As Executive Director of ArtForce Iowa, Christine Her is a passionate advocate for helping youth heal through the arts. Arts Midwest spoke with Christine about creative mentorship, challenging the status quo, and the importance of providing safe spaces for young people.
Photo courtesy of Christine Her.
ArtForce Iowa is a non-profit organization based in Des Moines, Iowa whose mission is to transform youth in need through art. The organization was founded in 2012, conceived by an incarcerated man who was convicted of a drive-by shooting in 1999. While in prison, this man hand-wrote three manuscripts—a memoir and two novels – and began to speak about his dream: “I wish I could make sure I’m the last Black Kid to discover he’s an artist in prison.” ArtForce Iowa works to make this dream a reality by supporting the social and emotional lives of refugee youth and youth in the court system through art, creativity, and leadership opportunities.
Christine’s experience growing up as a first-generation American daughter of Hmong refugees heavily influences her work. She describes herself as “highly motivated to interrupt social and systemic injustices with hope and opportunity while helping others rise in their own power and lean into their purpose.” You can sense her passion for this work as soon as you start talking to her—it’s absolutely infectious, and purpose and motivation shines through her every word.
It is our duty and responsibility to make sure that young people feel loved, valued, and seen.
- Christine Her
How long have you been with ArtForce Iowa?
Since 2015—I came on board as an artist mentor. At that time, a good friend of mine was the program manager for the one program we had as an organization. She told me, “I need you to mentor these young people who are involved in the court system in songwriting and singing and guitar,” and I said, “Okay, I can do that, because I love doing that.” It was hard at first because the executive director wanted classically trained people, and I am not classically trained; I taught myself in the middle of the night while my parents were sleeping because they didn’t want me to play music. So I’m strumming my guitar in the middle of the night with black and blue fingers ‘cause the strings were really bad. But they let me continue as an artist mentor and I’ve been here ever since.
When did you decide you wanted to start doing music?
I grew up in a family that went to church. We went to a traditional Hmong church that didn’t have a band, and then we became the band; so I got interested in music because I love praise and worship music. I’m one of those people that’s like, “I believe in true, authentic, radical Jesus who’s Brown,” but I also love the F-word. [chuckle] And so for me, I became a musician and a singer because all I wanted to do was praise and worship music for my church, and then it became something that helped me to regulate my feelings. I know this is cheesy, but music saved my life. I was that high school kid who had friends and loved high school, but was depressed and suicidal, and the one thing that helped me every time was music and writing my own songs. I grew up in a family that sings, in a family that plays music. My sister’s a singer. My brother’s a drummer and a singer. My little brother is a singer and a guitarist. My dad doesn’t sing very well, but my mom is known to be someone who can do traditional singing really well—in our culture, we call it _kwv txhiaj_—and it’s really, really hard. But she’s an excellent singer in that kind of traditional singing. I think we got it from her side of the family. Music runs in our family.
Have you always been interested in specifically using art to help youth in need, or is that something that kind of came naturally to you when you joined ArtForce Iowa?
I remember being 17 and thinking, as a senior in high school, that there has to be a place for kids who look like me, who don’t have parents who want them to do the arts, that can come together to do the arts. My parents did not want me to do music. They were like, “Girl, go be a doctor,” and I did not want to do that. My older sister became a doctor, and I am just so different. When I think of what I’ve been taught to believe is a “good Hmong daughter”, I think of someone who is obedient and doesn’t question things, isn’t curious, is very sweet, and talks very quietly and soft. I’m the opposite where I curse a lot and I talk really loud. I’m always curious and asking questions. So when I was 17, I was lucky to have executive directors who were Asian women who ran their own non-profits, and I thought, “Man, when I’m older, that’s what I wanna do. I want to run an arts non-profit for kids of color, kids who come from communities who have been marginalized, LGBTQ, and even white kids who are like, ‘I get it, racism is real.’ So I’ve always approached it from the idea of, ‘how can we all come together?’”
I knew when I was young that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to own and operate a non-profit that brought the arts to young people. And to this day, I love high schoolers. I think they’re the best. High school-aged kids are just so cool, and the Gen Z’s, they’ve done such a great job to provide a space for them to be authentically themselves that other generations have not been able to do.
Photo courtesy of Christine Her.
How has your personal background influenced the way you approach programming for ArtForce?
It’s been a big part of my work with ArtForce Iowa. I think about being a first-generation Hmong to be born in America and how my parents came as refugees; when I became a full-time employee of ArtForce Iowa, I was the DSM Heroes program manager, a program created to serve refugee and immigrant youth. It became a full circle moment for me.“Wow, I’m working with kids who came to America at the same age my parents were when they came to America as refugees.” For me, being a first-gen American to refugee parents, and being an artist with parents who don’t want me to be an artist, provides me this unique experience to say, “Look, we’re gonna create a space that is youth-led, youth-centered, and also healing-centered.” Because a majority of us might come from families that don’t want us to do the arts. So how do we support each other if that is something that we care about, and if that’s something that we’re really good at?
