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Gabrielle Valdes on Education and Opportunity

Gabrielle Valdes on Education and Opportunity

By Danielle Echols

Gabrielle is an entrepreneur, educator and community builder.  She received her BA in Communication Studies from California State University in Long Beach, with a focus on Women's Studies, Research and Media Analysis.  After working in Early Childhood Education in LA, she moved to Chicago and worked as a behavioral therapist to support children with autism and their families. Leveraging her experiences in education and empowerment, Gabrielle was brought on as Co-Founder of Prismatic, an education non-profit building access to project-based learning, to impact education in Chicago.  Here is a little of her story:

Tell us a little of your backstory? 

I used to define myself by the performances I danced in as an artist and ballet dancer before I knew what it was like to experience the rush of telling a story through a newspaper. I went into college not knowing who I wanted to be and left knowing exactly what I wanted to do. I developed my guiding philosophy as an early childhood educator valuing inclusive spaces that encourage individuals to show up as their true authentic selves. I took a detour after teaching to “do what I was supposed to do” by working a corporate job and then left a year later to get back on track. My curiosities exposed me to a wide range of experiences in the social impact sector, startup world and non-profit space which prepared me to take a leap of faith myself. I now leverage my experiences and expertises to co-run Prismatic, an education nonprofit that building access to project-based learning to teachers and administrators, in hopes to make small, but powerful incremental changes in Education.

How did moving to Chicago begin to change your narrative?

Moving to another city and un-familiarizing myself with my surroundings and my community allowed me the time and space to really think about what I needed for myself- being able to physically remove myself from an environment where I felt it was so easy to drown out my own voice in others’ opinions, perspectives, and lifestyles. Not to say that Los Angeles specifically caused me to leave, but instead, it was more so what LA represent to me personally. It was a place where I struggled to have a work and life balance was in a relationship where I completely lost myself and a time in my life where I valued the opinions of others before my own. Moving away from what was familiar and comfortable allowed me to reinvent myself, try out new personas, listen to my voice and truly advocate for my needs. I’m much stronger than I was before, and I attribute my growth to be the result of moving to Chicago.

How did you become involved with Acceptance Tour? 

I first became involved with the Acceptance Tour back in March when Debra (Giunta, Founder and Director of Design Dance) and Jonathan (Lazatin, Community Impact Designer of Design Dance) were making the video for the IndieGoGo campaign. During a conversation they were having around whether or not the tour was something that was helpful, I interjected and went on a long-winded tangent about how I wish I had something like the acceptance tour growing up. As a young dancer, I was deeply immersed in the dance culture and found myself never feeling good enough. I struggled with self-acceptance most of the time I looked in the mirror of my dance studio. It was not until I was 18 years old when I finally left the competitive dance world. It was the hardest decision I made during my young adult life and took me almost a year to make. In retrospect, it was the best thing I did for myself. Leaving the dance world, which was so intertwined in who I was at the time, created enough space for me to start working on myself. Eight years later, I can honestly say I have a newfound love for ballet and a more compassionate relationship with myself. Conversations around self-acceptance and body image that need to happen more often at a younger age.         

When you were in college, what was the vision for your life?  How has it evolved/changed?

Back in college the vision I had of myself changed often. I wanted to be a journalist, an event event planner, an anthropologist, a psychologist and a teacher. There were also multiple times when I wasn’t sure what career I wanted. I've always been curious about a myriad of subjects, but grew up in a household where changing interests meant you were lost. It wasn't until graduation that I was sitting in the bleachers as my name was being called to claim my Communications degree that I fully committed to the idea of becoming a teacher. With much resistance from my family, I decided to not pursue Public Relations and instead became an ECE Teacher. Figuring out my career path back then is still so relevant to me now. This experience has given me the confidence to feel comfortable to pivot career paths often. Every year I grow as a person, which only makes sense that my career grows with me.

When did you get involved with Prismatic?  What sparked your interest?

