Look for your clear sense of purpose and share that with others. Across my career with non-profit organizations and working with thousands of incredible volunteers, I have found that one commonality, which is the desire for impact. Even if a task requires a lot of hard work or seems tedious, a volunteer will continue to contribute, so long as they believe that their efforts are making an impact on the organization and the constituency it serves. I have found that people want to feel that they are contributing to something greater than themselves.
As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Marissa Gutiérrez-Vicario.
Marissa Gutierrez-Vicario is the Founder and Executive Director of Art and Resistance Through Education (ARTE). As a committed human rights and peace-building activist, artist, educator, and advocate for youth, Marissa launched ARTE in 2013 to help young people amplify their voices and organize for human rights change in their communities through the visual arts.
Since early childhood, Marissa became interested in the arts and its potential in bringing attention to important social issues within her community. At an early age, Marissa developed the propensity to lead as a student activist and public servant through her involvement in several non-profit, human rights and social justice organizations. In all of these experiences, Marissa realized the need to support young people in their development as organizers to help cultivate the next generation of social justice leaders.
As someone who is interested in building a global community of human rights activists and educators, Marissa has traveled to 50 countries and has presented workshops in several countries, including South Africa, Cyprus, and Canada. Marissa also currently serves as Co-Chair of the Steering Committee of Human Rights Educators USA. In 2018, Marissa was named as a Catherine Hannah Behrend Fellow in Visual Arts Management in the 92Y Women inPower Fellowship Program. Most recently, through Rotary International, Marissa was selected as a 2019 Peace Fellow at the Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand.
Marissa holds a B.A. in Political Science and International Relations, from the University of Southern California, an M.P.A. from the Wagner School of Public Service at New York University, and an M.Ed. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?
People often assume I am from Brooklyn, New York, given my great love and passion for this great borough in arguably, the world’s greatest city. While Brooklyn is currently home and the place I love most, I am not originally from here, but born and raised in southern California. I moved here for graduate school several years ago. Although it is up to a real New Yorker to determine my status, I consider it an adopted home in which I strive to give back in whatever way possible.
At a very early age I became involved in activism. I started organizing when I was 8–9 years old and have never truly stopped. In my school cafeteria, I would race to finish my lunch early so that I could position myself next to the trash cans where people emptied their lunch trays. I would set up a table with a photobook of endangered species. My goal was to collect any leftover lunch money from students to donate to organizations that helped protect these endangered species.
As I grew older, I realized that much of my teenage life was devoted to thinking about mass incarceration. At the time, my hometown was best known for its prison, the California Institution for Men. As I became more involved in activism around mass incarceration, I began to question the structural violence that is embedded in this system, which disproportionately affects people of color. From this experience, I began early in life to wonder what I could do to address these systemic inequalities, which eventually led me to pursue the study of Political Science and International Relation.
You are currently leading a social impact organization. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
I currently serve as the Founder and Executive Director of Art and Resistance Through Education (ARTE). ARTE amplifies the voices of young people, using the visual arts as the vehicle to galvanize and mobilize them around critical human rights issues in their communities. Through ARTE’s impact, young people in schools, jails, and community centers can discuss and take action to make transformational societal change by addressing issues such as racial discrimination, immigration, gender equity, and mass incarceration.
In my work, I have learned that youth of color experience a disproportionate amount of human rights abuses in this country. At a systemic level, they encounter emotional and physical trauma as well as violence through interactions across several institutions, including the incarceration and immigration systems. Exposure to such violence and trauma has life-long effects that negatively impact entire generations.
