By Liz Geoffrey   Published Dec 17, 2019 at 7:03 AM

This article is in a series by emerging creatives at Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (MIAD) that explores both the apparent and hidden influences of professional art and design in the Milwaukee area.

Many Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design (MIAD) students and alum are youth arts educators, working to fill the gaps left by MPS budget cuts with creativity and positivity, whose effects will be felt for generations to come.

Daniela Anderson-Fernandez graduated from MIAD in 2015 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Painting and now works at Sojourner Family Peace Center as its Arts Program Coordinator. 

"I integrate arts as part of the healing process for children and youth services," Anderson-Fernandez says. "I integrate arts into support groups, family groups, and staff wellness. I also partner with outside agencies to bring art into the center as well."

Sojourner’s youth services offer an escape to children of all ages whose lives have been affected by domestic violence, either as a witness or as a victim of child abuse, sexual abuse, or neglect. Anderson-Fernandez and her co-workers offer a consistent source of love and support that children might not have at home.

The arts programs focus on educating kids about life skills and empowering them to become resilient. Children learn how to identify, process and cope with difficult emotions and situations. They are also encouraged to use creative outlets to express themselves.

"I’m just grateful to be a positive support in their lives," says Anderson-Fernandez. "Something that we’ve found in our research in youth impacted by domestic violence is that the most important thing that helps them build hope and resilience is having a positive mentor in their life. I’m glad to be, even if for a temporary part of their life, a positive adult."

Introducing art to kids who have experienced trauma isn’t always easy. However, arts programs are shown to help put disadvantaged children on the path to success, especially when introduced in formative years.

"I really like the idea of working with youth," says Anderson-Fernandez. "Most of a person’s life is molded in their childhood. They’re really impacted by the things they go through. To be able to address that at a young age is absolutely transformational."

Introducing arts, self-expression, and coping skills are not just transformational to the kids, but to the entire community. Anderson-Fernandez’s lessons are shared beyond her unorthodox classroom at Sojourner. They are carried into the surrounding community by the young people she works with every day, sharing their newly learned skills with the people around them. The skills and tools they learn helps them to heal and cope as they move forward in life.

Anderson-Fernandez believes these skills will have a ripple effect on the community. This ripple effect is spread not only to their immediate surroundings, but can be expanded within themselves personally as they grow older.

Arts do not only serve as a delivery system for learning important life-long skills, but as a type of therapy, especially for those who are struggling with difficult life circumstances.

"Art was healing for me all my life, that’s why I was making it. I wanted to share that to help other people," says Anderson-Fernandez. "What I try to teach the kids is that it’s not about the outcome. It’s about the way you feel when you make it. It’s about the process. I don’t care that it doesn’t look like anything. I just want you to feel good while you’re making it. I want you to experience what art feels like."

Anderson-Fernandez, a first of her kind at Sojourner, recognizes that arts are a powerful outlet for self-expression, especially for those who have been impacted by domestic violence. She helps kids learn how to cope with their emotions and their surroundings, all in a safe and supportive environment. She says her favorite part of her job is the interpersonal component: forming relationships with the kids and families that she works with. While her art may not be on a gallery wall, it is instead found in the people whose lives she touches.

Alejandro DeAnda is currently a student seeking a BFA in Illustration at MIAD. Through MIAD coursework, DeAnda volunteered for Express Yourself Milwaukee, a program that encourages students from at-risk communities to learn healthy and positive ways of expressing themselves through arts-immersion.

"We worked with Lancaster Elementary School’s third and fourth graders," says DeAnda. "Express Yourself was about providing arts to at-risk students who need extra support. Maybe they didn’t come from a good home, or they had things going on outside of school that impacted their behavior. We would be there for a few hours to try to help them heal. In a way, it was like therapy. It was creating a way to cope with their problems."

Another program working with local schools is Turnaround Arts, a national program that impacts underserved school districts throughout the country. 

"I feel like art saved my life," DeAnda says.  "Volunteering with Express Yourself and seeing these students going through difficult upbringings … I was able to relate to that. I knew how it felt to have a lack of support at home, or to be raised by a single parent. When art was introduced to me, I felt so much better. I didn’t think about my past, I didn’t think about my problems. I just thought about the moment and I felt happy, I felt better."

Now he’s giving back to the cause that helped him succeed and helped him become the person he is today. "I understood what it felt like to not have someone to look up to other than my mom growing up. I wanted to play that role for others and give that to the next generation."

Working from the inside out, Anderson-Fernandez, DeAnda and many others are working hard to bring arts back into our community. 

Thankfully, re-integration programs have been putting in a massive effort to make up for this difference in our community to create a positive effect that will be felt for generations to come.