Creative Solutions

A Journey Paved With Real Stories

By Mario Tarradell, Public Relations & Marketing Manager

I’m the flaky friend because you think I never want to hang out
But I’m not flaky, just poor

Dyslexia shouldn’t affect my GPA
And I don’t know if anyone has noticed but African-Americans
Aren’t treated for that either
When we teach my people to become aware
Kids like me will get somewhere

Growing up there was always a way to scrape together dinner
From Ramen noodles, bacon and cheese
Whatever was in the fridge

This is racism and poverty as seen through the eyes of our youth. These are real stories. These are real people.

A dozen young adults, all of them between 16 and 24 years old, shared “Journey With Me” Wednesday morning, April 13, 2016 before an audience filled with education influencers, members of philanthropic foundations, civic-minded individuals and passionate crusaders with educational non-profit organizations.

The 2016 State of Texas and Dallas Children: Breakfast Briefing and Community Workshop, a joint event from The Center for Public Policy Priorities, the Communities Foundation of Texas and Dallas Faces Race, took place at the Communities Foundation of Texas headquarters. The purpose of the daylong forum was threefold – learn the latest data on Dallas kids, use that data in your work, as well as talk about the racial and ethnic disparities in the data; discuss opportunities for kids to compete and succeed in life regardless of income, gender, race or ethnicity; and develop, advance local and state policy solutions.

“Journey With Me” was undoubtedly the moving highlight of the breakfast portion, which also included an address by Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins. Directed by Ruben Carrazana, “Journey With Me” encompassed spoken word, poetry, rapping and an original song, “Who,” written by Evan Borne.

The performers stemmed from three groups of young artists – Creative Solutions Alumni, SMU Meadows School of the Arts students, and Dallas Youth Poets. Carrazana, Borne and Brandon Wright are freelance artists. The talented and bravely forthright storytellers were: Frankie Zuniga, Christina Sittser, Ladarris Fannin, Faith McElroy, Mikaela Brooks, Gabrielle Edwards, Carson Wright, Curtis Faulkner, Jonathan Tyler, Lilie Zuniga and DeJahn Carr.

Once they entered the banquet room they immediately dispersed, each storyteller standing before a table of guests. On cue they began to tell their personal stories of racism, poverty, and in some cases, privilege. This wasn’t a script. These were self-penned life narratives about their very authentic troubles.

“This is a real person, not just a statistic,” says Tyler. “To open up to each other, to open up to the audience…these are real stories, real struggles.”

Take the data, the hard numbers, and give them a human spin.

“We are bringing all these individual stories together to create a unified story, so that this one story can represent everyone’s story,” says Carrazana, who watched his performers from the soundboard. “The people at this conference are trying to connect with the youth as opposed to just seeing numbers and data. They want that human connection.”

They got it. Some stories brought folks to tears. Some stories made folks uncomfortable. Some stories inspired folks take cell phone pictures. Some stories prompted folks to stand and clap. All stories made an impact.

“There are similarities among all of them – themes, words,” says Carrazana. “So by looking at the smaller pictures, you make it easier to imagine the bigger pictures.”

Yet that bigger picture proved crystal clear once the performers made their way to the stage. The group monologue, comprised of choice lines from the individual stories, weaved in sobering facts provided by the Center for Public Policy Priorities:

  • Nearly one in five Latino children in Dallas County is uninsured
  • 27 percent of kids in Dallas County are food insecure or at risk of hunger
  • 59 percent of Latino students in Dallas County attend high poverty school districts
  • 77 percent of black students in Dallas attend schools with high teacher turnover
  • 30 percent of kids in Dallas County live in poverty

And with that the performance ended with a standing ovation. As we all gathered in our huddle room down the hall, the performers exchanged comments about the experience. They came together during five rehearsals in the span of one month. They got to know each other as people, not merely fellow actors.

“I was really impressed with how much people were willing to share,” says Sittser, whose story of academic achievement was tempered by her realization that she was largely lucky. “That is really beautiful.”

Faulkner, who broke into tension-relieving impromptu miming before performing, “really liked the flexibility” of the piece. “It was not really fleshed out, but it was just…do it. I really liked the collaborative aspect.”

These young adults collaborated once more for a group picture. As they posed you could feel the connection. They are bonded by the experience, by the honesty, and by the stories.

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Dallas Youth Poets Fly High on Spoken Word

By Mario Tarradell, Public Relations & Marketing Manager

When can paper airplanes propel teens into the wonders of poetry? When you decorate those flying sheets with choice lines from the works of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman.

