The Persistence of Generosity (full interview)

Paying it Forward with Estella Sanchez

April 2019

Read the shorter narrative >

The founder and Executive Director of Sol Collective, Estella Sanchez, is an artist, activist, educator, and organizer. With an M.A. in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, Estella Sanchez has dedicated her life to empowering communities using the arts to cultivate the next generation of leaders, both locally and globally. Over the past ten years, Sol Collective has served as a multicultural hub for Northern California and beyond, working to support and cultivate artists, creative businesses, community groups, and arts programming. Sanchez has received numerous leadership awards for her work in creating an innovative co-op model that has inspired centers from Sonoma to Staten Island, Sanchez has received numerous leadership awards (local and national) and the Sol Collective has been recognized by the California State Assembly and California Senate as well as the Sacramento City Council, for their work in creating space with relevant, community-driven arts and cultural programming.

articulator: How do you describe your work?

Estella Sanchez: I’m a community organizer who uses art as a tool for community education and empowerment.

I’m an educator, and I’m also a visual and kinesthetic learner, so I realized that I learn more by seeing things, doing things and making things. Art became a way of teaching our community or sparking conversations in a very safe way and in a safe space. Art is a tool for doing the activism and advocacy work we do to create change.

When I was younger, 18, 19 and into my early 20s, we were marching, doing rallies and organizing at school. After a few years, I started to get really burnt out from screaming about the injustices and inequity that I was seeing. As I got older and had a family, I started looking for different ways to continue to do that type of work, so I rolled up my sleeves and took a stab at fixing or addressing some of the issues that I saw, in whatever capacity I could. Pretty soon I realized that I could do that through Sol Collective by using art as a tool.

articulator: Did your experience at Sac State help you in making that connection?

Estella Sanchez: Yeah. I was already working in the community at the Washington Neighborhood Center so I had a chance to work in community spaces and see that they could provide a safe place for young people of color to develop and receive mentoring from people already working around the arts… so fast forward a few years later, and I’m at Sac State realizing that the need for more spaces in the city was also an opportunity. I was in a masters in education program, and I wanted to do a research project that would have an actual impact and could empower people.

The idea of designing a creative community space has been with me since I was a teenager, and I think that I just needed the encouragement. Having great professors and mentors who were able to step in and say “yeah, that’s a great idea” and “we can support you in this way” was an essential part of it becoming my master’s thesis project while giving me the opportunity to do the work.

I had dropped out of high school. I wasn’t ever a big fan of sitting in the classroom, tasked with irrelevant work, so it provided the opportunity to do something I thought was real while allowing me to do the necessary research, develop some of the tools that I needed and also look into the community to identify what resources were already available.

I think when you come from limited resources, you’re always told what’s wrong with your community like there’s a lot of crime, a high dropout rate—but this was an opportunity for me to document and show what was incredible and powerful and valuable in my community. It allowed me to do community research and have a project that I could pull them into.

I discovered the artists, musicians, poets, retired herbalists and all these different people who were looking for a space to come in and share their knowledge without a tremendous amount of capital to make it happen. I think being at Sac State and having the tools available to you when you’re going through a thesis project gave me a structure for setting up a strong foundation for what later became Sol Collective.

articulator: Okay, so Sol Collective is a case study for creative problem solving that began in an academic setting and successfully applied to real life community challenges.

Estella Sanchez: Exactly. It was a time when arts were being cut in all of the schools, so I knew that was a growing problem, and the lack of opportunities for our young people in school was a significant discussion.

We were finding very few things keeping students engaged and that resonated with me because I HAD dropped out of high school. I remember taking a photography class from Hector Gonzalez who had documented a lot of early Chicano history and the art movement of the Royal Chicano Airforce. I probably would have dropped out in ninth grade if it wasn’t for this art class where I could relate to the themes and the imagery that I was seeing. I was looking for ways to understand how to provide the things that were missing within the school system, whether outside of the system or in partnership with it or through government agencies and community members. I was really looking for collaborative partnerships that would provide these missing pieces.

articulator: What are your thoughts about the tension between artivism/creative expression and commercial success for Sol Collective?

