What started as studio sessions for a group of high school students in 1994 has grown into a nationally-recognized arts program that serves approximately 200 students from over 70 schools year-round. Not just an “arts organization,” SAY Sí focuses on youth voice and youth development through its mentoring and leadership programs, college and career-readiness requirements, and its constant attention to the larger picture.
SAY Sí introduced Elionas Stephen Puente, a junior at Central Catholic High School, to film equipment, industry standards, and how to edit and write. “I have a passion for filmmaking and I wouldn’t know were it not for SAY Sí,” he said. Elionas is excited and nervous about his senior year because SAY Sí requires all of its seniors to complete their federal student aid forms, apply to at least three colleges, and present their work in a final exhibit akin to what’s required of college students getting their BFAs. On average, 93% of their seniors attend college in the fall or spring semester after their high school graduation. The remaining students provide a plan on how they will pursue post-secondary education.
“Where does our work start and stop,” Nicole Amri, SAY Sí’s Program Director, asked aloud, knowing that the answer looked less like a straight line and more like an abstract piece of art. When students failed to meet the required hours to stay enrolled in their free studio programs, staff started asking why. With a commitment to continuous learning and improvement, staff listened to their students and found a lack of access to reliable transportation and unsafe neighborhoods.
Nicole is an example of SAY Sí’s success, as well. “As a young, queer, Latina, I was moved by the idea that SAY Sí would take us seriously,” she said. First involved with the organization as a high schooler, Nicole mentored middle school students, spread her own wings as an artist, and sold her first artwork. Today, Nicole is the one taking the young artists seriously: “I can’t ignore that if my kids aren’t showing up and it’s because nobody could give them a ride and they don’t trust walking here because it’s so dangerous, then I should be paying attention to public transit and sidewalks… and understand how that work affects mine,” she said.
The young artists often portray their lived experiences through their artwork, and thanks to the meaningful relationships cultivated between students and staff, they also tend to report them.
SAY Sí regularly collaborates with other organizations, including: Battered Women and Children’s Shelter, ChildSafe, Girls Inc., JOVEN, and the San Antonio Housing Authority to ensure they have concrete plans to meet the needs of their students. Surrounded by nurturing adults, student artists shape the very programming they participate in. And they keep returning. Ninety percent of eighth grade student artists continue into their high school program.
SAY Sí also opens its doors every Friday to the public “so families who may not go to art shows, have a place to go,” as Elionas describes it. This, he says, has taught him about community: the importance of offering community space, building community, and learning about community. “Art, in general, is just a great way to bring people together,” he adds.