A Conversation with Kursten Pickup and Bomin Jeon
KURSTEN PICKUP – Kursten has coordinated BCCC Refugee Youth Project (RYP) since 2009. Throughout her tenure she has expanded after school programming to serve more than 300 newly arrived refugees per year. Prior to joining the RYP team, she obtained a Master’s in Community Arts from the Maryland Institute College of Art, where her studies focused on using art as a tool to create social and cultural change. Ms. Pickup strives to support English Language Learners by using art and education to meet her participants social, emotional, and academic needs.
BOMIN JEON – Bomin is an educator at the Catonsville site of Baltimore City Community College Refugee Youth Project and is a member of the Press Press team. She is a multidisciplinary artist born in Seoul, South Korea and now resides in Baltimore where she is pursuing BFA in Interdisciplinary Sculpture from the Maryland Institute College of Art.
For counterpart digital chapter check out www.ifiruledtheworld.info.
Bomin Jeon: What were the beginning stages of RYP like? How did it start?
Kursten Pickup: RYP began as a program of Baltimore City Community College. They had free English classes for adults and parents really wanted a support system for their children because they couldn’t read English or help them with their homework. Really, it was just the college responding to a need based on what the community wanted.
It started off with 10-15 kids meeting volunteers at a library and it just grew from there as the program received more funding. Something that it does that I really appreciate is that it adapts to meet Baltimore’s resettlement needs. When I started we had 40-50 Meskhetian Turks out in the Reisterstown area, and we ran an after school at Millbrook Elementary for three years. After they had integrated and were doing really well in school and their community, we were able to start over to serve a different population in Northeast Baltimore. RYP has grown and changed in a lot of different ways over the years. Community arts has become a larger priority in my time as the coordinator.
BJ: Do you have any significant moments that stand out to you from the years that you’ve worked with RYP?
KP: Oh yes, of course! There are so many important moments. There’s a lot of challenges that the youth face and you have to help the families get over them, and for me, I think one of the most important things is providing consistency. Watching them overcome their challenges and witnessing their progress is an amazing process. Two years ago, one of my first students received a full ride to the University of Maryland. At the time of her graduation, her dad was a bit sick so he wasn’t going to go.
They gave me an extra ticket and I said no, I’m not going to go if you don’t go. And at her graduation she was awarded an additional scholarship that no one knew about! At that moment he turned to me, crying, and he was like, I wouldn’t be here unless it was for you pushing me to come. I saw him this week and he was like, you are the second mom to my kids, you are part of my family. Even though I haven’t gone through their experience as a refugee, people can still make an impact just by being a consistent, caring community resource.
Kimi Hanauer: Are moments such as this, when you see kids really overcome challenges, what motivates you to do the work?
KP: Yes, the moments where our participants overcome their challenges and are proud of their accomplishments. I mean they have been through so much, but they are so resilient…so it’s beautiful to be part of their journey.
KH: They are so resilient! Is there something that you would say that you’ve learned from a specific person or over your time with the families?
KP: I think the number one thing I see often is just the opportunity for free education. Our students are so appreciative of educational opportunities and they want to take advantage of what the system has to offer. It’s really inspiring.
Technique is important but it’s not as important as the process that takes place during art-making.
BJ: I feel like some kids, you can see they have a commitment to themselves to do better, to be excellent in whatever they do. It’s really cool to see that in young kids.
KP: We had a student who really broke the mold at Patterson High School—who was the salutatorian, spoke at graduation, and went on to a four year college. He really inspired other kids, like, hey I can do that too, and two years later, another RYP student became the valedictorian.
BJ: RYP is really a space for people to motivate one another. Just in general, I’m really amazed by how they help each other learn something and there’s really no shame. Is it difficult to work with so many different sites? They probably all pose slightly different challenges?
KP: The sites are so different—one consistent thing we do is really trying to create this safe space where everyone feels like they can make mistakes and learn at their own pace. The catch with having so many different after school program sites is that the need is so different. High school and middle school students need more support with employment training, homework, and college prep. Probably the biggest difference is also the age range, the K-5th kids need so much more structure, plus there’s like 90 of them in one room! We also try and integrate community arts into all three sites to meet the emotional and social needs of students.
KH: How has your art background affected or prepared you for this type of work?
KP: I think the biggest way that my background has affected my job at RYP is just basically the foundations I learned from community arts. I think for me, as a trained illustrator, I really focus on the craft and technique itself. After graduating from MICA with an MFA in Community Arts, my practice and beliefs changed. As a facilitator, I still believe technique is important but it’s not as important as the process that takes place during art-making. And so, if there’s a dialogue that takes place that changes the way a student views the world or another person, then most often, that change is more important than that end product created. I think using art as a tool to bridge cultural differences or explore challenges is a perfect fit.