Estella Sanchez: Yeah. Whooo. I mean, there are a lot. I think we’re still facing them right now as an organization. After 14 years, we’re moving from a grassroots organization to an institution. Coming from a point where we were all volunteers and where I had three jobs to be able to keep the space running. We now own our building, have employees, and we’re looking at the next 10 to 20 years. It’s super important for us to stay rooted in and be accountable to our community and to our people as we continue to grow.

After 14 years we also understand the importance of sustainability and of creating opportunities for those doing this work to be able to make a living. I think many of us struggle with the idea of commercial success because we’ve been focused on community empowerment as an indicator of success. While that indicator hasn’t changed, we are growing and moving into a place where we know success also means providing livable wages for people who do this work.

articulator: With this success, is there a concern of losing that connection with your community?

Estella Sanchez: It’s an ongoing conversation within our organization, we’re concerned about maintaining the core values of the organization as we plan for the future. For example, how will the organization change without the founding Collective members? I think there are times we would see commercial success as “selling out” and I personally have viewed it that way with the sacrifice of my family. In a sense, Sol Collective was probably the worst (personal) financial decision I’ve ever made. I decided to leave a well-paying profession with health and dental insurance and good vision care to come and use my savings for the opportunity to work in this space and get paid and sometimes not get paid. It’s been a beautiful struggle.

articulator: So, making the decision to devote full time to Sol Collective must have felt like jumping off a cliff.

Estella Sanchez: It felt that way, you know, when I decided to come here full time. I’ve always worked, and during that time I was doing this kind of as a side gig, but in reality, it was still a full-time situation. I decided to take the leap when the economy was collapsing, and everybody thought I was crazy. It was at a time when everyone was losing their jobs and their homes, and they’re looking at me thinking, “you’re like doing this willingly, like what the heck is wrong with you”, and I just figured, well, it’s all collapsing anyway, I might as well jump in and figure it out.  

It was a sink or swim situation. Now we’re finally getting to a point where we can reward the folks who have committed to the building and growth of the organization by making them full-time employees. The other piece is that we have to create ways of sustaining the people who have been building this community resource for so long. It’s been pointed out to me that I did it backward, that usually, people get to a certain financial point and then give back to the community, that I gave before I received.

Because we had invested so many years into building this community, it wasn’t a game to us, and we had to ensure that the time and energy we put into it would have a long-term impact. The purchase of the building ensures that it continues after us and that this place continues to be a haven for people in the community.  

Along the Wayward Path

articulator: Where did it all begin for you? Where did you discover your passion for art and advocacy?

Estella Sanchez: My parents both immigrated from Mexico to Oak Park, and they met here in Sacramento. My mom’s from Mexico City, which is a huge bustling city, and my dad grew up on a farm in Tepatitlan, Jalisco. So they were two very different people from different social classes. They probably would have never met if they stayed in Mexico, and incredibly they ended up meeting in Oak Park in the mid-late ’60s.

I was born on Martin Luther King Blvd (used to be Sacramento Blvd) and raised in Oak Park, the third kid of a family of four. My dad was a construction worker, working on projects like Cal Expo and others around Midtown, so I always felt like the city was part of me. I would often think, “oh Dad built that” or “my uncle’s, and cousins literally laid that foundation”. My Mom, Uncles, and Aunts worked at Sacramento Bag Company for twenty years, which is now turning into an art space. That’s very exciting to me because, as a child, I spent a lot of time going in and out of that building.

Because my mom wasn’t able to go beyond a third-grade education and my dad is illiterate, she believed that education was the best investment she could make for us. When she was growing up in Mexico, you had to pay fees to keep kids in school. My mom is one of 16 children, so my grandparents couldn’t afford to keep her in school after third grade. Not finishing school is probably her biggest regret because she wanted to become a teacher. When she came here, she used all her resources to put us through private school.

She enrolled us in a private church school that had a completely different model from public school. We had a lot of flexibility. I would get a sheet on Monday with the assignments I needed to complete for the week, and when I finished that, I could have free time that included playing on one of the first computers ever, or working in my garden (I had my own garden plot) or playing piano or painting. I would typically get all the boring school stuff done on Monday so that I could get to the fun stuff that I really wanted to do.

That was my introduction to art. We had a teacher that would come in on Friday, a retired grandparent of one of the students there. He would teach us pastels and watercolors and I remember him telling me that I was an outstanding artist. That validation meant a whole lot to me.