With paper planes in hand, six teens forming the Uncle Walt and Aunt Emily teams tossed them toward a couple of octagons taped to the floor – one encircling the letter “E” and the other surrounding the letter “W.” The planes that cleared the octagons became inspiration for a poetry and prose writing assignment.

Teamwork, even in poetry, is vital. That was a key mantra of the Dallas Youth Poets workshop held Saturday afternoon, Jan. 23, 2016 at Big Thought’s Blue Room.

Dallas Youth Poets, which was founded by internationally renowned spoken word artist Joaquin Zihuatanejo, provides youth with a platform to hone their performance poetry skills and share their voice. Dallas Youth Poets is part of a partnership with Big Thought’s Creative Solutions program. DYP’s free, spoken word poetry workshops are always open to anyone under 19.

Teaching artists for the workshops comprise a group of local spoken word artists and educators, including John Oberly, Thom Browne III, who is also a DaVerse Lounge consultant, Princess McDowell, and Terry Odis, a DaVerse Lounge teaching artist.

Zihuatanejo took the lead during the recent Saturday workshop, taking the six teens on a fun yet intense ride through online poetry searches, creative writing assignments and impromptu 30-second monologues. The kids even got a three-minute stretch exercise session courtesy of Oberly’s peaceful instruction.

“We strive to find new and inventive ways for students to not only research poetry of master poets, in this case Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, but we also want to find innovative ways to have students approach the blank page and not be intimidated by it,” says Zihuatanejo.

But there is also a greater goal at all DYP workshops. Students can earn points toward the ultimate aim – a spot on the 2016 slam team that will participate in local and national youth poetry competitions. Team members will be selected at an area wide youth poetry slam to be held April 8.

The participants rack up points as well as valuable experience by attending the workshop; by witnessing the upcoming DaVerse Lounge shows Feb. 5 and April 1 at Life in Deep Ellum; by winning the airplane toss (Uncle Walt’s team was the victor); and by participating in the impromptu spoken word exercises.

The students were charged with reciting on-the-spot, 30-second monologues centered on one of three topics: the best TV show currently, the worst person ever, or the worst jellybean flavor. Then it was researching and reciting an Emily Dickinson poem. Helpful critiques on vocal inflections, stage presence, pacing and posture from Zihuatanejo, Oberly and Browne followed each impromptu spoken word performance.

“These workshops not only help them write and express themselves, but literally opens their eyes to new people and experiences,” says Browne, who has taught creative writing for Big Thought through DaVerse Lounge and Creative Solutions. Browne and Oberly spearheaded Dallas ISD’s first ever Spoken Word Poetry class for credit.

For the students at the workshop, the experience was enriching and also reassuring, enlightening.

“It’s been really helpful for me because I’ve always listened to spoken word poetry but was afraid to try it,” says Mikalyn Flowers, 17, a Dallas-based student at A+ Academy. “I love writing so much. It felt so natural discussing poems. It really helps me express myself a lot.”

Aubrey Smith, a 17-year-old student at Cedar Hill Collegiate High School who lives in Oak Cliff, concurs. “I really like spoken word,” she says. “I watched it but never thought I was good at it. The feeling of reading my stuff out loud…I like it better when I read it out loud. I find that I can really express myself out loud. I used to be really critical of my work but this helps me see and hear my strengths.”

Poetry, like paper airplanes, can fly as high as the imagination. The centrifugal force that propels poetry feeds on much more than just pen, paper and words. Zihuatanejo has the bigger picture in mind.

“Yes, at DYP we are trying to make them better poets,” he says, “but in turn we are trying to make them better thinkers, readers, and speakers, all skills that go into making our students at Dallas Youth Poets not only better writers, but also better students and people.”

We thank our Creative Solutions donors for their generous support – Texas Bar Foundation; DCJD Juror’s Fund/Youth Services Advisory Board; David Nathan Meyerson Foundation; Dallas County Juvenile Department; Grant Thornton, LLP; Katherine Carmody Trust, Bank of America, N.A., Trustee; M.R. & Evelyn Hudson Foundation; W.P. & Bulah Luse Foundation, Bank of America, N.A.; Fossil Group Employee Engagement Fund; The Junior League of Dallas; Elizabeth Toon Charities; Turning Point Foundation; National Endowment for the Arts; and Texas Commission on the Arts – Arts Respond. We also thank TACA for their generous support of DaVerse Lounge.

