By Cory Phare
Most musicians won’t get to perform at the Pepsi Center. Even fewer will get to play an opening set for a luminary the likes of Michelle Obama.
But thanks to an applied-arts internship with Denver’s Youth on Record, that’s exactly where Yajaira Mora-Rivera and others from FEMpowered, a collective for musicians who identify as women, found themselves in July 2017 – pumping up the crowd for the former first lady’s appearance.
“Getting to play bass and open for Michelle Obama when she came to Denver was absolutely unbelievable,” she said. “I’d always dreamed of doing something like that but never really thought it could happen. It was the experience of a lifetime.”
As arts and music classes are cut from public school curricula across the state, and with districts struggling to provide low-income students quality arts classes, nonprofits such as Youth on Record filling the void with applied-arts internships that supplement high school students’ education – and help some of them find their calling.
Mora-Rivera's passion for music brought her to Metropolitan State University of Denver at DIME, where she’s a performance major. She credits her internship with Youth on Record for helping her discover and hone her musical talents.
The Lincoln Park-based music-education nonprofit Youth on Record uses arts as a vehicle for individual and community empowerment, with programs including credit-recovery music classes taught by accomplished area artists, said Andrea Viarrial-Murphy, director of visibility and operations with the organization and an MSU Denver alumna. Its programs are infused with trauma-informed care, providing young people, often from underprivileged communities, with a chance for success in work, college and life.
“There’s such a healing component around arts of all forms,” Viarrial-Murphy said. “When I see a student with headphones on at a computer creating, it gives them that outlet they need to go somewhere else for a minute. It helps them find their voice.”
This work is made possible by unique partnerships with groups such as the Denver Housing Authority, which recently announced relocation of its headquarters to the 17-acre blended-income Mariposa neighborhood development where Youth on Record is based. The music organization regularly hosts cultural events such as an annual Block Party for students and community residents.
“One of the things I love (about events like our annual Block Party) is that we all get to interact with people from different backgrounds to share art, food and conversation,” Viarrial-Murphy said. “There’ll be 15-year-olds talking to 70-year-old residents.
“You don’t normally see that. There’s a sense of ‘we might not look the same, but we’re part of a community, one that’s tied together by creativity.’”
Several blocks due east from Youth on Record, Monica Narona also found her calling through an applied-arts internship, this one with MSU Denver’s Center for Visual Art.
With a lifelong interest in drawing, she participated in the gallery’s Creative Industries Internship while in high school. And while she didn’t know it at the time, it was the catalyst to help connect the dots for eventual study in the University’s art program.
“That desire to produce something for others to look at and take pleasure in viewing – I knew that was for me,” Narona said. “But if it wasn’t for a program like (the Creative Industries Internship), I wouldn’t have known what to do about college.
“This showed me what art could look like as a career and as my future.”
In addition to sparking inspiration, the internship is a unique approach for high school students to build a pathway of study in college – and the actual steps necessary to establish long-term careers in the industry, said Cecily Cullen, director and curator of the CVA.
Given the opportunity-driven missions of Youth on Record and MSU Denver, it makes sense that high school students participating in these arts internships would find their way to the Auraria Campus, she said.
For Mora-Rivera, finding a community that would nurture her newfound passion for music and advocate for her made all the difference in the world.
“As an undocumented student, a lot of places I was looking at didn’t offer help with financial aid,” she said. “I learned about MSU Denver at DIME and their support for DACA students through Youth on Record.
“It seemed like a perfect fit, and it really has been – I can’t imagine being at any other school doing anything else.”
Participants in the CVA's Creative Industries Internship are provided with networking opportunities and behind-the-scenes walk-throughs that allow them to get an up-close look at what the day-to-day reality entails for artists in Denver’s booming creative fields.
And while the professional network-building is vital to a career path that by its nature demands creativity, Cullen noted that the real benefit is the connection of developing one’s talent within the context of the social good, all while remaining authentic to one’s artistic voice.
“This internship demonstrates how these students can gain an edge in these competitive fields,” Cullen said. “And we need studio artists in our community to provide culture and a critical questioning of society, a reflection of where we have been and where we are going.”
This shared responsibility to ask difficult questions is at the center of the CVA’s current exhibition, “Collectivism,” running through Oct. 19. It’s also part of Narona’s exploration of art as “spiritual healing,” emotionally evocative dialogue that transcends words.
For Narona, Mora-Rivera and their compatriots in Denver’s next generation of young people finding their voices, it marks a beginning, not an endpoint. And whether it’s visual art at the CVA or music at Youth on Record, the applied opportunity to hold that creative space empowers individuals and community.
“I like how art is pervasive,” Narona said. “You start the conversation in one place and watch it continuing on in people’s discussions and debates.
“Sometimes you’re surprised to see how far it goes.”
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