I think any time an adult tells you that you’re good at something is exciting—I remember graduating sixth grade and he gave me this beautiful wooden pastel set. It was the first brand-new set of art supplies that I ever received, and it was just this gorgeous piece, it made me feel that he must really think I’m a good artist.

During this time, I never thought that this was something I could do to make a living at or anything like that, I just knew it was something that I was good at and that I liked doing.

We grew up Seventh-day Adventist, and the school I attended was a holistic school. When I went into public school, it was like another world because I had come from this very special place of learning with only 12 students enrolled in the first through eighth grades. Well, I was the only student in the 6th, 7th, and 8th grades and that meant that I spent a lot of one-on-one time with the two teachers there who helped nourish my interests, whether it was in music or the arts or whatever. I was always connected with other adults in the church who were volunteering, the community was always finding ways to plug me in with the right people.

I don’t remember seeing or being offered any art classes when I first got to McClatchy. It wasn’t until later that I found out about the photography and silk-screening classes that existed. The photography teacher was Mexican, and I remember I would skip my regular classes to go to the photography class. I also remember there was a lot of Mexican students in that class. It was like every other Mexican kid had the same idea, here’s this Mexican teacher and he’s teaching art that’s relevant to us. That class was always packed, and probably half of us weren’t even supposed to be there. It was one of the things that actually kept me connected because I was finding my community and I was seeing something relevant to me, I was seeing a teacher that looked like me.

Unfortunately, there were very few experiences like this to keep me connected, and I dropped out of high school in my junior year, I was 17. After that, I got together with my friends who had also dropped out. We worked on music and made our own music studio with a four-track recorder, a keyboard with tape on it, and mics. We were basically making beats, making music. I think that’s when I really plugged into art without realizing it.

I figured that I didn’t want to be wasting time attending school, that I just wanted to make music. My parents were like “what in the world is wrong with you?” To satisfy my parents and to see if I were smart enough to graduate, I took and passed the High School Equivalency Test and enrolled at Sac City College when I was 17.

articulator: I find it interesting that, growing up, you were part of different communities that supported you in different ways, what does community mean to you?

Estella Sanchez:  I think when you’re the kid of immigrants, and you grow up in places where, especially in the 80s, you didn’t see positive representations of people who look like you on television or in films, compounded by the bombardment of messages on the news about people who looked like us that were negative—it really wears on you, and we’re getting a taste of it again, right?

You realize what that does to you as a kid, it confuses you as to where you fit in. I was basically being told in school that everyone who looked like me was in a gang, that we were all being watched. They were looking for a reason to be put you on the gang list. Even how I’m dressed right now with these shoes and these pants, if I was wearing them high school it was a sign that I was a gang member. I think that’s why I wear them as an adult with a master’s degree because it’s so ridiculous to profile kids for wearing khaki pants and Nike Cortez.

I remember going to Mexico when I was 14 or 15. I was in Tepatitlan, Jalisco, with my cousin who’s the same age and we were being badasses, smoking those little cigarettes called “bidis” that they had at the café, listening to rock from Spain, and I’m thinking, “what the F? We’re not all gangsters, where did this idea even come from?”

So I’m sitting there, in this town square, with my cousin having these deep conversations, and I’m thinking how’d it happen that people who look like me in the United States have been put in this little box and labeled as gangsters, up to no good, that we’re lazy and that we’re only good in the position of being service workers in the community? It was a mind-blowing realization.

It was just BS, you know, like we’re not like this—I think it was a point where even we began to believe that we have to dress and behave this way because it’s what’s expected of us.

articulator: You were adopting the stereotype?

Estella Sanchez: Yeah, because that’s what it meant then to be Mexican. It seemed that I didn’t fit in any other way. So I realized I had to create my own community and find other people who were interested in questioning these stereotypes and misconceptions.

As I got older, stereotyping became a recurring theme, and it continues to be for a lot of us in finding community. Now this space, with the support of our board of directors, has become a haven for many people of color who are first generation to have college degrees in their family, and are looking for ways to uplift their communities. It’s like they made it to a certain place and now have these other challenges in their lives, like making more money and getting more education than your family ever did. In my case, I have the highest education of my entire family. Which is crazy, so I think I’ve always looked for a community to help make sense of things and to have a place where we can validate each other and support each other.  

articulator:  How did Sol Collective create this infrastructure that supports entrepreneurship within a community? Is this something you learned growing up?