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Texas Bar Foundation Grant to Fund Creative Solutions

By Mario Tarradell, Public Relations & Marketing Manager

We thank the generosity of the Texas Bar Foundation. Big Thought has received a $10,000 grant from the Austin-based Texas Bar Foundation to fund Creative Solutions, a 20-year program that utilizes professional teaching artist mentors and a research-based curriculum to enhance empathy, critical thinking, teamwork skills and grit in teen probates.

“We are so grateful to the Texas Bar Foundation for their generous gift to Creative Solutions,” says Lisa Schmidt, Creative Solutions Founder. “Creative Solutions has made a huge difference in the lives of so many young people. This gift insures that we continue to keep this program strong and viable.”

Creative Solutions is a 20-year partnership with the Dallas County Juvenile Department that benefits from the generous support of the DCJD Juror’s Fund/Youth Services Advisory Board; Grant Thornton, LLP; the M.R. & Evelyn Hudson Foundation; Neiman Marcus; Texas Commission on the Arts – Arts Respond; the W.P. & Bulah Luse Foundation, Bank of America, N.A.; and the Elizabeth Toon Charities.

The program has revealed the potential of more than 10,000 students in the last two decades. According to the Social Skills Improvement System (SSIS) analysis over the past two summers: 41 percent of youth increased their social skills score by more than 5 percent; and 40 percent of youth decreased their problem behaviors score by more than 5 percent. Both figures are considered statistically significant.

The Texas Bar Foundation grant to fund Creative Solutions marks the beginning of a new relationship between the foundation and Big Thought.

Since its inception in 1965, the Texas Bar Foundation has awarded more than $16 million in grants to law-related programs. Supported by members of the State Bar of Texas, the Texas Bar Foundation is the nation’s largest charitable-funded bar foundation.

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Thanksgiving Lunch a Creative Solutions Reunion

By Mario Tarradell, Public Relations & Marketing Manager

Reunions rejuvenate the soul. They provide instant past, present and future snapshots that inform, elate and gratify. Reunions are joyous journeys that help us reconnect with others and ourselves.

Thanksgiving is the perfect time to reunite, to embrace and share in the prosperity of those we haven’t seen in too long. That was the ambiance of the Creative Solutions Thanksgiving Lunch Saturday, Nov. 14, 2015, at Big Thought’s Blue Room.

Creative Solutions is a 20-year partnership with the Dallas County Juvenile Department that benefits from the generous support of the DCJD Juror’s Fund/Youth Services Advisory Board; Grant Thornton, LLP; the M.R. & Evelyn Hudson Foundation; Neiman Marcus; Texas Commission on the Arts – Arts Respond; the W.P. & Bulah Luse Foundation, Bank of America, N.A.; the Texas Bar Foundation; and the Elizabeth Toon Charities.

A decade’s worth of Creative Solutions participants, about 35 guests in total, mingled and dined. On the menu: robust slices of turkey and ham, homemade green beans with potatoes, savory and crunchy Asian salad, mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce, white and wheat rolls. Oh and pies, lots and lots of pies! For dessert we had pumpkin and pecan pie, cookies, cheesecake, chocolate mousse with real whipped cream. Then pies boxed and ready for CS participants to take home, a table full of pumpkin, banana cream, pecan, apple and many more.

The guests spilled over into the adjacent Big Thought Café. Big Thought’s Allison Caldwell, Creative Solutions Director, and Lisa Schmidt, Creative Solutions Founder, could barely contain their joy watching Frankie with his sister and two cousins, Faith with her mom and two kids, Bliss, Rosalyn, Dejahn, Dredarrius, Steven with his brother, Terrell with his grandparents, Amber and her guests, Jessica and her guests, and many others. Also in the house were teaching artist Ronnie and Holly. Ronnie teaches music, while Jessica teaches ceramics and textile weaving.

Three Creative Solutions participants merit special mention: Blanca, who came with her husband and two children (ages 3 and 1); Alex, who brought her adorable 4-month-old baby boy; and Jonathan, who went from CS participant to mentor and instructor.

Schmidt said she hadn’t seen Blanca in three years and was so happy that she’s doing well. Blanca, Schmidt said, is employed, raising her family in her own house and happily married. Alex, who hadn’t been around the CS group in a year, has a great support system, according to Schmidt. She wants to go to college and start writing again. Jonathan is also working now. In September, he announced to the Big Thought staff that he had snagged a great new job.

