Photograph by Sophia Rodriguez-Bell

If you walk along Alcatraz Avenue off of Adeline Street in Berkeley, you’ll be met with an alleyway of bright, colorful, standout murals. These murals feature a diverse array of people and animals, all different and beautiful. You’d be standing out front of the storefront and meeting space of Youth Spirit Artworks (YSA).

YSA is a training program that helps young adults, especially homeless and low-income teens, get experience and jobs in art. The program was founded in 2007 by Sally Hindman, who got the idea after she had done work at centers for homeless youth.

“In the beginning, YSA was focused mainly on art therapy,” said JR Furst, the program coordinator for YSA, “Now, it has more of an emphasis on job training and life skills to support the next generation.”

YSA has also expanded over the decade it’s been around: it has grown from just two staff members to six, and the budget has gone from one hundred thousand dollars to over five hundred thousand.

There are three main paths that YSA runs: the Fine Arts Program, the Community Arts Program, and the Community Organizing Program. Each program has a different main focus.

The Fine Arts Program allows students to create and sell their own art, as well as helps to teach students about personal finances and business.

The Community Arts Program creates art project around neighborhoods.

“Murals are a main focus right now … The students have been involved in both the painting and design,” Furst said. Those in the Community Arts Program were the ones who made the murals surrounding the studio, the beginning of a series of murals in what is called the Alcatraz Alley Mural Park. YSA plans for over twenty murals to be created. So far there are eight completed murals, including the tile mural just outside the studio and painted mural right above it called “Visions of Mother Nature.” In addition to the area around the studio and storefront, YSA has created murals in other parts of Berkeley, such as one on an old U-Haul building on San Pablo.

Finally, there’s the Community Organizing Program, which creates art pieces and other projects around the community to create meaningful social change on local, state, or even national levels. One current project, according to Furst, is the creation of a tiny house village with twenty houses to house homeless youth. The members of the program completed the planning and construction of their prototype in April of 2017.

Students join the program at the aspirants level, then can move up to be apprentices, apprentice leaders, leaders, and can eventually by employed by YSA. Each new level requires more engagement, experience, and learning more and more skills to use with the program and elsewhere.

One student, Reggie, first joined YSA as an aspirant in August of 2015 and is now the social media coordinator and groundskeeper for the program. Reggie had been looking for a job, and, after hearing about YSA from a friend, and was hired almost immediately after completing the application. 

“I really like the diversity [of YSA],” Reggie said. “It speaks volumes to what Berkeley is.”

The program focuses on local youth but has also accepted students from other places. Just last summer, YSA had three students from Arizona.

In addition to the diversity, Reggie appreciates the space and assortment of art supplies that YSA provides to the students. Reggie especially loves the staff. “They’re all really understandable, real and transparent, and always happy to talk if you need help or are dealing with something difficult,” he explained.

For the ten years that YSA has been around, it has created a place for young adults to get experience for future jobs, have a community and place to talk in difficult times, as well as create art both for themselves and to beautify and improve the city around them.