After more than a decade of planning and effort, a new youth arts center is up and running in East Palo Alto. Young people ages 6 to 25 can now participate in a wide array of classes and internships in the arts, ranging from photography to dance, theater to graphic design, fashion design to skateboard design. The center has been offering virtual classes for months due to the pandemic, but started holding in-person classes this spring. EPACENTER's official grand opening took place on April 23.
EPACENTER, pronounced “epicenter,” is a new 25,000-square-foot space with areas dedicated to a wide range of artistic disciplines. There’s an amphitheater, music practice rooms, a maker space, art studio spaces, a cafe, a dance studio, an art gallery, performance space and more.
The project has been in the works for about 12 years, and student input was a key part of the project at every step, said Nadine Rambeau, executive director at EPACENTER.
"When you think about arts education, normally kids produce a play or perform some music," she said. "They created a building, an opportunity for their community where there was one. That is the height of creativity and creative agency, and that is something that normally youth of color do not have in their lives."
"The project really speaks to the power of youth and listening to the voices of youth, and taking what they need seriously," Rambeau said. "When you think of the level of investment that's been made in this project, that's just unheard of.”
Much of that investment came from the John and Marcia Goldman Foundation, along with support from other organizations. The new building, located at 1950 Bay Road in East Palo Alto, was designed with student input by architecture firm WHY, with landscaping by landscape architect Walter Hood, an Oakland-based Macarthur “genius” grantee. The former Superfund site has been transformed into a LEED Platinum-certified building with sustainable design, Rambeau said.
It’s also providing a long-term outlet for students to grow and strengthen their arts skills over time, she said.
"Students really needed something they could develop over time – and have a place to return to … from those very basic levels of development up to advanced levels," she said. "We want to be that hub.”
Ethan Avena, a 12-year-old student at Frank S. Greene Jr. Middle School, said in an interview that he's been involved with EPACENTER for about five years.
"It's been very helpful to have something ... you can look forward to," he said.
His first class was in the ukulele, and he said his favorite songs are ones "that make you feel joyful and peace comes to you when you hear it."
He said he has also been applying his lessons in photography and cooking, using the former to record what happens around him and the latter to prepare meals for his family.
"I've learned dishes that would cost, like, $50 at a restaurant," he said. "Being able to cook for my family is really cool."
Partly because there is nothing like it in the community, the doors of the program are opening to a wide range of youth – from ages 6 through 25.
For Melanie Resendiz, 15, a student at Eastside College Prep, EPACENTER has been a part of her life for three or four years now, she said in a recent interview. As a member of the advisory council, leaders from the center wanted her feedback about what kinds of things they wanted at the center, she said.
And, she added, they listened. Students said they wanted one part of the building to include a cafe and lounge where students can hang out. Right now, she's taking a class in which she gets to design a skateboard and learn to ride it.
"I am so happy. There's never been something like this here, so it's really nice that not only us, but everyone else in the future will be able to use it," she said.
Students also requested that the center provide tools and programs to help students prepare for high-paying jobs that will allow them to continue to live in the community, as well as resources to help one's stress and mental health, Rambeau noted.
In response, the center acted to develop internship programs and a wellness program.
The internship program, which is currently serving 30 students, is teaching students skills in fashion design, graphic design, public art and filmmaking, all while earning $17.79 per hour.
The center also added a culinary arts program after hearing students talk about experiencing food insecurity.
"Part of my job is taking what they say seriously, and translating that to support their vision," Rambeau said. "I listen to them very closely."
The organization is also developing partnerships with cultural institutions, college attainment organizations, corporations, local schools and universities, Rambeau said.
"It's such a wonderful resource that doesn't come to a community that's been historically under-resourced often," she said. "We're going to try to get everything we can out of it."
James Henry, who teaches drumming and percussion at EPACENTER, says it has been great to start teaching his students in-person again in a new building that was developed for them.
"It's been awesome to see the joy on kids' faces," he said. "Through all the COVID, we kept moving forward, doing classes on Zoom for almost two years until we finally got together in person."
A master percussionist, Henry's classes take students around the world, studying percussion tools from different countries.
"Now that EPACENTER is there, it's a joy," he said. "(It's) like a brand new basketball gym. Everybody's excited."