Art and Resistance Through Education (ARTE) is a non-profit organization active across the five boroughs of New York City that uses art to raise awareness of social issues among young people and build next generations’ human rights activists.
Marissa Gutiérrez Vicario is a human rights and peace-building activist, artist, educator, and advocate for youth. She founded ARTE in 2013, realizing her teenage dream of building a youth-led movement for social justice and merging her two greatest passions: human rights advocacy and art.
Camilla Colicchio: Hi, starting from you and your personal experience, your background is quite impressive, and the first thing I wanted to ask you is how did you end up starting an NGO? It has been the life that just brought you there, or there was a sort of calling like you always knew you were going to do that?
Marissa Gutiérrez Vicario: That’s a great question. So, I say I started when I moved to New York in 2007, but really, as you said, I love the idea that you have a calling. Recently a few years ago, I was relooking at my application to enter college. At that time, I was in high school, and, looking in the application, I saw someone wrote: “Marissa wants to grow up and run her non-profit organization,” like a social justice organization. I had forgotten about that. I’m sharing that just because I think I was a young person who dreamed of starting an NGO at some point. And I was interested in social justice, art, and human rights, even when I was still developing what those concepts meant. I started because I had that dream, and it’s fun because I like the idea of a full circle that, as I got older, I work and have an organization for young people like myself. And I hope that other young people will also have that dream. I guess it came when I was a child this dream to merge these two parts of me: the passion for art and human rights. Because I always felt like you had to choose one or the other, and I didn’t want it to be like that, I want to merge these worlds, and they help each other. And the other aspect was – the world has changed, you know, those years since then – that, as a person, I felt very angry with the things I saw around me. Some of those things are still happening in the world, and some of those are, in fact, even worse in many ways. So, I needed to create an NGO to help me feel like I could do something. Anger is good, but I had to use that anger, as one says, as a gift and to try to make the world different and better.
Camilla Colicchio: Why did you feel art was the right way to foster social change?
Marissa Gutiérrez Vicario: When you think of human rights, you think of law, lawyers, and national instruments. All this it’s very important, but I also wanted people to realize that art, creativity, when you watch movies, when you read books, when you see TV, you learn about issues and things in a very personal, profound way. As I mentioned, I was always interested in art, and I started trying to do it at a very young age. And I just felt like, it’s not the only way, but one way to engage people in serious conversations and engage them to take action was this more creative, often joyful thing. As I came to New York, I also realized that while we’re fighting for human rights, we’re also fighting for art, right? Because art, at least in the States, in New York, is constantly fighting for funding. We’re constantly fighting for access and accessibility, especially for young people of color. So, art is a mechanism to address human rights and engage human rights issues for young people. And also, art is this thing that we have to fight for simultaneously because if we don’t fight, it often gets taken away.
“I needed to create an NGO to help me feel like I could do something. Anger is good, but I had to use that anger, as one says, as a gift and to try to make the world different and better.”
Camilla Colicchio: So, the link between art and activism for you lies in developing an awareness, a sense of consciousness in your community. Because you can’t tackle a problem if you’re unaware of it, is it right?
Marissa Gutiérrez Vicario: Yeah, it’s beautifully said.
Camilla Colicchio: How, in a more practical way, does art impact young underserved communities like the ones you work with?
Marissa Gutiérrez Vicario: I think it impacts in a few different ways, right? Art is a tool for self-expression for young people and anyone. And there are many young people – and I always say I don’t want to make assumptions – we work with that experience of human rights abuses or violations. Not everyone, obviously, but chances are, because we live in the US, we live in a racist society. So, when we work with young people of color, they may have experienced things that affect them, hurt them, and harm them, but they may not know how to say that. Like, how do you even say that? But they use art to talk about themselves, human rights, and something they saw that hurt them. So, one way art can impact their lives is by expressing themselves in ways they may not have been invited to do so.
On the other hand, you have this thing where you use art to engage, challenge them, or do something about the issue that impacts them. So, it’s twofold: it’s using it as a tool for yourself and your own right of creation. And then you have this as a tool to activate others, especially other people in your family, your peers, your friends, and your community. So, I think those are the two main reasons that, you know, have a huge impact.
Camilla Colicchio: In this sense, what’s your organization’s role in your local community?
Marissa Gutiérrez Vicario: It’s one of those things where we think we do something, students in a different way, parents in a different one. Students see it as a way to shape and amplify their voices. So, for them, we have a safe space to talk about things we care about. We have a space where we can create art, relax, talk about these issues, and create something we’re proud of. For other people outside of this, like parents and adults in general, it is like young people creating art, beautifying their community, and doing something positive. And I think ARTE, it’s all of those things. But it’s also like, we’re trying to create a movement where young people can further social justice issues through the arts. So, I think that’s the way we see it, too, but the different players will see it differently. Also, we’ve worked with young people in jail; they’ve seen a different way to do right because of the context. For them, it’s just really important to be in a safe space that feels for a moment in time to feel peaceful. We want to create something, and we can talk about issues, right? So, it does change to the context, but I think, most importantly, it is about creating safe spaces because when you feel safe, you feel like you can do something.
“It’s twofold: it’s using it as a tool for yourself and your own right of creation. And then you have this as a tool to activate others, especially other people in your family, your peers, your friends, and your community”
Camilla Colicchio: Going back to what you said before that art is not that accessible in the US, do you feel there’s an institutional lack in art education? If yes, how does ARTE work to change that?