Estella Sanchez: I think about my parents, mainly because they were immigrants coming here and starting a whole new life. There were limitations for things around money, but they showed me that there’s always a way to make things work, like putting my brothers, sisters and me through private school.

So I have living proof from my parents that you can still do the things that you want to do and move past obstacles and figure things out. My mom would sometimes clean the church in exchange for a reduced rate for our tuition.

I saw the kind of things that you could do to make things happen. My mom worked and saved money, but there were all these different things like bartering and trading also happening. I would see that at our house, and also in the way that our families would help each other, for example, someone knows how to lay concrete and foundation, another person does roofing, and people traded to get what they need. They were supporting each other and helping each other.

I think that kind of community resource sharing is very much a part of immigrant culture, because it’s part of how communities work in Mexico, it’s something that is already ingrained in our way of life. I think it was just taking that culture and looking at a space and figuring out how we could make it work. We know we never have enough money, so that’s a given. Like we don’t have money so, okay, cool what’s the problem and how do we fix it?

A lot of us have come from similar backgrounds and share that mentality, so things like barter and trade were very organic to us. Like okay, we have available space and this other group has this need for space. Okay, perfect. Yeah, they don’t have to pay rent. They could come in and provide this service or goods for us, perfect. It literally started with groups that would bring toilet paper in trade. I say this all the time because I don’t want to forget that that’s still our policy.

If someone has a resource we need, and we have a resource they need, we can work out a mutually beneficial agreement. We just haven’t tried to manage it too much through rules or rigorous processes.

articulator: So the collective creates the culture of sharing and like-minded people gravitate to it?

Estella Sanchez: Yeah, and sometimes it works really well, and sometimes it doesn’t, and when it doesn’t work with certain partnerships, where we realize that reciprocity isn’t there, then we know that it’s not something we want to continue. That’s another core value that we had to learn the hard way, that reciprocity is critical.

You know, that’s really important, we are always willing to give, and if we find other people who are like-minded, we can have that exchange back and forth, and it does work. Then sometimes, when it doesn’t, we know that everyone can go their own way because we don’t have the same values.

articulator: So, how do you find your community partners?

Estella Sanchez: Well, we’ve been at it for a long time, fourteen and a half years, and it has changed and evolved. In the beginning, it was just the network that we already had that came in as a collective network. Our first community partners were friends, family members, and teachers that we had already been connected with in some way. We knew that they had something that we could teach and share with the community. That became our first circle, and I think as we started growing and expanding, the circle started getting larger and larger. Now we’re at a point where we work with a lot of people.

articulator: Is it more because people started noticing your work versus you seeking collaboration?

Estella Sanchez: Definitely, yeah, I think we get so stuck that sometimes we’re here just kind of doing the day-to-day work, that it gets harder to actively seek out new collaborations. It doesn’t help that I am like the worst at going out and networking. I get a lot of social anxiety,but luckily we’ve had a lot of people see the work that we do and seek us out to support and partner with them, so it seems that we’ve worked with everybody: from the Sacramento County Office of Education, the school districts, and the city, to private foundations. We’re doing an event with the first lady of California this weekend! So the network is still growing larger and larger.

articulator: Consistency and persistence and maybe a bit of luck, too. Consistency in what you do, and perseverance in how you do it. Is that fair?

Estella Sanchez: Yeah, I mean, I think I probably saw that shift after 10 years. In the beginning, I really don’t think a lot of people outside the circle understood what we were doing here, there weren’t a lot of multi-use spaces 14 and a half years ago. Initially, it must have looked really weird from the outside, to see a place that had art and yoga, cooking classes, a studio, and a store; it’s like, you know, do they have an identity crisis? What’s going on in there? What are they doing? It doesn’t make any sense, is it a yoga space or a gallery or a store?

When we first opened up, that first year-year and a half, we had a police presence at almost every event. It happened so often that I got so good at the spiel “we are a 501 c 3, we don’t need an event permit, and I’m aware of the sound ordinance.” I have the whole spiel down because I had to give it every time, it took a year of them coming, seeing the same lady, until after a year and a half, they finally got it.