“It’s wonderful to see them,” says Schmidt. “When you do the work that I do you never know if the seeds that were planted have taken root. Seeing Blanca so well balanced, leading a balanced life…it was so good to see that. We keep sustaining this great feeling, passing it down from one generation to the next.”

Therein lies the essence of reunions. They inform, they elate, and they gratify. Reunions rejuvenate the soul.

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Frankie Zuniga: Creative Solutions Success Story

By Mario Tarradell, Public Relations & Marketing Manager

The journey begins with trepidation. It’s a trip fueled by empowering pit stops that foster motivation. Each turning point provides strength and speed, and a clearer vision of the finish line.

Frankie Zuniga is on his way.

In the three years since Frankie joined Big Thought’s Creative Solutions program, the 20-year-old Dallas native graduated from high school, started attending college, connected with local arts and business leaders, and found his true passion for acting and dancing while developing a genuine interest in nursing and criminal justice.

His days of being a 12-year-old troublemaker hanging out with the wrong crowd are long gone. He learned from his mistakes, Frankie will quickly tell you. He’s here because he was there.

“Creative Solutions gave me a future,” Frankie says. “It taught me to look at the positive, and turn a negative into a positive. They never gave up on us. They never labeled us as criminals even though we were on probation. Nobody is a bad person; you just make bad choices.”

Big Thought’s Creative Solutions program utilizes professional teaching artist mentors and a research-based curriculum to enhance empathy, critical thinking, teamwork skills and grit in teen probates. The 20-year partnership with the Dallas County Juvenile Department benefits from the generous support of the DCJD Juror’s Fund/Youth Services Advisory Board; Grant Thornton, LLP; the M.R. & Evelyn Hudson Foundation; Neiman Marcus; Texas Commission on the Arts – Arts Respond; the W.P. & Bulah Luse Foundation, Bank of America, N.A.; and the Texas Bar Foundation.

Frankie, who lives in Dallas with his father, was on the cusp of his senior year at Lancaster High School when he finally accepted the Creative Solutions invitation. He had been asked to join twice before but turned it down each time. The leap was a huge one for him. By then Frankie had better control of his depression and his self-esteem began its slow ascent. By then Frankie had also commenced the process of coming out as bisexual – first to his sister, then to his mother and siblings, and finally to his father.

Frankie is the youngest of seven children. He has one sister and five brothers. One of those brothers is transitioning into a woman. Frankie’s parents, both from Mexico, are separated.

When Frankie made that walk across the stage at his high school graduation in 2013, his surname ensuring he’d be the final graduate to shake hands for his diploma, he had already emerged from his shell. Thanks to Creative Solutions his senior year was filled with drama class activities, plays, technical theater, Project Discovery, Dallas Theater Center’s signature education program, and University Interscholastic League. Alejandro Pérez, Jr., Creative Solutions teaching artist, introduced Frankie to dancing.

“He was like, ‘Just try it.’ I wasn’t really into dancing, but it’s awesome. I love it. I can’t put choreography together, but give me one and I’m a great dancer. I found a way to express myself. It’s something I love to do.”

So naturally Frankie’s major at El Centro Community College is performing arts with a concentration in acting and dancing. His minor is nursing and criminal justice. He plans to pursue nursing and criminal justice as a career while he works on his acting and dancing crafts.

Frankie’s college livelihood circles right back to Creative Solutions. At the Creative Solutions 20th anniversary luncheon last May, Frankie spoke about acting and dancing as his saviors, as the fortifying elixirs that helped him overcome many obstacles. It was at that luncheon that Frankie met Jorge Baldor, the local businessman and Havana, Cuba native who is an ardent benefactor of Big Thought’s Thriving Minds After School program La Rondalla. Baldor is sponsoring Frankie’s college education.

But there’s more: Frankie has forged a nice relationship with the folks at Telemundo 39 in Dallas. He shadowed directors, designers and many others for one day last March at the NBC Universal-owned station. He’ll be back for another shadowing day Nov. 4. Through his Telemundo connections he was invited to the Hispanic Business Salute 2015 at AT&T Stadium, where he met a slew of industry movers and shakers. Frankie also has plans to apply for a Telemundo scholarship to be awarded in 2016.

And then there’s AmeriCorps, the national non-profit that works in local communities to promote change through service. Frankie is an AmeriCorps volunteer, another extension of his Creative Solutions involvement, and he serves as an assistant choreographer teaching kids dance steps.