Ever since I was an early childhood educator, I saw the importance of student-centered, project-based learning. The kiddos I worked with had the opportunity to learn from authentic, personally crafted projects. They became curious about food so we co-created an entire unit about life cycles, gardening and cooking. Through this entire process the kids learned about the world they live in. More specifically the different seasons, insects, their community and themselves. They became more interested in learning, not to mention grew resilient to failure and more confident in their ideas and skills. These moments with students exposed me to the power of experiences and project-based learning. I wanted to continue this work from an advocacy position, and officially became involved with Prismatic in January when Debra brought me on as co-Executive Director. Debra and I align in mission and values, which make our partnership natural and fun. It’s a great working together, especially since we both are passionate about education, ideas and entrepreneurship. 

It seems like education is a common theme in your work.  How do you feel creativity and education are connected? In what ways do you hope to bridge this gap (if there is one)?

I truly believe that creativity is essential for students, teachers, administrators, parents and community members. Creativity is for everyone and is an integral part of learning and growing. I believe that one of the the obstacles to thinking you're a creative person is this misconception that you're inherently born with these qualities. But creativity can be learned, practiced and grown. Education should allow opportunities for students to try new things, become more resilient to failure and be creative. School had the ability to be an environment that encourages and empowers all students to act on their ideas, be vulnerable and take risks, no matter their background or experiences. We can bridge this gap by having ongoing conversations with parents, teachers, students and concerned citizens about how we can foster a more inclusive and safe space at school. Classrooms have the opportunity to act from a place of curiosity, empathy and trust. Together we should really think about what our priorities are in the long run for our students and our communities.

What have you learned about self-acceptance in your developing career?

I've learned that there are times to say “no”, that leaving doesn't mean you're a failure, and that it's imperative to schedule time for self-care. These lessons all stemmed from being able to accept and advocate for myself. Earlier in my career, there were multiple times when I wasn't getting paid on time, doing free work and working overtime every day. I honestly didn't have the self-awareness and respect to take care of myself at that time. I defined success by not having balance between work and play, putting others before myself and working long hours. I had to prove it to myself and everyone else that I could be successful. Eventually, I found myself completely burnt out, broke and depressed. Even though struggled during this time, I wouldn't change that experience. It taught me about resilience, vulnerability, self-compassion and acceptance. It’s what's made me who I am today.

What are some things you’re still hoping to learn?

I’m still hoping to learn what it means to be a wholehearted, holistic leader, who is able to comfortably blend the personal and public. I am continuing to learn how to show up authentically, in everything that I do, even if there’s a chance I’ll mess up or look silly. Being vulnerable and allowing myself the opportunity to connect with others and my work is something I’m still working on, and will always be. 

Currently, Gabrielle Valdes is working towards her M.Ed at Arizona State University to gain a deeper understanding on Curriculum and Instruction in the classroom.  She will be speaking at our Acceptance Tour in Austin on Monday, April 24th.

For more information on Gabrielle, visit her links below:

Instagram: @gabriellevaldes

Facebook: Gabrielle Valdes





Encouraging Students to B*Tru with Aisha Melhem

Encouraging Students to B*Tru with Aisha Melhem

Encourging Students to B*Tru with Aisha Melhem

By Danielle Echols

As a company, we know the value of bringing arts education to our community.  We are so excited when we encounter other organizations that do the same, particularly when these organizations help young people.  It is through art that young people can learn how to interpret the world around them.  They learn valuable skills that will help them both personally and professionally.  There is no greater example of an organization succeeding in this work, than Austin-based nonprofit, B*Tru Arts.

Aisha Melhem is the Artistic Director and Founder B*Tru Arts.  Her multifaceted multicultural organization focuses on using the arts for the betterment of the community.  As a child in Austin she trained in several styles of dance, theatre and voice. She received a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre with an emphasis in acting with honors from St. Edward's University, Austin, Texas in 2008 and a Master of Arts in Theatre with an emphasis in directing from Texas State University, San Marcos, Texas in 2010.  

According to their mission: "B*Tru Arts aims to make a positive impact upon the greater Austin community by creating and providing immersive experiences in the arts. B*Tru Arts carries out its mission by holding public events and showcases, providing high-quality arts education, expanding performance opportunities for local artists and assisting local artists in the production of their works. B*Tru Arts serves to strengthen the local artistic community through hands-on support, artistic and cultural diversity, formal education and interaction with the public."