There’s so many ways to use art creatively to tackle some of the challenges that they are going through, weather it is bullying, discrimination, identity issues, conflict resolution…
KH: One thing Bomin and I have been talking about is trying to create a space where individuals in the group feel free to envision the world they want, say whatever they want and use the language that they want to use. And that’s definitely something we sense more broadly in the atmosphere at RYP.
KP: I think there’s so many ways to use art creatively to tackle some of the challenges that they are going through, weather it is bullying, discrimination, identity issues, conflict resolution, any of that coming all the way down to just expression or language itself. Art has really become RYP’s universal language. Through the process of expression, it doesn’t matter what their level of English is, but through the process of expression, we can have this alternative way of communicating with one another.
KH: There’s so much potential for ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) education and the experience of learning English to be an alienating experience, but at RYP it’s really prevalent that that’s not happening, as far as I can tell. You work in a reflexive way, responding to specific needs and having to change the structure as different needs become more prevalent…
KP: One thing we have been asking ourselves is if we are an educational program that has these other components, or if we should become a completely arts-based organization? And I think right now, since English and homework help is such a big part of what we do, we will always be education-based.
Honestly, sometime in the near future I will probably be leaving RYP. Someone with a bigger vision or new skill set will take what I have established and make it even better. That’s a beautiful thing. When I accepted the job, I was so excited to hit the ground running to implement new programs. My hope is that someone else with new ideas can take it even farther.
KH: What would you say are a few of the elements that make for meaningful education?
KP: A lot of ESOL teachers have amazingly big hearts and are willing to go above and beyond to do things for their students. I mean, they bring the students clothing, food, assist with finding community resources, shelter and more.
Having a safe space to appreciate and celebrate diversity is really important. I think finding relevant topics to the youth, and making subject matter student-centered and engaging is also important. Energy and enthusiasm has to be really high!
BJ: In order to be consistent and to be grounded, you have to constantly be responsive to whatever is happening in the city or with the places the youth come from. How do you keep yourself grounded personally?
KP: Occasionally, I take a break from my normal RYP duties and lead relevant workshops for the youth. I think finding a way to overlap my passion in developing those workshops or giving the youth a platform to raise their voice helps keep me grounded.
When the media exploded with images of the refugee crisis and the debate began, some our students really took a hit because of their religion or their backgrounds. So instead of isolating that population to do a project, we facilitated a bigger conversation with a larger group of high school students. After small group discussion, they designed t-shirts that were more about inclusion for everyone; the design had a circle with a peace sign in it saying culture and knowledge, culture is knowledge and knowledge is culture.
One student was really adamant about keeping get to know people and he just kept saying, you just have to get to know people. He spoke about people withholding judgment and forming relationships. They are incredible humans and I was thrilled to be part of a powerful moment. I think that kind of work, even though it is outside of the scope of things I should be doing, is really what keeps me going. I think when you know that your meeting a community need but also doing something you really love—it’s not really work.
I think first and foremost, the artist should respect the community’s needs and make sure that your agenda is completely aligned with theirs.
KH: How do you deal with cultural tensions within the program itself?
KP: When we started our Moravia site, we were so excited to have this new program, but what we didn’t realize is that there would be as much conflict within our own space. It was kind of a wake up call for us to realize that when you combine 20 different populations, you still need to give them that space to get to know each other. Helping them understand that their stories are unique, but that they also have commonalities, helped build empathy and understanding. Also, RYP has over 250 dedicated volunteers each year. They play a crucial role in welcoming, supporting and teaching our youth as well.
KH: What do you think an artist’s role could be within creating social change or whatever it is that needs to happen?
KP: I think first and foremost, the artist should respect the community’s needs and make sure that your agenda is completely aligned with theirs. I also think of the artist as more of a facilitator. They are there to ask questions and generate information and ideas from the community. Part of their role to be there to provide expertise in technique, while using it to lift up and highlight the community’s voice.
BJ: Last question… What would you do if you ruled the world? What would ruling be and what kind of world would it be?
KP: If I ruled the world, I would wave a magic wand and spread a little more empathy. Living in a more compassionate and empathetic world would be ideal for me. Thinking about a recent trip to Cuba, I know things don’t have to be “beautiful” to be good. I think being open and accepting, promoting empathy and understanding of the good, the bad, and the ugly… is number one. And gosh, more equality!! I really agree with a lot of the things our youth wrote in that manifesto. They are brilliant!
About If I Ruled The World: Presented by Press Press with support from BmoreArt, If I Ruled The World is a publication that takes inspiration from the Nas classic, “If I Ruled The World” (It Was Written, 1996), in order to facilitate artistic collaborations and conversations between a range of Baltimore-based Creatives and activists. In their responses, contributors present their most positive visions of the world, and by doing so are able to thoughtfully analyze and investigate the nuances within the struggle for equity in our city and the active role of artist within the pursuit for social change. If I Ruled The World is curated by Kimi Hanauer with direction by contributors and the Press Press team.