AHA!’s Peace Builders Put Social-Emotional Education First

AHA From Schools of Thought, Santa Barbara Independent, November 7, 2019.

AHA’s Peace Builders From Schools of Thought, Santa Barbara Independent, November 7, 2019.

Nonprofit Makes Social-Emotional Learning Engaging and Fun 

Today’s students live in a world where fear of violence and concerns about mental health, anxiety, stress, depression, and feelings of isolation are sadly an acknowledged part of their lives. But there are also several bright spots in this picture. 

For one thing, educators, parents, students, and employers increasingly recognize the value of social-emotional learning (SEL) as a way to combat these challenges. Here in town, the nonprofit AHA!’s Peace Builders program works in Santa Barbara and Carpinteria schools “to help build a learning and doing community for young people who want to use their SEL skills to play a leadership role in improving the climate of their school campuses,” explains Melissa Lowenstein, AHA! programs director and facilitator. 

Ryan Sportel, the dean of student engagement at Goleta Valley Junior High, is a fan. “What is unique about AHA! that nobody else has is that they have figured out how to present and teach and practice the skills associated with social and emotional learning in a way that’s really incredibly engaging and fun and also makes sense as a human being,” he said. “It’s very relatable, and it’s very natural and organic.” 

The curriculum trains participants to be great listeners, clear and courageous communicators, and allies who can confidently support others who are being bullied or who are otherwise struggling, explained Lowenstein. 

“We believe that students gain self-confidence on how to navigate through different points of views and being more accepting to all of the different people we are surrounded with in our community,” said Nathan Mendoza, dean of students at Santa Barbara High. 

Santa Barbara High teacher Mario Rodriguez praises the program’s diversity. “Some students are recognized strong leaders, active in the direction of the peace circles and whole group conversations,” he said. “Other students are timid yet finding positive role models to fortify their own role within the organization. Some students are very sure of their identities, confident in knowing who they are as adolescents within our school and community. Other students are in the process of finding themselves, feeling safe because they will not be judged in this setting but rather supported in their personal process. To be a part of AHA! is to be heard, celebrated, and uplifted.” 

Explained Sportel, “It’s at least as valuable as any other course of study that we provide to our children.” 

Click here to read this story as it originally appeared in the Santa Barbara Independent on November 7, 2019. SB Independent Schools of Thought Insert 11.7.19

Town Hall for the Local Arts Community

Jayna Swartzman-Brosky at the 9th Annual Santa Barbara County Symposium for the Arts, photo by Leslie Dinaberg

Jayna Swartzman-Brosky at the 9th Annual Santa Barbara County Symposium for the Arts, photo by Leslie Dinaberg

Last week’s arts symposium, an annual event sponsored by The Santa Barbara County Arts Commission, served as a lively town hall of sorts for the local arts community.  Arts advocates, arts educators and youth advocates, arts administrators, foundations, arts and city and county officials (and yours truly) packed the meeting rooms at the Canary Hotel for a day packed full of presentations and opportunities for the arts community to discuss issues that impact the arts in Santa Barbara.

Talented Goleta Valley Junior High student Mary-Grace Langhorne, the 2014 Teen Star (one of many youth-centric arts programs supported by the Arts Commission) awed the crowd with a beautiful song, followed by a short welcome from Ginny Brush, executive director of the Arts Commission. Next up was Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider, who led us in a rain dance of sorts. If only I had a video camera … Santa Barbara Poet Laureate Chryss Yost read a moving poem by the city’s first Poet Laureate, the recently-deceased Barry Spacks. This was especially fitting since April is National Poetry Month.

This year’s focus for the arts symposium was “Expanding Advocacy, Community Engagement and Investment in the Arts,” and keynote speaker Kerry Adams Hapner, executive director of the Office of Cultural Affairs for the City of San Jose, gave an excellent presentation spotlighting what San Jose has done to bring the arts to the forefront of that city’s economic development program.

ArtsCommisionlogo-RGBBasically, the San Jose model outlined ten goals for ten years. Number one was to support the resident’s personal participation in arts and culture. Number two: to support availability of diverse cultural spaces and places throughout the community. Number three was to strengthen downtown San Jose as the creative and cultural center of the region. Number four: integrate public art and urban design throughout the community. Number five: expand residents’ access. Number six was to foster destination quality events in San Jose. Number seven: strengthen marketing and engagement. Number eight was to enhance support for creative entrepreneurs and the commercial creative sector. Number nine, to strengthen the cultural community’s infrastructure. And finally, number ten, to increase funding.

What Hapner described as “working the plan” involved a number of partnerships and strategic investments from the tech companies that define the Silicon Valley region, creating a creative industries incentive fund to attract that type of business and allocating 1% of the city capital improvement projects to public art, among other strategies.

The second presentation was by Jayna Swartzman-Brosky, program director for the Center for Cultural Innovation. One of the programs she oversees is NextGen Arts, a grant program of which provides professional development grants and resources for emerging California arts leaders between the ages of 18-35. She also manages the Creative Capacity Fund Quick Grant Program, which provides reimbursement funds to nonprofit organizations and individual artists to enroll in workshops, attend conferences, and to work with consultants and coaches to build administrative and business skills and strengthen the economic sustainability of an organization or arts practice. The organization offers a number of low cost entrepreneurial workshops, practical publications and resources for artists and arts organizations, with loads of information available online as well.

Afternoon sessions were divided into smaller breakout groups to stimulate community dialogue and included a more in-depth discussion with Swartzman-Brosky, a panel on promoting arts education advocacy, a group focused on expanding Santa Barbara’s cultural footprint through collaborative marketing/promotion and a discussion of advocacy for artists/innovators.

All in all it was an invigorating and interesting day. For more information visit sbartscommission.org.

—Leslie Dinaberg

Originally published in Santa Barbara SEASONS on April 22, 2014.