The Journey of Co-Creating Change Makers

We recently interviewed Nina Simon, director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH) and learned about the museum’s new teen program. This week, we are excited to introduce this program on the Incluseum! Our guest blogger, Emily Hope Dobkin, current Youth Programs Manager at the MAH, will share the process through which the program came to be as well as its vision and current iteration. 

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It is not everyday your museum director inquires on your ultimate dreams and passions, and a few weeks later, gives you the reigns to make it happen.

When I was brought onto the MAH team back in the 2012, I was able to express my strong desire to work creatively with teens on a regular basis–to do something in the realm of arts for social change, and to help give them a voice in the community. In time, it became clear that as a museum, we felt a strong need to work more closely with an important and often neglected segment of our population (teenagers) to make the MAH a more relevant and compelling place for everyone.

During the next few months, I took the time to learn about what was/is currently being offered to teenagers to not only pin point how our potential teen program could really offer something that did not already exist, but also find ways to eventually collaborate with these various groups. During this time, I become much more aware of some incredible organizations that have  completely inspired us, including FoodWhat?!, The Teen Center, Grind out Hunger, The Boys & Girls Club, Girls for a Change, Project reGeneration, The Watsonville Youth City Council, and later the Santa Cruz Youth City Council. What I came to learn is that there was not a program focused explicitly on community leadership, specifically through creative and artistic experiences, but a strong support for creating one.

From there, I began to create the structure for Subjects to Change (S2C), a program geared to put teenagers in the driver’s seat and give them real responsibility and leadership opportunities in a creatively formatted, supportive environment at the MAH; a program that would focus on exploring what it means to be an active community member, how as community members, teenagers can create change, and the tools necessary to ignite leadership.

When visioning Subjects to Change, we had three major goals for teenagers who would participate in the program:

  1. Increase teen participants’ skills in the areas of leadership, teamwork, collaborating with diverse individuals, personal empowerment, and community involvement
  2. Increase teen participants’ preparedness to be active, effective members of the community
  3. Increase teen participants’ understanding of how to tackle broad social issues

We have achieved these three goals by engaging teenagers in various capacities during 2013. In our initial co-creation process, we hosted a Teen focused C3 (C3 stands for Creative Community Committee and invites people to cross-pollinate and share ideas…the most promising of which we follow up on to plan new programs) meeting that introduced teenagers to the envisioned program, specifically asking them to provide feedback and brainstorm further the direction of the program that fully launched this Fall. 43 teens from across Santa Cruz county attended, and together, we learned what exactly community means and consists of for local teenagers, as well as the parts of the community that matter most. We targeted issues that concern teenagers on a daily basis from bullying, to homelessness, to littering to matters surrounding sexism. From there, a Teen Advisory Board was formed, consisting of 7 teenagers who continued to give feedback on a bi-weekly basis during the Spring 2013 and helped plan our Fall 2013 launch.

This Fall, Subjects to Change launched with 15 teen participants representing eight schools from across Santa Cruz County. Subjects to Change-ers meet at the MAH every Thursday afternoon to talk about community, create art, and change–for themselves, their group, and the community. Meetings include team-building exercises, occasional guest speakers, and offsite documentary work in Santa Cruz to help identify key issues in the community at large. The group identifies themselves as  “a group of chronic doodlers who dig music, embrace creativity of all kinds, and are determined to not only make our community better, but want to get other teens involved.” Through discussions and ventures out into the community, teens have explored community needs and assets as well as issues that surface for them on a daily basis.


Teen participants share what they have made and discovered thus far with Subjects to Change. Photo Credit: MAH.

In the spring of 2014, teens participating in Subjects to Change will design a project that raises awareness about one or several of these issues through a specific art project. Starting in February 2014, Subjects to Change participants plan on hosting teen nights at he Museum as way to provide a cool, hip, safe space for teens to gather on a Friday night…but not just to congregate and mingle. They want to share and show other teens what’s going on here in our community, and what it means to be part of a community. They want to empower other teens to help make changes here by raising awareness about particular issues, including homelessness, public safety, and gender stereotyping. They have already begun to find ways to collaborate with various community members and local Teen groups to make these events happen.  Most recently, they met with the Santa Cruz Youth City Council, and together, plan to build a community art project at the Santa Cruz Levee that will bring even more teens together in the process.