These experiences of trauma are exacerbated when we lack the language to articulate the wrongs that have taken place. Human rights education, among other things, supplies a vocabulary for this needed demarcation. It empowers those who have experienced trauma to become grassroots leaders for justice. Yet, youth often lack access to the language of human rights. When people are unaware of their rights, it becomes more likely their rights get violated. Thus, my vision for ARTE was born, as a space for young people to express their own experiences and reflections around human rights through interactive, multimedia visual arts programming. Students create murals, but even more importantly, they become equipped with the organizing skills that enable them to collectively work more effectively in steering society towards greater justice.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
I lived near a prison for most of my childhood and routinely saw the resulting negative impacts on the community around me. I knew that there were problems in my community, but wasn’t sure where to begin. The concept of volunteering had been instilled in me at a very young age, particularly at the public library, senior centers, and food pantries, and while I thought such service was, and still is, important, I felt then that I wasn’t able to do anything to address the root causes of inequity.
Particularly as a young person, I wanted to do something to make change, but felt very isolated, especially in high school. I was introduced to activism as a teenager through Unitarian Universalist organizers, a faith-based mobilization of folks addressing issues of human rights and social justice. There I learned more about what activism was, what it meant to feel called to addressing injustice from a spiritual level, and what it meant to organize among others for social change.
It was at this point that I realized that anger can indeed be a gift. I think as a teenager, I was very angry and wanted to be able to channel this energy to make social change. Thus, I think this is the reason that I do this work to support young people — especially incarcerated youth — so that they can realize their own agency to drive meaningful change in their lives and in their communities.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
Several years ago, upon completing my graduate studies at Harvard, I accepted a job at an educational non-profit in Boston. After working there for a year, we learned that the organization was going to be dissolved. Thus, I was at a crossroads about what to do next. I had found myself wavering on whether or not to take a fellowship working at a non-profit in Malawi. I was certainly drawn to the idea of working in a different country and serving in a different cultural context; however, I had also been forming the idea of ARTE in my head for several years.
During this time, I spoke with a mentor, another entrepreneur, and asked for advice. One of them said something that really inspired me to take the giant leap of faith and start ARTE which was, “you could start ARTE or you could continue doing fellowships.” While there is nothing wrong with doing fellowships and having unique experiences, I took this statement as meaning that now was the time to take a chance. The idea of working in an entirely different country was daunting, but the idea of working on a project like ARTE, with no end date, no organizational infrastructure, and no guarantee of success, was even more so. It was at that moment I realized that I was the only person that could bring ARTE to fruition. This is not to say that someone else couldn’t carry on this work or even do the work better than me today, but at that moment in time, I was the only person that could give ARTE a true chance, so I’m grateful to that mentor for being the catalyst.
Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?
When I was still working at the non-profit in Boston, most of my free time was often devoted to the idea of ARTE coming to fruition. After work ended, I would focus on writing grants to help fund the project, before work, I found myself recruiting interns, and during the weekends, I met with artists and muralists to gain further insight into the world of public art.
Oftentimes, we are told that we must wait for the money to arrive in order to do something significant. Even though I spent so many hours thinking and strategizing about this non-profit, I realized that the first and most important step was actually doing the work itself. I was incredibly nervous about starting on a project with no resources, but I knew I just had to start, even if it was small. One of the first ARTE mural projects was actually in Brooklyn, partnered with a local school community. I collaborated with students during the weekends to create a mural project on child soldiers. This project was profoundly inspiring because of students’ passion. I knew that I had to find a way to continue this work. At the end of my time in Boston, I decided to move back to New York and create ARTE, making it as much of my full-time job as possible, even if that required taking on part-time jobs to sustain myself.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
When I decided to turn down the opportunity to work in Malawi, I was worried that I might never work outside of the United States again. I was worried about having missed out on a very important opportunity. Interestingly enough, since beginning ARTE, I have been able to travel and meet an incredible number of people across the globe.
For instance, even before ARTE had become an officially incorporated organization, I had a remarkable opportunity to present at the Council of Europe’s symposium on “Human Rights Education” at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. It was the first time that this work was highlighted at the international level, even when it was very much still an idea in incubation. This was one of the first moments that I felt ARTE and my work had legitimacy.
