The AjA Project looks to transformation and an open house after 20 years
A special event on Saturday celebrates art, documentary storytelling, and the City Heights neighborhood with workshops, art stations, food, music and a Dinah Poellnitz-curated exhibition.
Dignity is something The AjA Project's teaching artist Alejandro Arreguin Villegas keeps coming back to — and it's something he puts front and center in a creative learning environment.
"I've been learning a lot about dignity, and how do we communicate with dignity," Arreguin Villegas said. "Having the participatory art practice really provides that kind of approach to students in a way where it's not profiting out of their trauma or their experiences."
Participatory art practice is a way of engulfing a student or member of the community into the creative process, which helps them understand that their voice matters. This philosophy has been at the heart of the work of the AjA Project for its entire 20-plus year history.
Launched in 2000, the AjA Project was developed as a way for resettled youth to tell their stories and learn how to use photography and narrative arts to express themselves, understand the world and their identity as well as uncover their own agency.
"AjA" is an acronym for the Spanish phrase "autosuficiencia juntada con apoyo," which the organization translates as "supporting self-sufficiency."
Rizzhel Javier is the group's new managing director who took on the role during the pandemic, though her involvement with AjA goes way back.
"A couple of years ago, we had actually changed our mission. And I think, to be honest, we are growing into our mission. I don't think it's something that we had when we wrote it. So if you were to read our mission, it's all about transformation, making sure that our programs are helping youth advocate for themselves and to have the ability to transform and see agency in their own lives," Javier said.
Pointing the lens towards the students in a whole way is pivotal to the program.
"I think AjA's approach to participatory art practices really emphasizes the way in which we really care for our students," Arreguin Villegas said.
Arrenguin Villegas has been a teaching artist with AjA since October 2000, though he has collaborated with them in the past. He helped launch the STEAM OnDemand curriculum in 2014, which uses the photographic process to explore science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics.
This season, as an AjA staffer, he's teaching the STEAM class again, as well as Compass, a new wellness-based creative leadership program developed in the past year.
"We are all students, and we are all teachers, and we're not really there for us as teaching artists to drop information to them, making them do these tasks," Arreguin Villegas said. "We are all experts of our own experiences. I'm not really there to take your story or make you do something that you don't want. I'm really there to just let you know that there are other options."
The five core programs of AjA's work are the STEAM OnDemand and Compass programs; a forthcoming food-based program called Chop; Action, which seeks to explore youth identity in the borderlands region; and Journey, a long-running program that enables youth to use art-making to explore identity, resettlement and migration and more.
"I really do believe the learning experience at AjA is very unique. I always describe it as an experience. I really believe that our teachers have a genuine care and love for the students," Javier said. "Students are sharing stories. But teachers are sharing stories, and it's never this hierarchy in the classroom where someone knows more information than the other person."
As AjA leans fully into this transformation-minded model, some subtle changes include not necessarily referring to their courses as photography-specific courses, and instead taking the approach of documentary arts.
Open up the house
More of their classes will also be held on-site, at the AjA headquarters, rather than solely on partner school campuses. The transition from the space being traditionally office and administrative to being a classroom space and center for the community. It all starts this weekend with their first ever "Neighborhood Open House."
AjA Project teaching artists and local arts leaders will guide families and neighbors through hands-on art stations and mini-workshops all day on Saturday, Dec. 18. The event kicks off at 10 a.m. and runs to 5 p.m., with food from local vendors and music from live DJs.
One workshop will enable participants to make a take-home collage calendar using risograph printing methods. The day also includes two virtual workshops to make the experience accessible, including a 10 a.m. lenticular photo workshop and a 2 p.m. cyanotype workshop — both of which have in-person options as well. Interested participants can stop by the AjA Project office at any point before the workshop to pick up a kit. A full schedule of events is here.
The Hill Street Country Club cofounder Dinah Poellnitz has curated an exhibition in AjA's gallery space. The exhibition, a retrospective of work by AjA teaching artists, will be highlighted during a reception from 3-4 p.m.
Arreguin Villegas recently got back in touch with his photography practice, thanks to the participatory model, and he'll show some new photography in the exhibition.
"Since I've been working a lot with the Tijuana-San Diego region, I took some portraits of the streets of Tijuana, so it's going to be mainly photography and a little bit of collage. I have this collage that talks about identity in a different way," Arreguin Villegas said.
Moving forward, AjA hopes to use the space as a gallery more. They're partnering with The Hill Street Country Club to take on a new vision of community outreach.
"I feel like we've mastered in-house the educational aspect, and now we're bringing on Hill Street Country Club to make sure that we're bringing that same kind of engagement to folks in the community," Javier said. "We hope that the community comes in and utilizes some of our public services that we hope to offer in the spring, like our new risograph printing machine, our broadcasting studio. We want to make sure that it becomes a space for the community. When people come to the open house, they see: what are the things that they could do also for themselves here?"
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