When creating this program, I often thought about what the museum could offer teenagers that did not already exist here in Santa Cruz and that they could not find anywhere else.  The following are three areas we have been able to offer unique opportunities to teenagers, and I believe that many museums have the potential to achieve as well:

1.  Expand their Community

With the various group of teenagers I have worked with this past year, I generally begin my time working with them by facilitating a community mapping activity in which I ask teenagers to doodle a map of their personal communities. Every time I have run this activity and asked teenagers for their thoughts and reflections, the common response I have gotten is along the lines of “wow, my community is really small; I just go to school, then to x (soccer practice, band rehearsal, etc.) and then go home.” Sharing various resources, inspiring community members, getting out in the community, and doing activities like a photography scavenger hunt of downtown Santa Cruz has allowed our teenage participants a shift in perspective and insights on how to get involved in new ways.  In regards to our program, a teen participant remarked:

Subjects to Change has given me the power turn my ideas into realities – making a difference in the community doesn’t seem impossible anymore.  I finally know how to look at setbacks in cultures, and disturb the cycle effectively in order to make positive change.

2. Accessible Collaborations

Several teens I have worked with expressed that they feel many teenagers live in a bubble,  staying within their school communities. Through the teen participants I have worked with in Subjects to Change, it is clear that they are incredibly eager and open to expanding upon those communities, particularly to work with like-minded individuals who care about making an impact on the world. As another S2C participant has remarked,

I would like to make a positive change in my community and I feel this program is helping me do that. It is so inspiring to see people my age care about our community and want to make a difference.

There is such value found in teenagers from different parts of the same community getting together to share ideas, passions, and beliefs. To watch teenagers empower one another in itself is one of the most compelling aspects I have found working with Subjects to Change.

3.  Empower their Voices to be Heard

The first day of Subjects to Change, I let teenagers write on the walls (note: chalkboard painted walls in our classroom space). “We can actually write our ideas on the walls?” asked one. Be the ones to say “Yes” more than “No.” During the C3 meeting I held last year, one of the most impactful moments was when I was sharing how a note that was left on our visitor comment board from a teenager offering her idea to bring a film festival to the MAH became a reality, one female raised her hand and said “Wait…you actually read all of those notes people leave on that board?” It was clear to me that teenagers simply need a place and space to be heard.  We are doing that, and I am positive other museums can make that happen. As one teenager mentioned,  “Subjects to Change has given me the chance to speak out about what’s important and use paint to help solve it.”


The Writings on the Walls: Subjects to Change-ers began their change-making process by first noting pros and cons they find in Santa Cruz. Photo Credit: MAH.

It’s been exciting to see Santa Cruz teenagers flourish not only individually, but together, while becoming vital assets to our community and contributing to the overall health of society.  Their ideas, goals, and passions are already making a difference here within the walls of our museum, and anticipate with time, will also break down some invisible walls that have been built up here in the community.

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Emily Hope Dobkin, current Youth Programs Manager at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, holds a Master’s in Arts Management from the University of Oregon with a focus in Community Arts, as well as a Bachelors of Arts in Creative Writing from Goucher College. She has studied various art forms across the globe, including Dance As Cultural Metaphor at the Federal University in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and Brown Paper Studio, an arts methodology that uses the basics of theatre to collaboratively create in Cape Town, South Africa. These and other arts experiences have inspired her to facilitate a range of engaging arts opportunities in cultural organizations including Parks and People Foundation’s SuperKids (Baltimore, MD), Centerstage (Baltimore, MD), the Community Arts Center Center (Wallingford, PA), Southern Exposure (San Francisco, CA), The 1000 Journals Project (San Francisco, CA), the Maude Kerns Art Center (Eugene, OR), DIVA Center Gallery (Eugene, OR), the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art (Eugene, OR) and Lane County Historical Museum (Eugene, OR). You can reach her at 

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