We dealt with a lot of prejudice and misunderstanding in the first years. Seeing so many people of color gathered in one space caused a lot of red flags for some people. It took years of consistent programming to get to a point where people began to respect the work we were doing and see the value we brought to the city’s cultural landscape. I think when we hit that 10-year mark people could really look back and see the impact that we have had. It was like, suddenly there’s a lot of multi-use spaces all over the city, and now it seems that everyone is in an art collective, it’s become the norm.

So many groups have come out of our space, so many different things have been incubated, and the space is now having an even greater impact. Artists that were using it as a learning space are now doing more significant things in the city.

I think when we hit that 10-year mark was when I really started noticing people wanting to partner and link with us because we have this breadth of work for people to look at and realize, like whoa, they’ve helped shape the cultural fabric of the city.

articulator: With this success, how do you deal with people who may not have good intentions and want to partner with you? You mentioned earlier about ensuring that people are aligned with your mission before you partner with them, is there a litmus test?

Estella Sanchez: It’s a small City. I was born and raised here. First of all, everybody knows everybody. It’s kind of that check in with our community, if it passes our community feedback, like if people have heard of them, or so and so has gone there and had a great experience, or we hear that this person is problematic and there are red flags, those are the kind of things that we take into consideration.

Usually, it’s pretty clear-cut, we do work around social justice, addressing inequities and looking at healthy ways to live in the community. Generally, it’s pretty clear if someone has something that’s in line with our mission, that’s the first test. The next piece is asking if anyone has had experiences with them; are they really about what they say they’re about?

articulator: What’s your favorite Sol Collective success story?

Estella Sanchez: There are so many, I don’t know, Dea Montelongo and Andru Defeye, who are working in the next room are great success stories. Dea started working with the organization when she was 15. Dea’s grown now, and if you (looking at Dea) don’t mind me saying, I think when she started she, like me, had been labeled a gang member in school for being Mexican and dressing a certain way. I remember she had already been identified in her school as a gang member and had been referred to an art program I was running at the time.

Ironically, she wasn’t in a gang then, but now she is, sometimes (laughs along with Dea), it’s just one of those things that happen when you find your community. She began coming to our youth programs, doing really great work around juvenile justice organizing and media work as a 15-year-old, so yeah, it’s beautiful to be in the community long enough to see young people grow up into adulthood and witness the impact that the arts have made in their lives.

She’s lucky because her mom was connected with the community and would take her to all types of different art shows and events, including ours, and it’s really great to see how that had an impact, especially around what we were doing and what she’s doing now that she’s doing similar work.

She’s organizing youth with the Sac First Coalition and raising funds for city youth programming. She’s our program director and also runs the health component of our organization, and is a yoga instructor. I think this is typical of the biggest successes of our community. We have a lot of young people who grew up in the space and continue to grow up in the space, and we see that even when they grow into adults, it is still a home for them, and some of them actually come back to work here and give back to the community.

The fact that this place is still relevant and needed is expressed in the fact that young people want to come back as adults. By their wanting to see it continue, shows me that the work that we do is successful. It’s satisfying for me to see that there are people who are willing to give their time and energy to see it keep moving forward so that other people have access to that same resource.

That is what collective is, it’s finding a group of people who make you feel that you belong, and that’s vital. Just today, I mentioned to our board president that I realized I was cussing a lot at the last board meeting.  When I left, I was like, “oh I was being so unprofessional,” and I was wearing something similar as I’m am now—khaki’s and Cortez—and I was thinking how that seems so unprofessional. Then I realized, wow, how nice it is to be able to go into a place dressed as myself and not think twice about how I’m speaking and not have to code switch because, as a person of color with an education, I have to code switch all the time.

Whenever I go into meetings, because there’s already a perception of who I am when I walk in, I have to play the game to be taken seriously, it’s really refreshing to be able to sit in a meeting and just be yourself. The space is that for a lot of people, a place where it’s okay to be yourself, and we encourage people coming in to share their gifts and their interests. Supporting that spirit of reciprocity, of being able to receive that from other people and having a place to share it back.

The State of Education

articulator: What are your thoughts on the current state of public education?

