ALBUQUERQUE — Imagine an arts nonprofit where young people — ages 12 to 21 — participate in workshops taught by contemporary artists. Now throw in sliding-scale tuition and team the organization up with teaching artists and collaborators who are actively creating space for voices of the global majority and art by BIPOC artists within a whitewashed art world.

That’s the formula behind Working Classroom, which “cultivates artistic, civic, and academic minds of youth through creative projects with artists that amplify historically ignored voices, resist systemic injustice, and imagine a more equitable society.” The organization has engaged in this vital work in Albuquerque for over three decades. 

Student painting the “Resilience” mural (2014-2016), led by Nani Chacon, at Washington Middle School. (photo by John Acosta)

Under the guidance of Madalena Salazar, executive director, the logistical and practical challenges of an ongoing pandemic have inspired Working Classroom to experiment with its program format as the world adapts to coexisting with COVID-19. She notes that the organization is moving in a more holistic direction “because it makes a lot more sense, considering who we are as individuals, our cultural experience, and our non-Eurocentric approach to accessing culture … because of the pandemic and what is real for us right now, [the path forward] isn’t necessarily the way that things have been done.”

One example of the shifts taking place is holding on-site workshops at Gordon Bernell Charter School and Native American Community Academy (NACA). Current teaching artists Haley Greenfeather English (Red Lake and Turtle Mountain Ojibwe) and Grace Rosario Perkins (Diné and Akimel O’odham) are working onsite at Gordon Bernell for a very practical reason: As a Job Corps site, program requirements obligate students to remain on campus. The decision to teach onsite at NACA was informed by transportation issues that students experienced during past workshops. 

“There are a lot of reasons why we want to have students at our amazing site but, at the same time, if it overcomplicates everything, why aren’t we showing up in other places?” asks Salazar. “These are the sorts of things I’m thinking about in terms of how we’re delivering programs to the community.”

Students painting the “Resilience” mural (2014-2016), led by Nani Chacon, at Washington Middle School. (photo by John Acosta)

Working Classroom’s current and upcoming workshops focus on transformative justice and interactive mural art. For example, as part of the Collective Action and Resistance Education (CARE) program in collaboration with New Mexico-based artist collective fronteristx, students have the chance to learn about frameworks for building systemic social change that prevents, interrupts, and repairs harm within communities. They also explore these concepts through discussion, creation of a visual language, and collaboration on a CARE project zine alongside members of the Southwest Organizing Project

Working Classroom’s forthcoming interactive mural workshop is being conducted in collaboration with University of New Mexico Computer Science, the National Science Foundation, and New Mexico-based artist Nani Chacon (Diné). Starting April 1, the six-week workshop will introduce mural painting techniques as well as the basics of electronics and programming. The resulting interactive murals will respond to touch by lighting up, generating sound, or both. 

Another project Working Classroom has undertaken is a documentary on its own processes and historical role in mural creation in Albuquerque. In a state like New Mexico, where creativity is commonly interwoven with manifestations of culture — think santos, tinwork, lowrider culture, and distinctive culinary traditions — there is no shortage of worthwhile projects to engage with. For Salazar, the decision to prioritize creativity and radical joy in the nonprofit’s work is at the very core of her organizational and adaptive goals. 

“I’ve always been shocked at how, as arts workers, we can be so uncreative and not joyful about our work,” Salazar says. “The values of creativity and radical joy have always been part of [Working Classroom] but the practice has been off. There’s a point to killing yourself for liberation but what is liberation without radical joy? If anybody should realize this, it’s artists.”  

Michelle Perez Fuentes (lead artist) and community collaborators on the ephemeral “Alfombra” for the 2021 Muertos y Marigolds community Dia de los Muertos celebration at Gutierrez-Hubbell House (photo courtesy Working Classroom)

Beyond measurable improvements like lower high school dropout rates, Salazar realizes some benefits of arts programs are more difficult to quantify, like representation, self-expression, confidence, and mentorship. “Students have talked about the value of mentorship, particularly the different experience levels of artists they interact with at Working Classroom. More introductory or younger students have talked about aspiring to more advanced students.” 

Working Classroom alumni and teaching artists are also building networks out in the art world. “These artists they’re working with are artists you’re going to see in museums and so those folks have those networks,” Salazar says. “They are typically good gatekeepers who understand and value themselves and can advocate for these students as they come up. So it just leads to this beautiful web of friendship and bringing more folks in, whether it’s more young people or more artists.”

For artist Haley Greenfeather English, her experience with the students resonated as much as Working Classroom’s overarching mission and methods, inspiring an ongoing collaboration. “I have been teaching art for 12 years, and in 2019 I had my first workshop at Working Classroom. It was an incredible group of young people who I still think about today. I was invited back in 2021 for an off-site class at [Gordon Bernell Charter School] and I feel so lucky to teach such inspiring, creative, hilarious, and clever young adults,” she says. “I believe in Working Classroom and continually go back to teach with them because they center BIPOC youth and they believe in the many different capabilities and possibilities of practicing art.”

Wilson Middle School mural (2021), led by artist Joseph Arnoux (photo by John Acosta)

As someone who grew up seeing Working Classroom murals, Salazar understands the far-reaching and cumulative impact that early arts exposure can have. “Years later, seeing those [Working Classroom] murals, I had no idea who made them or why they were there, but they influenced how I saw the arts in my city and, later on, influenced how I experienced my career in the arts here,” she says. “With arts and culture, we don’t always know what is influencing us or how that story is going to unfold during our lifetime. I hear a lot of Indigenous leaders talking about this idea — how a story can unravel itself at different stages of your life.” 

A devotee of Zen and the lost art of diagramming sentences, Samantha Anne Carrillo (she/her) is a writer and editor whose journalism career has included stints as an arts, associate, culture, managing,...