In spite of my fears, prior to COVID-19, I have been able to travel as part of my work with ARTE. We’ve worked with law students in South Africa, young refugees in Cyprus, and many other folks. I’ve been privileged to travel to over 50 countries and met some of the most dynamic, brave, and interesting people I’ve ever encountered, many of whom have been incredible youth activists.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?
At the same time as when I started ARTE, I decided to take a series of Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) classes. In retrospect, this was probably not the best decision at the time, but I have always wanted to be a more useful human being and I feel those in the medical field are some of the most useful and valuable people. During the COVID-19 pandemic, folks are reminded of this more than ever. In my case though, being useful and being an artist / leader of an arts organization, were constantly at odds with one another in the EMT classroom. I remember very distinctly a moment in class where we were learning how to properly make slings, and had practiced on my own fellow classmates.
At one point, I had gotten very nervous and kept messing up the maneuver that was demonstrated to us. After several times of failing, I frustratingly told the group that I was working with, “I’m an artist, I don’t know how to do these kinds of things!” Almost instantly, the sassy, smart-mouthed instructor, who always came in eating a sandwich and joking looked at me very soberly. “You may be an artist, but that doesn’t give you permission to do things incorrectly. With EMS, this is a matter of life or death.”
Upon hearing those words, I became incredibly embarrassed, but I’ve often shared this story with others, because the lesson learned was so strong. There are no reasons to do things incorrectly, especially when another human life is at stake. As humans, we are allowed to make mistakes, we are allowed to ask questions, but there is no excuse to do things incorrectly, once we have learned from our mistakes. Even though this experience was not directly related to my work with ARTE, it was during the same time I started and the lesson touched me deeply and had a significant impact on how I looked at my work.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
I believe there are probably many different stories that have inspired me to feel passionate about this work. One backstory that I recently discovered was that much of my work started when I was in high school. I recently was given access to my original college application essays that I had written in high school. With them, I found some of the original letters of recommendation written by teachers and guidance counselors. These were some of the words I found inside of the letters:
“Marissa hopes to become a political activist. She hopes to act on issues which violate human rights. She would like to have her own social action organization as well as write, which she enjoys doing greatly. I truly feel that she will not only attain this goal, but she will do so very well.”
“I know that Marissa will do well in all that she attempts and that she can truly reach her goals.”
I am sharing this because I no longer remember the guidance counselor who wrote these for me, but it was incredibly touching to read that they had hope and faith in me. There’s nothing particularly special about me or my story, except for the fact that I had incredibly supportive mentors. In fact, I believe that if it wasn’t for mentors like this, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to even dream about those goals I expressed, now over 20 years ago. Without these individuals, I wouldn’t have even understood the steps it took to submit a college application; something that many young people don’t have access to. My hope is that I can serve as a cheerleader for other young people who have their own dreams and provide them with the support they need to actualize these dreams.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
While there are countless examples working with youth to share their stories, one story that stands out is my work with a group of immigrant students in Queens. For months, the ARTE team had the honor of working with student leaders to create a community mural based off of their lived experiences in facing discrimination as immigrants. During this time, we provided humans rights education through a curriculum we have crafted specifically for this community. We also practiced public speaking and taught various techniques therein. Finally we, shared with students the context to which their lives intersected multifarious aspects of human rights and discrimination, as well as the positive reinforcement and encouragement for them to share their stories utilizing what they had learned. Watching these students grow in this short time was awe inspiring, and our team witnessed one especially reticent student develop fortitude and strength to a breathtaking degree. His experience culminated with him courageously sharing in front of everyone at the mural unveiling, his story of being discriminated against, after originally telling us he was too fearful and simply didn’t know how to tell his story.
This story and the numerous others just like it create a pattern, a drumbeat, which reveals the dynamism lying dormant within so many individuals, especially youth, and it has been my job, as the leader of ARTE, and purpose in supporting them to further develop it within themselves.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
For many of the schools, jails, and communities we work in, ARTE is the only access to the visual arts that our students have. While our organization addresses a deficit of the arts in primarily people of color communities, I think the larger problem we are trying to address is Institutional racism, which, in large part, precipitates this lack of access to quality educational resources and creates an imbalance of power for low income communities of color.
