by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The Homestead was happy the last few days to be able to host a Youth Heritage Summit, developed by We Are The Next, a Long Beach-based non-profit that creates programs for youth with the aim of engaging them with the built and natural environment through cross-cultural experiences.
Founder and executive director Katie Rispoli Keaotamai approached the museum with the idea of having the summit at the Homestead and worked closely with our public programs staff (Alexandra Rasic, Gennie Truelock, Jennifer Scerra and Isis Quan) on developing the three-day program, which included about two dozen participants from a wide geographic spectrum in our region, including Los Angeles, Fullerton and Corona, among others.
Activities centered around a trio of intensive hands-on projects utilizing the tracks of graphic design, social media and historic site interpretations. The first involved the tremendous contribution of Self Help Graphics and Art, a Boyle Heights based community arts center founded in 1970 and which has a long tradition of community engagement, as group members designed and printed canvas bags that reflected visual impressions they had of their visit to the museum.
The other two utilized the skills of my colleagues in working with participants on Instagram posts that touched upon aspects of the site’s collection and what they meant to the members of that group, as well as a PowerPoint program that focused on the life of William Workman, including his tragic death by suicide after the failure of his Temple and Workman bank in 1876.
Thursday and Friday, the participants and staff from We Are The Next, Self-Help Graphics and Art, and the Homestead got to know each other and the site as they worked on the three projects. The tentativeness and nervousness of the early stages of the summit evolved into something truly special as everyone focused on their contributions, developed relationships, and delved deeply into what the Homestead had to offer.
The led to today’s conclusion, including a Town Hall, where the three groups presented the results of their work to each other and had a panel discuss the projects. The panelists were Katie, University of California, Riverside professor and director of the Public History program on campus Catherine Gudis, and me.
The graphic arts group displayed their impressive projects, which utilized vibrant color, striking concepts, powerful symbols, and personal elements to their work. Stained glass, the Temple family coat-of-arms, the Mexican eagle and snake, and the international language of music were among the most prevalent metaphors and symbols used by group members as their displayed their bags and talked about why and how they came up with their designs. The use of pictorial art was particularly striking as a tool for evoking history and each participant brought something personal into their motivations for developing their project.
Those in the social media track shared their Instagram project, which involved video snippets of members interacting and discussing interesting and compelling aspects of the Homestead, as well as posts that will appear on the museum’s Instagram page and which cover notable historical concepts based on artifacts from our collection that attracted each member of the team. These included the Mexican-American War, Pío Pico (the last governor of Mexican-era California), women’s suffrage in California and nationally, and a women’s peace conference held at the Hollywood Bowl in 1921. The thoughtfulness and care that went into these posts and the video were very impressive.
Finally, those participants who worked on historic site interpretation through a PowerPoint presentation not only developed a storyline around the theme of “The Rise and Fall of William Workman,” but decided to structure it as a performance with scenes. These scenes presented a timeline of events involving Workman’s life and dramatized his arrival in Mexican California with very little, his developing his half of Rancho La Puente into cattle ranching and farming with great success, and his later business endeavors including the Temple and Workman bank. The latter’s collapse, however, led Workman to take his life and the participants were keenly aware of the lack of discussion about suicide then, but also that fact that it is now something being actively talked about now. Again, it was striking how deeply and carefully considered this project was.
In fact, Katie, Catherine and I marveled after each presentation about how, with little advance preparation and scarce time, with some direction but a great deal of independence and autonomy, these talented, focused and engaged youth came up with such a wide variety of responses to their project goals. It wasn’t just the specific results, but the poise and confidence which each displayed and they stood and discussed their work.
It seemed to the panelists and everyone else at the Town Hall that these were young people who were poised to make their marks, in whatever ways, formats and venues they find in life, in society. As much commentary as there is about the lack of engagement of teens who seem far more interested in their electronic devices, apps, and the like than in the world in which they live, the Youth Heritage Summit showed quite the opposite. These are engaged youth who do care about their communities, their futures and their hopes and they do see that history has an important part to play in how we look at these concepts.
It was an honor for the Homestead to take part in the summit and the contributions of my public programs colleagues was significant and meaningful for the participants and for the museum. My time on the panel at the Town Hall was a powerful reminder of the many ways teens can contribute to what we do to promote advocacy for history through the stories, of the Workman and Temple families and of the larger societies in which they lived, of greater Los Angeles from 1830-1930.