Estella Sanchez: I have a complicated relationship with education because I went to a school that had a very open framework, and then I stepped into a public school that was completely different, and it wasn’t the best experience for me. I hated school and then somehow I ended up getting a master’s in education and becoming a high school teacher.

What I do here is Community Education. I’m still an educator who uses different tools and a different type of classroom. I went through an admin program to become a principal, so I feel like this really is a school where there are a lot of teachers who come in and use the space, and they teach in different capacities.

One of my mentors, Elliott Washor, is a founder of Big Picture Schools, which has about 90 schools in the country. I began consulting with them after I left the teaching field. I remember sitting with Elliott at a seminar, he’s a big deal to me in the education world because he has this incredible model that’s all over the place, and it’s really the core of what education should look like; for example, there are internship programs that allow you to learn by following your passion.

“What are you passionate about?” is their tagline. When I taught there, I took on a class of students from 9th all the way through 12th grade. I was their teacher the whole time. I taught all subjects and had to become a jack-of-all-trades because I had to figure out what they loved and then I had to help them find their way.

So, I remember sitting with Elliot at this seminar, I was thrilled just to be there. It was a big deal that I was with the founder at this seminar about health and education, and our table was filled with all of these incredible people. The guy next to me was a NASA scientist, and I’m wondering “how did I get invited to this table!?” I turned around and asked Elliot “what would you do differently with the education system?” and he said, “I would do exactly what you’re doing.”

He went on to say, “I would pull out of the system and go straight into the community and educate that way.” It was just kind of this moment where it went boom, I didn’t even realize that that’s what I was doing until he pointed it out. He thought I was right in finding all these different people who teach in different ways, allowing for education to happen in a way that we feel comfortable with.  

So yeah, I have a complicated relationship with education because I think it’s hard for young people to sit in the classroom for eight hours a day and be taught things that are going to be irrelevant when they get a little bit older, so it’s rough. I do see it changing, and I am so grateful for the people in the struggle and for administrators who are trying to change the system, who are doing that everyday heavy lifting to reform and update our school system. I personally don’t have the stomach for it anymore.

articulator: Is there an opportunity for Sol Collective to be part of that evolution in Sacramento?

Estella Sanchez: Yeah, I mean absolutely, the majority of our board has always been K through University educators who are really engaged in this conversation.

The core of what we do is community education. We’re definitely here for the folks that are doing the heavy lifting. We’re now working with the Sacramento County Office of Education and learning about APA standards, and we’re in the process of developing programming so that we can work with artists to train them to go into the classroom, to be teaching artists and be aware of APA standards. Again, it’s kind of like if I were a principal, I would be doing that in the school system. It’s so cool that me and Luis Campos-Garcia, who is our Art Curator, are able to do that outside of the school system and still work with artists. We also have a new classroom that was gifted to us by Good Tidings Foundation, and we are setting up our spring and summer class schedule.

We have this beautiful new space where we’re looking to create a schedule of ongoing classes and provide opportunities for artists to experiment with being teaching artists and have a safe space to develop and design their curriculum that they can then take into the classrooms.

The future in that area is really bright, and I think the city and the county are doing a lot of really great work to bring the arts back into public school, where it’s been missing for so long. They’ve been doing a great job of bridging community organizations with schools and school districts. We work with the county and local school districts to train teachers around civic engagement and the arts, and are looking at different ways to integrate that in the classroom. I’m so grateful that they’re in there doing this work.

It really takes teachers who love the arts to become the advocates who can bring it to their school, bring it to the classroom, who will take the extra classes and do the things necessary to do that. I hadn’t seen this level of importance attached to bringing back the arts in years. I’m super excited about what that could mean for the region down the line because we’re going in a really great direction with arts education right now, really starting to value it and understanding that it’s needed. Close to 150 educators attended our last meeting, and most of them were artists.

articulator: You mentioned the heavy work, and I think there is substantial work to be done for this cultural shift to happen, do you think that we still need to articulate and demonstrate the value of arts in learning for it to be successful?

Estella Sanchez: Absolutely. I think one of the ways is to connect the dots between what art means for people. People drive around and see billboards and signs or listen to the radio or whatever and they don’t connect the dots that all the graphic design and murals you’re driving past and even corporate logos and things that you’re seeing are designed and created by an artist.

