being a face they could rely on every week, has been the single best part of my experience in Providence, Rhode Island.

GRACIELA BATISTA R’24 loves to play tag in the yard.