Marissa Gutiérrez Vicario: Yeah, I do. We’ve worked with schools that have the name art in their name and don’t even have an art teacher. And this is it’s not their fault. When they have to choose between art and other subjects, the institutions have to go for what they think is best for them, I guess. And because we don’t value art a lot, at least from an institutional or a systemic level, people have to make hard choices. So, it’s a values issue, it’s an accessibility issue. I’ve noticed personally that many folks at a very young age are not exposed to it early. So, when they start doing art or drawing, they feel like they’re really bad at it. Then that’s also another aspect of this accessibility. But this confidence issue also affects young people’s relationship with art. If you don’t practice something, you’re not going to get better at it necessarily, and you’re going to feel like, well, why am I doing this? So, part of our work is fighting for funding, fighting for art, but also making it so that anyone who joins our program feels like they can create something, whether they identify as an artist or not.
Camilla Colicchio: We’ve talked about how you are trying to help young students. But I’m curious if there’s something that working with the younger generation has taught you over the years.
Marissa Gutiérrez Vicario: Everything, all the time. I want to speak honestly, but I don’t want to be exoticized. I am really impressed by their passion and their bravery. I’ve thought of this before: young people often act like they have nothing to lose, and they’ll do everything and be out there. But they do it. They have a lot to lose, and it’s actually much, much too dangerous for them. So, I’m taught a lot about their bravery. We also have a junior board, with members who have been in the program and now work with us, and they carry their own projects. How they speak about the work, I think, is really beautiful. And they’ve taught me how to speak about the work, and I’m reminded why it is important. Because the way they talk, they experience it, but also the way they talk about it and the lens they talk about it is really inspiring. I’m generalizing, but they also have a really interesting way of looking at the world around them. So, while they’re oftentimes simultaneously ingrained and involved in social media and Tik Tok and culture and things like that, I think they’re brilliant in how they’re able to use it as a tool. They’re also very smart and can take a step back and see how it’s problematic. And I think even ways that adults don’t do it. They’ve created this culture, and they drive it. Can we learn from them? I think yes. So, I think that is something I’ve learned from young people, the power they have to drive culture, shape culture, and influence others.
Camilla Colicchio: What do you think are the main challenges they have to face, and how does the organization work to support them in dealing with them?
Marissa Gutiérrez Vicario: I think they are just really simple and not even simple. You’re a young person, and you have a full-time school, you’re working in clubs, if you decide to go to college, you’re doing things for college, you’re commuting really far. I know adults have many responsibilities, too, but I think young people are uniquely involved in all these things and they are not quite adults yet. So, they also are in this interesting space, like they have many responsibilities but don’t have many rights to do anything. And also, they can’t vote, and there are certain things they can’t do. And it’s interesting, too, when you talk about young people, they’re like, we can’t vote, but we still want to do something, we still have power, when someone says that you got to vote to change the country. Oh, but you can’t, really. You’re told you have to do certain things, and then you have to go to college and go to school and all these things. o their time is very limited. I think they have many commitments. They have many responsibilities to their families and their communities. So, for us, we want to keep them involved. If they join programs, we want to ensure they stay in the program. But it’s really hard, so we try to be flexible with them. We will try to check in with them: what do you need? We try to pair them with adult mentors to talk with them to check-in. And we try to figure out, like, do you need subway cards? Do you need art materials? There was a point during the pandemic when we were mailing young people art supplies because they didn’t even have them. How will you get that if you don’t attend a physical school? So, we try to meet them where they’re at and try not to assume what they need. And we’re trying to do better at asking them what they need and how we can support them if they need to step back and have some time and space. Because especially young people, during the pandemic, had mental health issues. It was a huge issue, and it is a huge issue. A lot of them were like, and I can’t do this because I need to focus on my health. So, we had to say, okay, do that; let us know how we can help. We tried to do these things like hearing what they needed and then trying to give them the space to figure out what they needed.
“Most importantly, it is about creating safe spaces because when you feel safe, you feel like you can do something”
Camilla Colicchio: Another thing I want to ask you is, what’s the ultimate change that you personally wish to bring to your community? And what’s the change that ARTE wishes to bring to the community?
Marissa Gutiérrez Vicario: For me, the change is for young people to continue to see themselves as leaders and for us to continue to find ways for young people to grow and to have their voices be amplified – you know, we don’t give them voices, they have their own voices, and we’re just trying to support them in that journey. I hope for young people to feel loved and supported and feel safe to say the things they want to say and do, the things they want to do without questioning things. When I was younger – like I said – I was really angry seeing the things around me, and so I imagine some people are angry and also tired of seeing young people like them honestly killed, you know, people that look like them. I think that’s very scary for them. Especially for young people of color that now feel like they’re in danger, I want to create a world where they don’t feel like that, where they feel safe, and they feel loved, and they feel like they can live a long time. And I think we are part of a larger puzzle, trying to support people and amplify their voices. We’re nothing but one of many changemakers in a part of this world, but I think we’re trying to do so. In what ways can we creatively build with and for young people? I want to figure out other ways. How do we creatively challenge these systems? I want to raise the question and hopefully re-envision them. Those are some of the things I think we’re trying to do. But it takes time, it takes patience, it takes effort, it takes resources, it takes care and tension, and all those different things.
Camilla Colicchio: What’s your biggest dream for ARTE?
Marissa Gutiérrez Vicario: We’re talking about that; we think about that a lot. It is to create a more significant movement for human rights, change, and art in the country. That’s hard because right now, we’re at a point where some parts of the States don’t allow certain things to be taught anymore. So, my more significant idea is that my movement ARTE will grow. But also, ARTE can reach those places where young people don’t have access to this.
I’d love it if it were an organization run by young people. I want it to grow. To last long and outlive. And I also want it to be run by the people we support. That’s my dream. I don’t think anyone should be like an executive director forever; I want other people to have a chance and take it to a different level. That’s my hope.
In 2022, ARTE was among the organizations selected for both the Moleskine Foundation’s Creative Tools for Social Change initiative and Creativity Pioneers Fund, becoming part of the Creativity Pioneers NetworkRead more stories like this →