Or that the music you’re listening to and the production that goes into all of that is art. I believe when people think about art they have a very narrow view of what it is. I think it’s important to connect the dots to show how people really do engage with the arts every day, but don’t necessarily recognize it. They think art belongs in a gallery space where they can see it defined as art—it’s this very narrow view. I feel that by providing education around what art is and how we engage with it regularly is essential. That somebody creative has to come up with that which leads to the understanding of how we value creativity. Like how important creativity is in everyday life, it could be for problem-solving, it could be for a million other things, but creativity is super valuable in this day and age, and I don’t think people connect that necessarily to the arts.

Lastly, we need to change the culture of paying artists. I mean, we’ve been around for 14 and a half years, and still, we’re regularly getting asked to do things for free. Asking artists to do things for free completely undervalues people and their work. Because of my education and background, I end up doing consulting work for folks around the arts. I actually just started a consulting company because I was doing so much of it for free that I was like “man, I should be getting paid for this, like what the heck?”

So, yes, I think that that there needs to be a cultural shift around how we pay artists. I think a lot of people just don’t know how much they should be paying artists or what things are worth. They don’t see it as an actual profession or don’t realize that people went to school, maybe just like you, and have student loans. So I think there is a lot of education around that and, ironically, I’ve had to challenge people who are pushing this agenda by pointing out, “oh you’ve asked us to do things for free like 10 times!” It’s a constant struggle.

articulator: Do you see this aspect of education being addressed by the Creative Edge Plan? I was just wondering your thoughts of the work the city is doing to support the creative community.

Estella Sanchez: Well, when I was on the Creative Edge committee, I had just had a baby, so I wasn’t able to go to all the meetings. I went to a few at the beginning of the process and then at the end of the process. I really appreciate the effort. I mean, I think it was the first time I was ever in a room where people addressed inequities and had some of the much needed, and uncomfortable conversations.

I remember one line in the plan specifically said something about addressing the history connected to Native Americans and the region. I was like,” oh my God, I never heard anyone say that.” We have all these festivals, and we completely forget that there’s another group in our community that has been completely ignored.

I feel like acknowledging that some of the things that we’re doing haven’t included everybody was super important for me to hear, so I do think the conversations that occurred during the Creative Edge process were super important because there were conversations we haven’t had as a community, ever.

It’s a lot of work to put all these conversations together in a plan. It’s a very ambitious undertaking, and I think they did the best job they could with gathering all of the different voices and all of the different ideas and publishing a summary and a collective plan of action.

I’m excited about the different pieces because it’s a good starting point. It’s like we’ve got to start somewhere, things are never going to be perfect, and I understand there’s a lot of people who have a lot of different issues with it. Things are never going to be perfect. You just got to get started and then you correct as you move along, and so for me, I’m in full support of rolling up our sleeves and getting it started.

I did hear all of the different criticisms, and I agree with a lot of them, but I also think we just need to get started with something. These are long-term, systematic problems that aren’t going to get fixed quickly and we’re crazy if we think we’re going to solve them with one little plan. I think the fact that we’re just at the place where we say hey, let’s roll up our sleeves and try something is a great place.

articulator: Do you see the next steps happening?

Estella Sanchez: I see changes in the city, so yes, things are happening. Hopefully, we can get everyone to set aside political views and push forward. I think sometimes people get so caught up on the little details of things, or there is a point in there that they’re not happy with and they will try to put the brakes on things or try to make things harder. I am hopeful that there are enough people who are in support of the plan that will start pushing it forward.

So, yes, it is happening. I’m part of the education component with the county, and some of the same people that were having those conversations are in the room now, and there are now funds to train and bring Community Organizations to connect with the county to train artists. We were talking about that a year and a half ago, and now I’m in the room with a hundred and fifty Educators making it happen. But again, it’s a very ambitious plan, so we’ll see how much more we can do.

articulator: You have a youth poetry pop-up event happening today, I’m just curious if your hosting it here is a product of these conversations?

Estella Sanchez: I think indirectly probably because that’s what we were talking about, more youth opportunities. Like a lot of these things have been conversations for the last few years, and I think the Creative Edge Plan just kind of summarized everything and said, okay we’ve been talking about doing all these things let’s create a plan of action for it.

articulator: Do you think people were looking for a plan that’s a practical roadmap instead of a vision plan? If so, who is responsible for making it happen? The city?

