After more than a decade of planning and effort, a new youth arts center is operational in East Palo Alto. Young people aged 6 to 25 can now take part in a wide range of courses 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. The official opening of the EPACenter took place on April 23rd.
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 makerspace, art studios, a cafe, a dance studio, an art gallery, performance spaces, and more.
The project has been in the works for about 12 years, and student input has been an important part of the project at every step, said Nadine Rambeau, executive director of the EPACenter.
“Typically, when you think of arts education, kids produce a play or perform music,” she said. “They created a building, an opportunity for their community where there was one. That’s the pinnacle of creativity and creative agency, and that’s something that young people of color don’t typically have in their lives.”
“The project really speaks to the power of youth and listens to the voices of youth and takes seriously what they need,” Rambeau said. “When you think about the amount of investment that has gone into this project, it’s simply outrageous.”
Much of this investment came from the John and Marcia Goldman Foundation, along with support from other organizations. The new building at 1950 Bay Road in East Palo Alto was designed with student input from architecture firm WHY and landscaped by Oakland Macarthur Fellow landscape architect Walter Hood. The former Superfund site has been converted into a LEED Platinum-certified building with a sustainable design, Rambeau said.
It also offers students a long-term opportunity to expand and strengthen their artistic skills over time, she said.
“The students really needed something to develop over time — and a place to go back to … from those very basic developmental levels all the way up to more 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 has been with the EPACenter for about five years.
“It was very helpful to have something … to look forward to,” he said.
His first class was the ukulele, and he said his favorite songs are those “that make you happy and peace come to you when you hear them.”
He said he’s also applied his photography and cooking classes, using the former to record what’s happening around him and the latter to prepare meals for his family.
“I learned dishes that would cost about $50 in a restaurant,” he said. “Being able to cook for my family is really cool.”
In part because there is nothing else in the community like it, the program opens its doors to a wide range of youth – ages 6 to 25.
For Melanie Resendiz, 15, an Eastside College Prep student, EPACenter has been a part of her life for three or four years, she said in a recent interview. As a member of the advisory board, the leaders of the center wanted their feedback on what kind of things they wanted at the center, she said.
And, she added, they listened. The students said they wanted part of the building to contain a café and lounge for students to hang out in. She is currently taking a course where she can design and learn to ride a skateboard.
“I’m so happy. There’s never been anything like it here, so it’s really nice that not just us, but everyone else can use it in the future,” she said.
The students also requested that the center provide tools and programs to help students prepare for high-paying jobs that allow them to continue living in the community, as well as resources to manage their own stress and mental health , remarked Rambeau.
In response, the center developed internship programs and a wellness program.
The internship program, which currently serves 30 students, teaches students skills in fashion design, graphic design, public art, and filmmaking while earning $17.79 per hour.
The center also added a culinary arts program after hearing students talk about food insecurity.
“Part of my job is taking what they say seriously and translating it to support their vision,” Rambeau said. “I listen to you very carefully.”
The organization is also developing partnerships with cultural institutions, graduate organizations, businesses, local schools and universities, Rambeau said.
“It’s such a wonderful resource that isn’t coming into a community that has historically often been underserved,” she said. “We’ll try to do everything we can.”
James Henry, who teaches drums and percussion at the EPACenter, says it’s been great to be able to personally teach his students again in a new building designed for them.
“It was great to see the joy on the children’s faces,” he said. “Throughout all of the COVID, we kept moving forward, teaching on Zoom for almost two years before we finally met in person.”
A master percussionist, Henry’s courses take students all over the world to study percussion tools from different countries.
“It’s a joy now that the EPACenter is here,” he said. “(It’s) like a brand new basketball gym. Everyone is excited.”