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Harnessing The Power Of Art    

Harnessing The Power Of Art

Art by FISK

In 2018, Aaron Basila was walking along San Diego’s Ocean Beach while working at an interactive art installation. Moseying about the sand, he strummed away at the ukulele until a young man approached him and started freestyling while he played. He rapped over Aaron’s strumming, and instantly a connection was formed. 

After their impromptu performance, Basila asked his newfound musical collaborator where he was staying, and the young man informed him that he was homeless. Basila suggested he come by the following week for Freestyle Fridays, a weekly class hosted by the program Basila works for, Urban Beats.  

The young man did show up for Freestyle Fridays, and it turned out to be the start of a healing journey. While attending the Urban Beats program, he began to share more details about his life experiences and started opening up about his mental health. Over time, Aaron helped connect the young man to community resources, an outpatient program, and eventually, he was able to get him housed. 

All it took was a ukulele and someone willing to listen. 

Urban Beats is a creative expression program. It serves people ages 16-25, what is known as transition-age youth (TAY), and uses the arts to destigmatize the conversation around mental health and to provide access to social services.

Individuals, like the man Basila met at the beach, are encouraged to use art as a way to talk about mental health and trauma. They try to navigate life’s challenges through creative expression all while developing coping skills, making connections in the community, and learning about job opportunities. 

Urban Beats has a myriad of programs. The basis revolves around individual and group counseling amongst a cohort of youth who take art classes together, self-expression lessons, and eventually put on their own production. They discuss independent living skills, employment, character, relationships, recovery, and wellness. A big part of their programming is allowing participants to explore these ideas—often for the first time—in a safe and empowering space. 

We met with Ignatius Nguyen, Creative Coach, and Irie Sesma, Lead Youth Support Partner from Urban Beats, to chat about how creativity empowers our mental health. 

How does Urban Beats use creativity to empower mental health? 

Nguyen: Creativity — making art — is a language that allows a person to channel their emotions; experiences, past, present; future hopes; goals; and dreams.

It also gives the opportunity to shine a light on the dark, perhaps neglected, parts of ourselves where we might hold the more “difficult” emotions such as shame, guilt, and anger. By using the arts as a way to talk about these emotions, we create a space for the emotions to be seen and expressed. And for some, that can be healing.

What’s special about Urban Beats?

Nguyen: Urban Beats is a fresh take on approaching mental health, promoting mental wellness, and normalizing social services. By providing a platform to empower TAYs and their voices, they become mental health advocates in their community and amongst their peers.

At Urban Beats, we strive for unique ways to engage with our participants and the public. Whether that’s our “Freestyle Fridays” at the office where participants cypher using mental health related prompts, while honing their skills in a safe space, or our events and open mics where we feature a mental health panel, community performers, and interactive art pieces. We continue to explore and find innovative ways to talk about mental health.

How have Urban Beats’ services shifted over this last year? 

Sesma: We shifted from an in-person setting (e.g., school campuses, youth libraries, group homes, and outpatient programs) to a virtual learning environment (online facilitated groups and workshops).

In addition to this, we host monthly virtual open mics through our Instagram @sdurbanbeats as a way to continue to connect with our TAY community and provide an opportunity for our participants to exhibit their art.

How can people at home start using creativity as a means of coping?

Nguyen: There’s a quote from Patti Digh, “Don't say you're a writer if you're not writing. Even if you're writing, don't call yourself a writer. Say instead, ‘I write.’”

Recognize that creativity is something we do rather than attaching it to the identity of who we are. Creating is a verb. Give yourself permission to try new things, and not judge whatever it is that you make, whether that’s a poem, a drawing, or a TikTok dance. Try tapping into emotion and simply express it.

Keep the conversation going by commenting on this story below. You can also connect with us about whatever’s on your mind by texting The Local Optimist Hotline at 310.299.9414.