We at Seen and Heard value our board members. We need dedicated people who are willing to take this journey with us, add their wisdom and expertise, and speak up when they feel we are heading in the wrong direction. A strong board is the backbone of any non-profit, and so we want to be sure to include brave and intelligent individuals, not just “yes men”.
One of these brave and dedicated individuals is Miriam Cortez, who joined our advisory board this summer. One of the many ways Miriam helps us is by providing her unique perspective as both an artist, a woman of color, and a former system involved youth. I recently sat down with Miriam to discuss her heart and work.
What are some of the ways you began to emerge as an artist, and what role does art play in your life?
I guess I’ve always been creative. My father was extremely creative- we used to do art together. When he would go missing, I created these worlds for myself through my drawings. I would draw happy homes and creatures to be my friends. It was like a secret world I retreated to. It was a way of escape. Then at 9 years old when I entered the foster care system, by sheer luck, the therapist I was assigned to was an art therapist. Tony cared about me and my family very deeply, and he saw art was a way to connect with me. I remember snooping through his art bag for markers and new things to tell stories with. I always felt safe while I was creating with Tony.
Do you still view art as a way to escape?
I realize it’s not really an escape, no. It’s really the truest act of being present. It’s connecting with yourself.
Even now, when I create, I feel like it’s the truest way of communicating with the world. I actually tell stories through my art, and the story telling aspect is what I feel is most powerful. It’s this storytelling that enables us to feel compassion for others.
Do you feel like youth in care should be given more access to visual and performing arts as a means of developing and healing?
I feel like if kids in care were presented with a variety of therapeutic options rather than just being given traditional therapy, they would be more willing to participate in their healing. They would be more willing to explore their feelings and past experiences because it would be through the mediums they choose. So many decisions are made for kids in the foster care system. What home they will live in, who will take care of them, where they will go to school. We need to start allowing them the ability to choose how they explore their experiences in healthy ways that benefit them, not just “check a box”.
Tell me a bit about your job and how your experience in care led you there.
I am the program coordinator at a great organization called Peace 4 kids. I am extremely thankful to be working in an environment that is so supportive, and with a boss who is dedicated to helping me develop my voice and is interested in my unique perspective. I feel like at Peace 4 kids I’m really present, and really doing something aligned with my values. In fact, I recently I found something I wrote back in middle school about my “dream job”. I wrote about wanting to be an advocate for kids all over the world as a lawyer or ambassador. My dream has always been to work with kids, and now that I’m in the field I feel like I’ve really arrived. I’m still looking to what’s next and how I can do more. If I had never been in care I may have never been aware of what children go through, and I wouldn’t be fighting for them today.
How do you feel we as a society can do better in differentiating between youth in care and the foster care system itself?
One of the main problems I see with our culture and it’s view toward youth in care is you are either “success story” or you are a “statistic”. You are reduced to whatever serves the argument someone is making about the system. It’s like you can’t just be a flawed and beautiful human being.
I feel like there is a lot of pressure for youth who have been in care- they are often put on a pedestal if they succeed in any way. There is a lot of pressure on these young people. I myself feel very self-conscious about my words or actions as holding more weight than is reasonable for me to carry. Youth already feel like at any point something bad can happen because of what they have been through. I’m very aware if I misstep in any way, it has the potential to ruin things for the youth in care coming up behind me. I don’t feel like I (or many other youth) have been afforded the time to reflect on and work through what they’ve experienced. I feel like the more options and time we give young people in the system, the less likely they will be tempted to use their experience in foster care as an “excuse”.
What is the benefit when organizations dedicate their work to helping this specific population?
Well, for one, youth in care need their voices to be heard! When that doesn’t happen, other people tell the stories for them. When we have more youth in the spotlight, they become more normalized as human beings, not just statistics or success stories. All youth who have been in care have their unique experiences and perspectives. We’re not all the same. There is a benefit to giving space for youth to work and create so they can write their new narrative and become successful individuals.