Partner Highlight: ArtForce Iowa
In the greater Des Moines area, the name ArtForce Iowa is slowly becoming a recognizable name in the community. ArtForce Iowa is a 501c3 non-profit that was founded in 2012 by a group of concerned citizens, with a mission to transform youth in need through art. All of their programs are based on a three “force” model: ArtForce, WorkForce and LifeForce. This model incorporates creative self-expression, work skills development and advocacy in a safe supportive community and their research base consists of Self Determination Theory and Trauma-Informed Care Principles. Working primarily with youth who have had involvement in the juvenile or family court system, or immigrant, refugee and first-generation American youth who have experienced violence and trauma, the team recognized in 2017 that they were not doing everything they could for themselves or their students. That is when Executive Director, Christine Her, stumbled upon Central Iowa ACEs 360.
“Our organization never really thought about trauma. But in 2017, we knew we couldn’t operate that way anymore. The youth that we serve have significant trauma, and we weren’t equipped. We knew that if we were going to continue this work, and want to do this work well, that we’d better start equipping ourselves well,” commented Her. The team at Art Force Iowa knew that they needed to make sure that they weren’t creating an environment for their youth where they were causing unintentional situations of re-triggering – or causing a student to have something come back up in their lives that caused them trauma or stress. They also knew that they needed to protect themselves (the staff team) from their own traumas, because secondary trauma can affect anyone. Lastly, they knew that all of the adults that work with their young people needed to become informed, and that all of their workshops needed to become trauma transformed. That’s when a bit of research led them to discover Central Iowa ACEs 360 and the Connections Matter campaign in Des Moines.
The next step was clear for their team – participate in trainings that were offered by both entities. “Last year we knew we needed to start doing more of these things [trainings] because if we want to transform youth in need, we have to be prepared to actually transform,” said Her.
Staff had always been trying to figure out how best to help and protect the youth they were serving, just without all the proper tools. Her shared, “It’s like the theory that if you throw an apple in the air, you know it’s going to fall – but you don’t know the theory behind it at first. We were trying to do this already, without understanding the theory behind it.” Now they ask questions to try to figure out how to transform their organization by asking more questions and using ACEs training as a guideline to understand the theory.
The journey internally for the team was an eye-opening one. Some team members found out their personal ACEs scores were high – some at a 6 or 7, and then had some with 1 or 2. It was pretty quickly that this all finally made sense to one another and they immediately started working better together – more empathetic, kind and more informed. It made sense to each team member that their experiences do shape the way they react to certain situations and to each other. “We are a really close team (4 in total) – a family. I remember coming into work one day feeling hurt by another team member and thinking, ‘we have to find a way to protect ourselves’ because the hardships that our students are dealing with could also trigger our past, because we all have a past. It caused a big moment for all of us where we all began to question what self-care looks like to us as individuals in this organization. For us to do our best work, we have to make sure that we are taking care of ourselves,” Her commented when asked about how this work changed her team. They knew they needed to be the positive connection for their students and cut the cycle of negativity and trauma when the students were inside the walls of their nonprofit.
The team approached Central Iowa ACEs to have a conversation around their refugee students with limited English. They were hurting, and with limited resources and no one that understood their culture or speak their language, the team wanted to know how to communicate and support these students. They quickly learned that they weren’t the only nonprofit with this need, and trying to fill this need. It is apparent that there should be a way – maybe a tool – that can be developed to help communicate with young people that wouldn’t require a specific language to complete. A survey was attempted using emoji’s as the students entered the doors at ArtForce Iowa after their school day, and then again as they left. It was easy for the team to know that they were making a difference because the vast majority of the emoji’s changed from sad or angry when they arrived, to happy and joyful when they left for the day. However this method was challenging to use and they knew that a better tool needed to be developed. “Our dream is to create a social connectedness measurement tool without needing language,” Her stated boldly.
Her shared how the work that is being done across the state is important, but it takes a village. “I believe that the work that Central Iowa ACEs is doing is so relevant to anyone that works with people, because we all have trauma, and I think that kind of work is so crucial to making sure that the community doesn’t re-trigger or re-traumatize anyone else. I always like to tell people that here, we keep it safe – love everybody, and everybody knows that. But if we can’t protect them outside of the 5,000 square feet that we have, then what kind of work are we actually doing.”
The ArtForce Iowa team is dedicated to moving the needle and bringing others along for the journey. Her said it wasn’t a question of when, it was just a question of how. “We simply needed to figure out how could we take the training and information that we know and use that as a tool to train other people, or to bring Iowa ACEs along with us, on this journey to shifting the culture in our community.” So Her started taking what worked internally with her own team and students, and took their work externally into the schools. It didn’t take long for the schools to look at them as a partner. “Before, ArtForce has done an amazing job of living in its own silo, and I don’t believe in silos and don’t believe that anyone should operate that way because everyone suffers. Everyone suffers when we are all buffering our own shoes and refuse to buffer each other’s shoes. I want us to have a partnership that allows for the conversation around who else should be involved in this – who should we talk to – who should we also do the research with in order to be successful,” she said.
ArtForce Iowa recognized the value of the tools and resources that Central Iowa ACEs provided, and in less than a year, has transformed their work inside and out in a positive way. Their Board of Directors is next to go through the training. “Everyone can learn this and should be doing this,” said Her. “I think we forget that the human experience is based off of humans’ interaction with other humans. If we can remember that everyone is going through their own battles with something, the world would just be a much better place.”
To connect with Christine and the ArtForce Iowa team, please visit their website.