In the earthquake-prone Bay Area, an epicenter is usually not the place to be when things start shaking, but the opposite is true of EPACENTER, a new youth arts center in East Palo Alto. The name may share its pronunciation with "epicenter," but the new facility offers a rock-solid foundation in arts and leadership for local young people — designed by the community, for the community.
The center brings together visual and performing arts, technology and makerspaces, and youth resources in a 25,000-square-foot building with state-of-the-art facilities at 1950 Bay Road. Construction of the center, which began in 2018, is completed, but with the pandemic still a concern, the official opening will be in 2022, though the center is already featuring virtual classes.
The culmination of the vision of local youth to create a center for the arts in East Palo Alto, EPACENTER offers free classes in a wide variety of artistic disciplines for youth ages 3 to 25.
The arts center represents over a decade of work by the Youth Action Team, and other groups of dedicated East Palo Alto youth activists, such as Live in Peace and Youth United for Community Action, said EPACENTER Executive Director Nadine Rambeau.
The efforts of these groups to support arts programs in East Palo Alto began around 2010, with youth and adult allies organizing art programs and projects in the city and surveying the community to find out how an arts center would best serve residents.
And from the center's name, to the choice of renowned architect Kulapat Yantrasast to design the building, to planning the facility's diverse course offerings, the process to make EPACENTER a reality was driven by local youth and their families.
"Not everyone has the opportunity to see what they envision come alive. That's what this building is, it's a symbol of the fact that youth in this community had a vision for what they needed and it is now coming alive and it's going to benefit other kids way into the future," Rambeau said.
EPACENTER features a variety of spaces for learning, creation, performance and exhibition: studios for dance, recording, art, and music, with adjoining practice rooms; a black box theater; art gallery; makerspace; technology lab and design studio; cafe and indoor gathering area; and an amphitheater. The building is also environmentally sustainable, earning a LEED Platinum certification.
The center was created as a unique place to bring high-quality arts education to East Palo Alto, a community often left out of the big paydays of Silicon Valley, but greatly affected by its powerful economic forces, Rambeau said.
"We're committed to making sure that everyone in Silicon Valley — in this wonderful place where there's a lot of innovation and talents — that everyone has access to become that person who makes the next thing that the whole world will be able to benefit from. So at a place like EPACENTER, that's what we want to have happen, where students can become that person."
The purchase of the land where EPACENTER sits, and the building's design and construction were funded by the John & Marcia Goldman Foundation, which focuses on grants in the areas of youth, health and the arts. John Goldman said that the community's youth led the project, and it represents their vision.
"We were not the ones that were telling them what we wanted, they were telling us what they needed. And we were there to make it happen," Goldman said.
A council of youth advisers shaped both the design of EPACENTER and its programming, ensuring that both the facilities and programming would truly reflect the needs of the community they were created for.
Students on the advisory council represented various artistic disciplines, from music and dance to digital media, said sisters Elizabeth and Keitlan Wallace, who currently serve on the advisory council and both study dance.
Keitlan Wallace, 20, who's been active with the center for about four years, said that in the planning process, some priorities for her and Elizabeth, 14, were ensuring there was a sizable dance practice room.
"It was a major thing because we used to practice in a very small room. We really needed a big space — a private space — for us dancers to do choreography and performances.
The theater was a big one for all of us," she added.
Elizabeth and Keitlan Wallace also agreed on the importance of having a place to eat at the center, where students can both refuel and gather.
When considering the programming, the Wallaces said that one challenge was thinking about how to accommodate a wide range of ages and interests, but when it came to finalizing classes, there were more course offerings than originally expected.
"We were shocked to see that they had given the community a lot more options. They added some programs, like college admissions for high school students who are thinking about going to college," Keitlan Wallace said.
Staci Edwards, 18, a music student who plays guitar and upright bass, is a current member of the center's Youth Advisory Council and has been active in the center's planning for about four years. She described her hopes for EPACENTER as a safe place where the youth of East Palo Alto can gather, connect with mentors and develop both their artistic talents and leadership skills.
Edwards said she was mindful of the need for "a way for the youth to safely express themselves, to have a space where they can be vulnerable and be creative."
But in addition to arts education, she emphasized broader skills to help navigate the challenges brought by the Bay Area's economy and the ever-increasing expense of living here.
The center is also about "helping the youth be better leaders, and allow the youth to step through different opportunities and be able to stay here in Silicon Valley, without having to leave — so, finding a job here, knowing how to live here and not being forced to go," Edwards said.
Students ages 14 and up can not only take art classes at EPACENTER, but also learn how to parlay creative skills into livelihoods, with internships and apprenticeships that provide real-world experience, as well as learn essential behind-the-scenes skills, such as marketing and business planning.
Since 2010, as the group of students involved in the project has slowly changed, with some "aging out" and other students getting involved, the vision for the center itself has continued to evolve, Rambeau said. The center plans to broaden programming beyond strictly an arts focus, at the request of the youth advisers and the community.
"They were thinking about how they would like to see us respond now, in the face of COVID and in the face of the murder of George Floyd and other individuals," she said,
To help support local economic needs, EPACENTER will offer workforce development classes such as career skills and job training.
Rambeau said that youth also raised concerns about racial, economic and social status divisions in East Palo Alto, seeking a way to bring people together.
To that end, the center is currently holding art therapy classes and has plans to offer music and drama therapy, to help find some healing in the midst of numerous stressors and crises like the COVID-19 pandemic.
EPACENTER recently received a $500,000 "adaptation grant" from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to help address the challenges brought about by the pandemic. The funds will also help in planning and implementing programming longer term.
"This organization is becoming fluid and responsive to a cohort of students that is constantly going to be changing," Rambeau said.
The pandemic has meant that the center has pivoted both in what programming is available, but also how it's offered, with classes still online for the time being. EPACENTER is offering a variety of online courses this fall, including art, dance, design, film and music classes, with plans to begin holding in-person classes in January.
Although classes aren't in person yet, the process of planning EPACENTER and seeing it realized has already made it an important presence in the community — one likely to make an impact for years to come, thanks to the vision of local youth leaders.
"I would like EPACENTER to be like a home for the community to be creative, to look at EPACENTER, and be motivated to make new things, to have the opportunity and the resources to express yourself," Edwards said.
"People have different passions and I think this program will give them opportunities to reach those goals. That's what I want for the future, I want it to get known for helping individuals reach their passions and their goals," said Keitlan Wallace.
For more information, visit epacenter.org.