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Contact Buzz: ArtForce Iowa gives immigrant and refugee kids the tools to make art, bridge cultural gaps



ArtForce Iowa created art with youth at East High School in Des Moines, Iowa after a deadly shooting that took place on the school grounds. — courtesy ArtForce Iowa

Don’t let this organization’s generic mission statement — “Creating opportunities for youth to transform through art” — deceive you. Like paints and brushes, unless they’re in the hands of the right person, such a statement remains passive. ArtForce Iowa truly leverages its raison d’être to transform the lives of their young participants.

Launched in 2013 as Iowa Arts-in-Education, with John Mark Fielmeyer serving as its executive director, activities quickly took root in the lower level of the Park Fair Mall. Fielmeyer anchored his programming with visual arts, film and hip-hop music. It was an after-school safe place and creative incubator for the youth it served: at-risk, immigrant, refugee youth, needing guidance in an especially turbulent juncture in their lives.

In its first year, a signature early documentary film project was produced by a dozen immigrant and refugee children. They learned production and editing techniques, used the equipment and found the inspiration to capture their collective voices in their 2014 film.

In an Iowa Public Radio story by Amanda Horvath in 2014, Fielmeyer shared, “When immigrants and refugees come to America, come to Iowa, they are kind of confronted with this culture shock mixed with still having that access to their home culture. And I think projects like this can use the arts to bridge that gap.”

Later that year, Iowa Arts-in-Education adopted ArtForce Iowa as a more energetic descriptive for its identity. A solid strategy for successfully engaging and inspiring its young participants was set. A supportive arts program called “Creative Pathways” (now “Pathways”) was founded to serve court-involved children and youth ages 13-and-a-half to 19. Heroes is an expansion of Pathways for children and youth who are refugees, immigrants or first-generation U.S.-born Americans who are victims of crime.

ArtForce’s strategy is one of creative evolution to best serve the needs of those in their identified circles. The growth of their programming and success is precise — and very effective.

The engine driving this creative machine is Christine Her, who took the helm of ArtForce Iowa in 2017. Her passion is backed by experience and education. The daughter of Hmong refugees from Laos, Christine graduated from East High School in Des Moines and pursued her B.A. at Drake University, studying Creative Writing, Philosophy and Political Science. She was named one of the Des Moines Register’s 15 Iowan People to Watch in 2021.

Her HealthConnect Fellow project with the Mid-Iowa Health Foundation focused on developing diverse and healing-centered texts reflecting authentic stories of individuals who are marginalized. She is part of Capital Crossroads’ DSM USA 4 Equity Collective and the Des Moines Performing Arts (DMPA) Equity Diversity Inclusivity (EDI) Community Task Force. Christine was named an American for the Arts 2021 Honoree with an American Express Emerging Leader Award.

She channels her larger community connections and what she learns outside of the ArtForce space back into supporting its work, while also serving as an ambassador for the org.

“Our vision is to end all forms of discrimination and bias by cultivating psychological safety, embracing the intersection of art and justice and fostering a sense of belonging and acceptance, so young people can be creative and thrive,” Her said. “We value utilizing self-determination as a core tenet to create meaningful growth and authentic purpose through the practice of healing-centered engagement. We believe our purpose is to ensure all youth in Iowa have a safe place to express themselves creatively and have access to creative tools to design their own healing journey.”

ArtForce also holds monthly public Friday events at Mainframe Studios; launched the #KNOWJUSTICE Project, which is anchored by a May event elevating stories of strength and resilience from individuals whose stories are often not told; and fee-for-service projects that give youth a chance to become working artists and build community connections.

Wherever you find an open door to connect with ArtForce Iowa, walk through it. Yours will be an empathetic journey, and one that will reward you knowing that this team of dedicated professionals is building a next generation force of community contributors.

This article was originally published in Little Village Central Iowa issue 008.


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