It’s all part of the journey for Frankie Zuniga. His journey from depression, low self-esteem and probation to fulfillment, self-awareness and college began with Creative Solutions.

“I got out of my shell; it helped me express myself,” he says. “Thanks to Creative Solutions I met Jorge Baldor, who is paying for my college. Whenever Creative Solutions invites me somewhere, and they take me there, something good happens. Creative Solutions is like my second family. Creative Solutions helped me get myself out there. They opened all these doors for me. They are here to listen to you. It’s like home.”

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Couverture Art Studio Unveils Expressive Works

By Mario Tarradell, Public Relations & Marketing Manager

The walls are lined with original artwork, a series of hanging multi-media pieces that courageously express the raw emotions of budding artists. But this isn’t your usual gallery. Couverture Art Studio sits inside the Dr. Jerome McNeil, Jr. Detention Center. It’s a small room adorned by a striking mural that thematically depicts the adage, “Can’t Judge a Book by its Cover.”

True words, since the studio’s painters currently live in the Center. Their works of art were on full display Monday, Aug. 24, during the unveiling of Couverture. The studio and its talented artists are the fruits of Big Thought’s Creative Solutions program, a 20-year partnership with the Dallas County Juvenile Department that utilizes professional teaching artist mentors and a research-based curriculum to enhance empathy, critical thinking, teamwork skills and grit in teen probates.

Janet Reynolds, Big Thought Creative Solutions teaching artist, is the calming and guiding influence behind 80 students, which she refers to as the “honors group,” because they have “earned the right, behaviorally, to be here.” There are five groups, Reynolds says, and they work with her four days a week for two hours each day. She has each group for one week, in which time each student creates a piece of inspired art. Collaborations are possible, but not the norm.

“Big Thought’s Creative Solutions allows me to come in and do that which is my purpose and my artistry, which is facilitating these young people to find their voices as individuals,” says Reynolds. “When you are working with art, you are working with heart. The heart space needs to be open in this environment. The art is the perfect skeleton. It becomes the framework upon which we can facilitate this. I am charged with recognizing and facilitating them as individuals regardless of their abilities.”

Reynolds provides a safe haven for self-expression to thrive. She makes sure all her students know that their talents will be nurtured. The results are a series of character-building accomplishments that change their outlook.

“I see that their world has become larger and has opened up to possibilities,” says Reynolds. “I also see that they can take a project to completion and they can master skills they never dreamed of. They are now artists solving problems.”

Cynthia Wallace, program and training manager for Dr. Jerome McNeil, Jr. Detention Center, visualized an art program at the center for years. She wanted something therapeutic for the kids. But it wasn’t until she connected with Big Thought, and with Reynolds during the first week of 2012, that her idea became a reality.

“The kids had never put brush to canvas,” says Wallace. “They had no idea that was inside of them. By the end of the week we were all in awe. Janet is such a master teacher. I have learned so much from her. The kids have learned so much from her. When you are in that class it is something that happens inside of you, your creative juices flow.”

Enter Francisco, the 16-year-old who painted the “Can’t Judge a Book by its Cover” mural inside the studio. Wallace had a picture she wanted transformed into a mural. She found exceptional drawing talent in Francisco and asked him if he could convert her small picture into a huge piece of wall art.

“I’m used to drawing freestyle,” says Francisco. “Miss Wallace came to me and asked me, ‘Can you draw this on the wall?’ I can do that, but I didn’t know I could do that.”

He began with pencil, then filled in with Sharpie marker, then four layers of paint, and then touch-ups with more Sharpies. He worked on it five hours each day. A month later the mural was finished. Francisco received a round of applause from the Couverture Art Studio unveiling crowd when Wallace introduced him as the artist behind the mural.

“When I saw everybody in the room looking at it, everybody clapping, it felt good,” says Francisco. “I felt proud that I could do something I didn’t know I could do. I already knew I was an artist because I knew how to draw, but now I know I have the talent that could take me somewhere.”

Wallace wants to see more success stories like Francisco. Her eyes light up as she talks about the future, not only the future of the Big Thought Creative Solutions program at Couverture Art Studio, but also the future of young lives enhanced by art.

“It’s amazing to partner with Big Thought, people who have a vision for kids,” says Wallace. “We are getting ready to start a new class. We have so many walls on this building to fill and we plan on filling them all. It’s amazing to have Big Thought in our lives.”

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