Recently, Aisha gave us a little insight about her life and why she decided to start the organization.

When did you first recognize your interests in the arts?

When I was 3 years old. I started dancing at the age of three and always loved to sing. I was accidentally placed in an acting class my 6th grade year and continued to take theatre throughout high school and college.  Here's a little more of the story:

I started studying theatre and acting at the age of 11. In fact it was an accident that I was put in theatre class. I signed up for choir and the school put me in theatre. I remember my first theatre teacher Mr. Smith (Dale Smith) and my 2nd theatre teacher Mrs. Alexander. Because of how passionate he was and how great of teacher he was I began to feel the same as he did for theatre and performance. I believe that is when I knew this was for me. I continued on in high school and later in college and graduate school. I started out as an actor and then later developed the love of directing and teaching. I believe my teachers made me love it and I wanted to do the same for others as they did for me.

As a theatre student in under grad and graduate school we studied theatre history, various acting styles and techniques, different directing methods and approaches etc... During and after school I was able to develop my own approach and methodology that incorporates:

-The use of more physicality “actions speak louder than words” as said by Plato

-Emphasis on collaboration/co-creation/originality

-Inspiration from Experimental theatre, such as: “Open Theater” techniques used in creative process

-More emphasis on the creative process-The journey in creating is very important for actors and everyone involved. Theatre is therapeutic.

-This allows the ensemble to discover new things through exercises focusing on high physicality and ensemble building.

-The use of the whole space not just stage, so that the audience feels as if they are part of the world. This can impact more, allow audience to have a visceral reaction, and a better understanding of the (subject, character, culture, etc...)

-Site specific work, street theatre (take performance to the community)

-Taking something traditional and reconstructing it- experimental adaptations (reconstruction of the play is the message it symbolizes the topic that would be presented)

-The use of theatre as a tool to bring awareness of social issues and self-awareness.  The audience will leave thinking about what they just saw and themselves. This will possibly lead to social change and better society.

-Collective theater works with writers, director, and actors to come up with original organic and engaging performance pieces.

When you were in college at St. Edwards University, what type of career did you imagine you would have?

I thought that I would end up teaching college level theatre. I never imagined that I would start a nonprofit.

How did the idea of B*Tru Arts emerge?

I've always been driven by my passion for the arts and my true purpose in life, which is to help others and to educate and inspire the community through the arts as well as promoting positive social change.  It started with the first annual Inspiro Fest and evolved into what it is today.  

I notice B*Tru Arts does a wide range of amazing activities (photography, videography,

performance, screenwriting coverage), why did you decide to incorporate so many different

fields as oppose to focusing on just one?

Through our work we are creating more job opportunities for local artists when we offer a variety of services.  Also, many artists need affordable headshots or actor reels etc...

Through our educational programs, we are not only involved in every single aspect of the development and representation of the arts in its truest form but also allowing true innovation to overflow in that of the individual naturally impacting our community.

Do you feel like the arts teaches self-acceptance? If so, how?

Yes, absolutely! Arts education gives students the opportunity to express themselves creatively and it also creates a safe environment for them to take risks.  It also helps build a sense of ensemble when everyone is working towards the same goal. This creates a sense of secure acceptance and helps the individual feel like they are part of a community. It helps build trust and it also helps develop interpersonal and social skills etc. A lot of what you learn in the arts is applicable to everyday life.

If there was one main lesson students could learn from B*Tru Arts, what would you and your team want that to be?

Always Be True to yourself.

What are some words/advice that have really inspired you throughout your journey?

“You don’t grow in comfort” “Follow your heart” “Never give up” “Just do it”

For more information on B*Tru Arts visit the links below.  They are one of the sponsors for our Acceptance Tour in Austin:

Website: BTru Arts

Facebook: @BTRUARTS

Twitter: @B_TRU_ARTS

Instagram: @btruarts

YouTube: Delusions of Despair