Meet Karina Yanez, The South Central Educator Teaching Students That Art Can Be A Tool For Social Change

credit: Jessica Flores

Karina Yanez’ classroom sits on the second floor of an elementary school in South Central, Los Angeles. Just outside of her window, she and her students have a front row seat to the new Crenshaw/LAX Line currently under construction—a new addition to the neighborhood that many anticipate will heighten the gentrification in Leimert Park. Early in the school day and just a couple minutes into our interview, four girls walk in and ask Ms. Yanez if they can hang out in her room to work on their projects. “Give me 20 minutes,” she says. But they asked again and promised to be quiet the whole time. She acquiesces.

Yanez, 27, is a local artist and arts educator. She began teaching while she was a student at the California Institute of the Arts. Darcy Huebler, professor at Cal Arts, was teaching a course in East L.A. and suggested that Yanez would make a good teaching aid.

(Photo Credit: Jessica Flores)

“If I wouldn’t have [participated in that], I feel like I wouldn’t have made it through [college] because going to Cal Arts, being in a really white institution and getting this education, was really exciting and frustrating at the same time. But [being able to go] back to L.A. and teach was really exciting,” she tells Fierce.

Her road to Cal Arts wasn’t easy. Born and raised in South Central, Yanez, who is of Salvadoran descent, realized early on that there weren’t any art classes available in school. Her first course wasn’t until her junior year of high school. When she realized that art school was a possibility as a senior, her academic counselors did not recommend it because it was “a waste of money” that wouldn’t result in a job.

(Photo Credit: Jessica Flores)

“I went home and I cried. I was sobbing when I told my mom that someone told me that I’m not gonna get a job [from going to an art school],” she said.

Yanez applied anyway and got accepted into 13 of the 14 schools she was interested in.

“I think that paved the way for other kids because I had to go through a lot. I was the only kid in my class who had this wild idea of wanting to go to art school. It was the end of the world to some people,” she said.

During her fourth year at Cal Arts, she realized she wanted to go back to South Central and share what she learned throughout the years. She earned her master’s degree from the Rhode Island School of Design and has now been a teaching artist for nine years. Her instruction style integrates art with writing, history,  gender, race and politics while also meeting California’s state teaching standards. Art is not only a way to express yourself creatively, she says, but a tool to create change.

(Photo Credit: Jessica Flores)

For a recent writing assignment, she asked her students to discuss a social issue that they cared about. Without giving them any options to choose from, students wrote about matters that most wouldn’t assume children think about, or much less care about: homelessness, gentrification and bullying.

“Kids are seeing things on Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and they’re exposed to both the good and the bad,” she says.

One of her fifth-grade students struggled to start her project. Yanez asked her what she was interested in. “I don’t know,” the student responded.

“What is something that you have observed or seen in your community,” Yanez asked.

“Well, I see a lot of ‘for sale’ signs,” the girl responds.

“Why did those pop out to you,” the teacher questions.

“Because a lot of people are moving out in my building, and I think it’s because of the rent,” the tween responds, astutely.

(Photo Credit: Jessica Flores)

Yanez gave her an iPad and suggested that she research the reasons why it was occuring. Ten minutes later, the student wanted to do her project on the housing crisis in L.A. “I didn’t want to assign or tell them what to do their project on, but they’re thinking about this stuff at this age,” Yanez says.

Exposing students to the arts is really important to Yanez, and introducing students of color to contemporary art is even more crucial because for so long Black and brown youth have only been shown work like “graffiti art and hip-hop dance.” While Yanez recognizes this is not a bad thing, she does think it’s “confining in a way.”

“I want my students to feel welcomed in spaces that are historically white institutions,” she says.

Art also plays an important role in mental health and healing. While living in South Central, Yanez says that her students see a lot of beauty and pain. “It can either bring you down or uplift you, and I hope the kids get uplifted. I feel like the arts are a really good way to bridge a lot of those gaps,” she says.

(Photo Credit: Jessica Flores)

I look to my side to see what the four girls are doing while Yanez is speaking. And as promised, they sat quietly side-by-side researching DIY projects on the iPads for an upcoming social activism fundraiser at school. I asked them what do they like about Ms. Yanez’s class. “She lets us do a lot of things by ourselves, lets us do art and teaches us new things,” they tell me. I then asked how does art make them feel.

“It makes us happy,” they respond

Read: In New Jersey, Rosa Carhuallanqui Keeps Her Culture Alive By Teaching Children Peruvian Folkloric Dance

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