The Persistence of Generosity
Paying it Forward with Estella Sanchez
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. Together with her collective, Sanchez has created an innovative co-op model that has inspired centers from Sonoma to Staten Island, and has received numerous leadership awards, local and national. 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.
Along the Wayward Path
My parents immigrated from Mexico to Sacramento. My mom is from Mexico City, which is a huge bustling city, and my Dad grew up on a farm in Tepatitlan, Jalisco. They were two people from very different social classes, and probably would have never met if they stayed in Mexico. Incredibly they ended up meeting in Oak Park in the mid-late ’60s.
I was born on Sacramento Blvd (now Martin Luther King 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 the Sacramento Bag Company for twenty years. The building is now being turned into an art space, which is 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 study 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, and 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.
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.
We grew up Seventh-day Adventist, and the school I attended was a holistic school of 12 students. 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 who helped nourish my interests, whether it was in music or the arts or whatever. I felt very connected with the teachers and parents who volunteered, and the community was always finding ways to plug me in with the right people.
We had a teacher that would come in on Fridays, 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..He gave me this beautiful wooden pastel set when I graduated sixth grade. 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, and that validation meant a lot to me.
Public school was like another world because I came from this special place of learning. I got placed in HISP ( Honors) classes because of the school I had attended, but never got offered any art classes. It wasn’t until later that I found out about the photography and silk-screening classes that existed. The photography teacher, Hector Gonzalez, was Chicano, and I remember skipping my regular classes to go to the photography class. I also remember a lot of other 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, 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 think when you’re the kid of immigrants, and you grow up in places where, especially in the 80s, representations of people who look like you on television, in films, or on the news were overwhelmingly negative—that really wears on you.
I was 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 put you on the gang list. If I were dressed how I am now, in Khaki pants and Nike Cortez shoes, in high school it was a sign that I was a gang member. I think that’s why I wear them as an adult who earned a master’s degree, because it’s so ridiculous to profile kids for what they wear.
A real turning point for me was during a visit to Mexico when I was 14 or 15. I was with my cousin, being badasses, smoking those little cigarettes called bidis in a cafe in Tepatitlan, Jalisco, listening to rock from Spain and I thought, “what the F, we’re not all gangsters, where did this idea even come from?”
I’m sitting here, in this Town Square, with my cousin and I’m thinking how it happened that people who look like me in the United States have been put in this little box and labeled as gangsters? That we’re up to no good, that we’re lazy and that we’re only valuable in the position of being service workers in the community. It was a mind-blowing realization because I realized how complex our culture was and how limiting these stereotypes and prejudices were. I think it was a point where even we began to believe that we had to dress and behave this way because it’s what’s expected of us.
Later, we began marching, doing rallies and organizing at school. After a few years, I got really burnt out from screaming about the injustices and the inequities that I was seeing. As I got older and had a family, I started looking for different ways to continue to do this work, so I 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 for doing the activism and advocacy work we do to create change.
Sol Collective: Community
The idea of designing a creative community space has been with me since I was a teenager, and I think that I just needed 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 that idea 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 and a high dropout rate, so it was an opportunity for me to document and show what was incredible and powerful and valuable in my community.
I discovered the artists, musicians, poets, retired herbalists and all these different people who were looking for a space to share their knowledge without a tremendous amount of capital to make it happen.
This was also at a time where arts programs 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, especially around the arts, became a significant discussion.
We were finding very few things keeping students engaged, which resonated with me because I dropped out of high school in my junior year. I probably would have dropped out in ninth grade if it wasn’t for the photography class I took from Hector Gonzalez, who had also documented a lot of early Chicano history and the art movement of the Royal Chicano Air Force. I had also had the opportunity to work at the Washington Neighborhood Center, including as a student of Ricardo Favela’s Barrio Arts Program. So I had seen the way art could empower
This is what I was hoping to unlock for others, 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.
In the early days of Sol Collective, I really don’t think a lot of people understood what we were doing. There weren’t a lot of multi-use spaces 14 ½ years ago, and, initially, it must have looked 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?
We also 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 respected the work we were doing and saw 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 now a lot of multi-use spaces all over the city, and and new collective pop-up all the time, it’s become the norm.
I think after hitting the 10-year mark was when people also began to show an interest in partnering 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.
With the support of our board of directors, Sol Collective 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.
So many groups have come out of our space, so many different things have been incubated, and the space is now having an even more significant impact. Artists that were using it as a learning space are now doing more significant things in the city.
Sol Collective is in the process of moving from a grassroots organization to an institution. Beginning with an all-volunteer staff, we now own our building, have employees, and we’re looking at the next 10 to 20 years.