Can you tell me a little bit more about how the artist mentor program works, and just the impact you think it has on the youth in Des Moines?
Absolutely. At ArtForce Iowa, we fully 100% believe that there should never be a starving artist. So we’re working towards what I hope will be a fellowship program in the future where artists are paid a living salary plus benefits, and all they’re doing is working with young people and making art, and making their own art in a space where their studio space becomes a workshop space for young people. So all of their things are taken care of, their room and board is taken care of and they can just be an artist. Because there isn’t a world like that, where everything is taken care of, right? We always lead with our youth first. If there’s a young person that says, “I want to do this art, but there’s no artist mentor,” then our job is to find someone in the community who is excellent at that art form. They don’t need to be classically trained, but they just need to be able to, one, love working with young people, two, want to develop young people, and three, understand that ArtForce Iowa values and has a vision to end all things like racism and homophobia and sexism.
Artist mentors have to care about those values; if you don’t, this isn’t gonna work out, because this is why we’re here. This is our purpose, our vision, and this is why we do what we do. If you come in with a savior complex, you can’t stay here. ‘Cause we’re not here to save. We’re here to create spaces with young people.
Healing is not sexy, but it is transformative.
- Christine Her
Exactly; that mindset of, “we’re not here to save them, we’re just here to give them an outlet and a safe space,” is so important, because I feel like a lot of the saviorship mentality is just focused on removing people from these conditions without addressing the systemic roots of what created the conditions in the first place.
It doesn’t! It doesn’t address the root causes, the root issues. And so the way it works is, all of our artist mentors are trained, they’re all certified in youth mental health first aid. We are licensed to certify adults in receiving youth mental health first aid certificates. We believe in receiving trainings around implicit bias, systemic racism, and the role that trauma can play in the developing brain of a child. We talk about adverse childhood experiences and recognize the young people we’re co-creating space with are going through their most adverse childhood experiences right now, and it will have an impact on their physical health as adults. As the adults who have the privilege to work with and mentor them, it is our duty and responsibility to make sure that young people feel loved, valued, and seen.
What do you think sets ArtForce Iowa apart from other organizations using art to connect with youth in need?
I would say that the thing that makes ArtForce Iowa the most unique is that we, as the adults who work in this program, can humble ourselves to recognize we are just as messy and growing and healing like our young people. So there’s no power play where we say “We’re the adults and you have to earn your respect.” At ArtForce Iowa, that term, that phrase, “You have to earn my respect” is bullshit. So at ArtForce, we say, “Look, we respect you because you’re a human being,” and having that mutual respect really has helped us to grow and develop the love we have for one another. ArtForce Iowa is because we do operate like a family where there is genuine love, there is empathy and kindness for one another, and opportunities to still hold each other accountable in a loving way, and we do that with our young people. We treat young people the way we treat adults. We’re not condescending or preachy. At ArtForce, we just treat everyone with as much kindness, respect, and grace as possible, because it is so hard to just be alive. So why make it even harder by being mean?
Photo courtesy of Christine Her.
As ArtForce approaches its 10-year anniversary, in what ways do you think the organization has grown since its founding, and how have you grown since joining?
Well, the organization has transformed so much, and this is exciting because we are actually going through a rebrand of logo, mission, vision, purpose. And this mission right now that we have gives honor to us as adults, where it should be giving the honor to all the young people who are coming and showing up every day and transforming themselves. We’re just here to create space with them, and we get to be part of their journey, and that’s a privilege. And if they become amazing artists while they feel loved and seen, cool. We want whole young people to heal, because healing is one of the messiest things any human will ever go through. It’s not sexy. Healing is not sexy, but it is transformative.
Sadly, we were one of those organizations too, where our origin story was colonized. So to be an organization that has this rich history, and having it be hidden has really changed what we do. We can take back and rewrite the narrative that says, “ArtForce Iowa was conceived by a Black man who was convicted of attempted murder and terrorism in Des Moines.” And yes, he wanted to remain anonymous and we are going to honor that, but we’re not going to erase him the way history has erased Black people. We’re not going to repeat that. We will do our best to make sure people know our story, because that’s exactly why we are here. He conceived this organization with the hope of “being the last Black kid to recognize he was an artist because he was in jail.” That’s why we’re here.
What has been the most rewarding part of your work with ArtForce Iowa?
The most rewarding thing about ArtForce Iowa is the ability to have the privilege of living this life. And I mean that in a way of saying it is a privilege to wake up every day and live within my purpose. Not everyone gets to do that. And not everyone gets to do that with a team of people that love and support them. For me, that’s a big deal, and that’s probably the most rewarding thing about this job; that I can wake up, live true to what I value, live out my purpose, and I get to do that with all of the people I love.
ArtForce Iowa is a United States Regional Arts Resilience Fund Recipient. Thanks to the Mellon Foundation and an anonymous donor for their support of ArtForce Iowa and other Midwestern arts organizations.