Estella Sanchez: Right, right. I think it’s going to depend on people who are in education to use their resources, their areas of expertise and their networks to pull the education piece together. It’s going to take people in the city to use their resources and their networks to pull certain parts together, and it’s going to take community organizations to use what we have and to connect things and push things forward.

I don’t think the city is responsible for making it all happen. I think it’s going to take all of us in different capacities to then say we believe in this collective vision and we’re going to all work towards pushing that forward. We all want to see these things in our community, and so in whatever capacity we can, we’re going to work towards making those things happen. So I think. It’s at the very least. That’s what it is. It gives us a collective vision to work towards, and I think they did a great job.

Looking Forward

articulator: I understand you’re planning to develop and enlarge your building, is that in the works?

Estella Sanchez: That’s part of the big vision. There was a time we didn’t think ownership was possible, and once we got there it was like, okay what else is possible?

So part of the big vision is that we would love to see this building go up to address some of the issues that exist, like artists aren’t getting paid, housing is an issue, and therefore sustainability is really difficult.

If you’re an artist—and the same for an artist educator/activist because those all present similar challenges like low pay—it’s hard to make a living. So if we are able to build six or seven stories up, we would love to have subsidized housing for artists, activists, and educators that would allow them to do the work that they’re doing and have a home. Sustainability ends up becoming one of the reasons why a lot of people stop doing this work, they come to the realization that they can’t do the work they’re passionate about anymore and get a 9 to 5 job, or they move out of the community. It’d be really incredible if we get to a point where we can do that and also have office space.

It would also be great to have one floor dedicated to office space for smaller groups or our organizations to be able to have collaborative organizing space or office space to allow them to do the work that they do.

I think for myself, I’ll be happy if I’m just able to develop architectural plans for the next group of leaders. That’s kind of where we’re at right now. Currently, there are no plans on file for the existing building, and so that’s our next step, seeing what we need to do to get the process going.

We need to create a long-term plan because I don’t foresee us all of a sudden having two-three million dollars to do all of the work necessary to expand our footprint. It’s probably going to come in phases, and so it’d be great to have that in place so that it’s digestible for whoever takes it on next. So personally, I’ll be happy if I can leave that part of the Legacy.

articulator: Do you see an opportunity for Sol Collective to have a real estate arm that creates affordable development (housing and commercial spaces)?

Estella Sanchez: I think there are a lot of possibilities, there’s a lot of different people in the collective with a lot of different interests and strengths, so there are a lot of things that are possible that I can’t really speak to at the moment. I don’t know if that’s a project that someone would want to take on, but it’s been discussed with our partners and with our neighbors next door (Capsity).

My priority is working on documenting our model, because we’ve been busy doing the work and we haven’t had a chance even to take a breath and sit down to look at and document what we’ve accomplished over the last 14 years. I’d like to document the model, and I think that’s more important than buying or building spaces, it’s more about helping people who are trying to replicate our model and so it’s more about sharing best practices with different groups.

For example, there’s a group in Santa Rosa who started the Raices Collective based on the Sol Collective model. There’s a group in New York who wants us to connect with them to see how we’ve been able to sustain ourselves as a multi-use space. And there’s talk of a group doing one in Los Angeles, I’ve been told that there’s also one in Coachella. I’d love just to see how we could share and spread the model.

articulator: What’s next for you?

Estella Sanchez: I’m phasing out of the Executive Director position, and we’re moving into a full-on Collective Leadership Model, so most likely we won’t have an ED in the future. We’re already kind of operating in our own collective leadership model anyway, and I think we’re at a point where we’re getting the language to be able to describe what we’ve been doing.

I’m more interested in how we learn from what we’ve done here and how we share that with other folks at their spaces—how do we expand, how do we look at larger products—so it’s important that I’m out of the day-to-day operations. After 14 years, the team we have can manage the day-to-day operations of the collective.

I’m really looking at what other possibilities and opportunities are there to share the experience and knowledge we have amassed through the work we’ve done and connect with other people. So I’m excited about what’s next for me personally in seeing how we can take what we’ve learned and plug it into different things and meet new people, share ideas and yeah start creating new things. My new business is called Visions Manifested, and I’m looking forward to supporting people to do exactly that.

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