One thing that politicians can do to address this problem is to continue to prioritize the funding of the arts, particularly in people of color communities. This also includes seeking alternatives to the overfunding that goes to prisons, weapons, and policing within the United States.
For me, community is a very broad, nuanced concept, but generally, I think in the context of the United States, I believe that we must also actively combat the racism, white privilege, and white supremacy that is embedded in our society. Without this work, we cannot fully change the current systemic lack of access to resources that we see our students experience.
Lastly, although this is less tangible, I believe that as a society we need to have hope. ARTE believes that art manifests hope and hope manifests justice. Hope that the world can be transformed from the state that it is currently in and hope for those who are exhausted by the inequality, so that they can continue forward in their pursuit of justice.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- When starting out, you will be responsible for everything. This is not to say that we cannot rely on folks and that delegation isn’t important. This is saying that as smaller social impact organizations, we aren’t afforded an HR department. For instance, when I was in graduate school, in financial management, we were learning basic accounting and budgeting. A colleague told me, “I won’t need to really learn this, I’ll just hire someone to do my budget.” The truth is, when you are starting off, YOU are that person.
- It takes time to get truly good at anything. Someone once said to me that realistically it takes about two years to get good at any job. Why would one expect anything different from a start-up / social enterprise? We learn from all of our experiences, especially from experiences where we don’t have a manual or guidebook and have to navigate on our own. This takes time.
- First and foremost, take care of yourself. I always felt very uncomfortable thinking about “self-care” as a practice for myself. However, I have recently discovered that none of this work is worth jeopardizing one’s own well-being. A very powerful human rights activist once told me, “we don’t need any more martyrs” and that has continued to resonate with me.
- Look for your clear sense of purpose and share that with others. Across my career with non-profit organizations and working with thousands of incredible volunteers, I have found that one commonality, which is the desire for impact. Even if a task requires a lot of hard work or seems tedious, a volunteer will continue to contribute, so long as they believe that their efforts are making an impact on the organization and the constituency it serves. I have found that people want to feel that they are contributing to something greater than themselves.
- Take your ideas seriously, even if that starts with a piece of paper. People often ask me where to begin and I tell them that they should put them down on paper. If you believe in an idea, you owe it to yourself to write them down, the first step to creating anything. Related, I often think about this quote from film director, Robert Rodriguez, who once said: “So you want to be a filmmaker? First step to being a filmmaker is stop saying you want to be a filmmaker. It took me forever to be able to tell anyone I was a filmmaker and keep a straight face until I was well on my way. But the truth was, I had been a filmmaker ever since the day I had closed my eyes and pictured myself making movies. The rest was inevitable. So you don’t want to be a filmmaker, you are a filmmaker. Go make yourself a business card.” Instead of “filmmaker,” insert: non-profit leader, social enterprise founder, etc. and I think this quote is entirely applicable. Take your ideas seriously and believe in them, because there will be a moment of time where you might be the only person that does.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
First, having nearly two decades of experience in working with youth or involved in the youth development field, including several years of working with various non-profit youth organizations, I have come across so many amazing stories and individuals. Sadly, though, I have found that adults frequently say to youth, “you’re so mature” or “you’re so great….for a young person.” These compliments, which can come off as underhanded compliments, belie the true insight and profundity that countless youth have brimming within them.
Thus, I would encourage young people to not be discouraged by these types of comments and if they want to make a positive impact, they should not be deterred. I hope that they will look for mentors that will provide them with the support, guidance, and encouragement that they need to thrive. Never let anyone stop you from building the world you wish to see.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Bryan Stevenson, human rights lawyer, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, author of Just Mercy — He is an incredible leader and one of the most selfless, humble, and powerful activists of our time.
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This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!