Understanding the importance of sustainability and creating opportunities for those doing this work to make a living, is critical. Dea Montelongo, our program director, who also runs the health component of our organization and is a yoga instructor, is a great example. She came in to the organization as a youth participant when she was 15, and at that time, she , like many of us, had already been identified by her school’s gang task force as a gang member 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.
Dea began coming to our youth programs, doing really great work around juvenile justice organizing and media work as a 15-year-old. Now, at 30, she’s organizing youth with the Sac Kids First Coalition to create an annual city youth fund. I think her story is typical within our community. We have a lot of young people who grew up in the space and even when they grow into adults, it is still a home for them. Then some of them come back to work here and give back to the community.
A lot of us have come from similar backgrounds and share that resilient immigrant mentality, so things like barter and trade are 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 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, so we don’t try to manage it too much. 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 that’s not something we want to continue. That’s another core value that we had to learn the hard way, that reciprocity is critical.
That kind of community resource sharing is very much a part of immigrant culture because it’s part of how some communities in Mexico and immigrant families work. It’s something that is already ingrained in our way of life, so 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. That’s what a collective is—it’s finding a group of people with a shared vision who make you feel that you belong and are supported, and that’s vital.
Sol Collective is that for a lot of people, a place where it’s okay to be yourself. 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.
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 of what the core of education should look like.
“What are you passionate about?” is their tagline. When I taught there, I took on a class of students, as their dedicated teacher, from 9th all the way through 12th grade where I taught all subjects. To help them find their way, I had to figure out what they love, and become a jack-of-all-trades to deliver the best way for them to learn.
I remember sitting with Elliot at this seminar, I was thrilled just to be there, it was a big deal. I asked him, “what would you do differently with the education system?” and he responded by saying, “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 an immersive, engaging and relevant way that we feel comfortable with.
That is at the core of what we do as Community Educators, we’re definitely here for the folks that are doing the heavy lifting within the system. We’re working with the 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 become teaching artists and to be aware of APA standards. I think it’s so cool that me and Luis Campos-Garcia, our Art Curator, are able to work with community artist in and outside the school system.
That idea continues with the new classroom that was gifted to us by Good Tidings Foundation. We’re creating a schedule of ongoing classes in this space that provide opportunities for artists to have a safe space to develop and design a curriculum that they can then take into classrooms.
The city and county are doing a really 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 into the classroom.
Sol Collective is one of the community art leads with the county of education , part of a larger effort to develop a local creative workforce. 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. It takes teachers who love the arts to become the advocates who will bring it to their school, bring it to the classroom, who will take the extra classes and do the things necessary. I hadn’t seen this level of importance attached to bringing back the arts in years.
Creative Edge Plan
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 which gave me the chance to see it unfold both from inside and through the outside. I really appreciate the amount of work that went into tackling such a large and broad project, especially capturing community voice and input. 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 and how they affected our arts and cultural landscape in the city.
I remember one line in the plan specifically said something about addressing the history connected to Native Americans in the region. I was like, oh my God, I had never heard anyone in city government acknowledge how some of the cities’ festivals and culture completely ignore the negative impact the birth of the city had on indigenous cultures.
Acknowledging that some of the things that we’re doing haven’t included everybody was super important for me to hear, so the conversations that occurred during the Creative Edge process were necessary because there were conversations we haven’t had as art community, as long as I can remember.
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 ideas, publishing a summary and a collective plan of action.
I did hear all of the different criticisms, and I agree with some 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 plan. I think the fact that we’re just at the place where we can say, “hey, let’s roll up our sleeves and try something,” is a great place.
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 the plan that they’re not happy with so they try to put the brakes on things or make things harder. I am hopeful that there are enough people who are in support of the plan that will start pushing it forward.
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.
A big challenge is that people have a very narrow view of what art is, so I think connecting the dots is important to show that people 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. I feel that by providing education around what art is and how we engage with it regularly is essential, that will lead to the understanding of how we value creativity, and how important creativity is in everyday life. It could be for problem-solving, or 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. This conversation can lead to changing the culture of how we pay artists. Asking artists to do things for free completely undervalues people and their work.
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, at the very least it gives us a collective vision to work towards, and I think they did a great job.
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 that position 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 essential that I’m out of the day-to-day operations to begin doing that work.
My priority is working on documenting our model. 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 take the time to leave guiding documents to keep the core values and adaptive structure of a collective model to support future members of the organization sustain relevant community programming. I’m also excited to share that with other collectives who have expressed interest in sharing best practices or opening up similar community spaces.
I’m really looking at the other possibilities and opportunities there are to share the experience and knowledge we have amassed. 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.
I’ve also started a consulting business, Visions Manifested to support statewide creative projects at the intersection of social justice, education and arts.
Now in Print
The full interview available only in print, with full color images and a Sol Collective postcard
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