The Resilience Art Project: Empowering a Community to Overcome Adversity

By Keri Moe

On August 3, 2019, the vibrant border community of El Paso, Texas suffered a heart-breaking mass shooting by a gunman whose actions were fueled by intolerance and hatred. While our community has risen “El Paso Strong” in solidarity, cultural chasms were exposed as we began the process of recovery. This unthinkable event emphasized the need for programming in resilience — adapting in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, or other significant sources of stress and finding tools to overcome those hardships. As a result, the Resilience Art Project (RAP) was created. The need for resilience has become even more clearly evident with the challenges facing our nation, including the coronavirus pandemic and the current social unrest.

RAP was designed with the support of the Alumni TIES grant funded by the U.S. Department of State as a result of my participation in the Alumni TIES seminar in Santa Fe, New Mexico on “Art, Culture, and Transforming Conflict” in December 2019. As inspired by this seminar, RAP’s mission is to stimulate dialogue and promote tolerance and cross-cultural collaboration to heal from adversity. The goal was to create a capacity building tool that fosters self-expression and empowers individuals to cope and grow regardless of what they are facing. Our hope was that participants would learn skills to build positive futures for themselves and our community regardless of the type of adversity they may face. Originally developed pre-COVID-19 in collaboration with Creative Kids, our region’s leading non-profit dedicated to empowering youth through the arts, the arrival of the pandemic required us to be resilient ourselves and adapt the program accordingly.

Initially, we were slated to have a variety of in-person workshops, classes, public panels, and multiple exhibitions across the city with resiliency-based curriculum. We modified our timeline hoping these circumstances would be short and temporary. However, that possibility rapidly faded as our community went into shutdown. Like most of the nation, we began to realize public health orders, social distancing requirements, and the new reality we were quickly embarking upon would not end soon. It became clear that these unprecedented circumstances would not support robust programming in the manner we had envisioned. We also knew that this programming was too important to be interrupted. Given the circumstances of a community still reeling from a mass shooting and now in the midst of a pandemic, the need for resiliency was even stronger. We had to adapt accordingly and respond swiftly.

While our goals and mission to promote resiliency were unwavering, COVID-19 forced us to adjust our timeline, modify content and delivery, reconsider audience outreach, and adjust our budget. Our collaborator, Creative Kids continued to develop the resiliency-based curriculum for art instruction as planned. However, many of our scheduled live, interactive workshops, panels, and exhibitions were modified to be delivered in an online modality. All events requiring group gatherings were changed to activities that could be delivered in virtual formats. Our face-to-face classes were restructured to online classes offered through Zoom, and instructional videos were developed to reach a broader audience to create a foundation where the material could be shared with partnering organizations in the future. In addition, we delivered art supply kits to participants so that they could complete the program activities along with their families. We also held a virtual art exhibition and online discussion to engage the community at large. These changes required adjustments to our budget. For example, since venue rental and classroom space was no longer a needed expense, we were able to use this unexpected surplus to cover unexpected costs for video production and editing, the purchase additional equipment such as cameras, and other needed technology.

A Resiliency Art Project (RAP) open call for artwork flyer for the virtual exhibition.
Project instructors conduct virtual art and resiliency workshops for participants.

By remaining resilient and adapting in the face of adversity, not only did we meet the initial goals of the project, we demonstrated the power of resiliency and ensured the program’s sustainability beyond the Alumni TIES grant. The successful rollout and execution of RAP has led to new funding opportunities. As of August 8, 2020, Creative Kids has taken the lead on RAP 2.0, now referred to as the Resiliency Art Program. Creative Kids intends to make it a permanent program, in partnership with the El Paso United Resiliency Center and other community organizations committed to building a resilient community. Without the powerful experience at Alumni TIES seminar in Santa Fe that this project and effort would not have become a reality. The Alumni TIES seminar and small grant made RAP possible. The impact that this project has had and will continue to have on the El Paso community because of the Alumni TIES small grant is truly priceless.

Resiliency Art Project (RAP) is funded through an Alumni TIES small grant from the U.S. Department of State.

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Alumni Thematic International Exchange Seminars (Alumni TIES) are regionally focused seminars for alumni of U.S. government-sponsored exchange programs.

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