Peaceful Community

Nomads: From Empty Spaces Emerge Dreams – And Possibilities

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As part of the Trailer Trash Project,  Sam will be working with the Nomad Lab Art Project, a program for at-risk children aged 6-14.  and their parents from the Valle Del Oro Neighborhood in Santa Clarita, CA.  The program currently offers art classes or labs) in writing, photography, guitar and public art.  Computer and cooking classes are available for parents.   It is run under the voluntary direction of Evelyn Serrano who also teaches a class on art and activism at CalArts.

The classes focus on the meaning of home – a theme Serrano has previously explored in her work as an artist and curator.  Coincidentally, it is also the theme that Sam is focusing on in his Trailer Trash project. On November 6th, Sam brought the Spartan to the Nomads, asking for their help figuring out what makes a house (or a tin can) a home.

The following article describes how the NOMAD LAB Art Project got started.  Over time, Sam’s Spartan Revival will keep you posted on the design ideas the Nomads come up with for the trailer.

They gather in empty spaces to turn dreams into art.  And as they draw and write,  they are planting the seeds of a peaceful community.

Meet The Nomads, children aged 6-14, who gather Wednesday and Saturday mornings at The Village Apartment Complex in Santa Clarita’s Valle del Oro (VDO) Neighborhood.  Here they have time to slow down, to get to know and trust each other.

The NOMAD LAB Art Project offers labs (or classes) in photography, public art, story telling and guitar. At the same time, their parents can participate in cooking and computer labs.   But art is just a starting point. It provides opportunities for neighbors in Santa Clarita’s troubled Valle del Oro Neighborhood to come together to explore what they like and what they want to change in their community.

“If we are successful, the kids and their parents will get to know each other,” says artist and NOMAD LAB organizer, Evelyn Serrano. “They will learn to be tolerant and respectful of each other.”

The program started off modestly enough last year with 30 children and Serrano as their  teacher.  Since then attendance has doubled to 60 kids and their parents, with five teachers, some from Serrano’s class at California Institute for the Arts.  Classes are free and everyone works on a volunteer basis.

“It’s a great program,” said Cynthia Llerenas, Community Services Supervisor for the City of Santa Clarita.  “I would like to see it modeled in different locations.”

Llernas, who also head’s the City of Santa Clarita’s Anti-Gang Task Force,  was an important force in helping Serrano get the program up and running.  Two years ago she was attending meetings with the Valle del Oro Neighborhood Committee to address problems of crime and racial tensions in their community.  Neighbors were feeling unsafe and they were their fingers at the young people.

Serrano, who was living in the Valle del Oro Neighborhood at the time, was aware that youngsters were joining gangs in the 5th and 6th grade.   As an artist and teacher committed to community art,  she agreed to run a program for at-risk youth in the neighborhood.

“Having worked with kids, I knew we shouldn’t place all the blame on them.” she explained. “The truth was more complex. There were no after-school or weekend programs in that area of town.  We needed to provide positive alternatives to gangs. And the voices of young people needed to be part of the solution.”

She went in search of a venue for classes, approaching the local elementary school and a youth organization. All requests were denied until she got a green light the management company at The Village – an apartment complex where much of the trouble was taking place.  Classes could meet in a vacant apartment until it was rented out and they would have to move into another one that was vacant.   The changing venues inspired the name, The Nomads.

“It’s like we are a gang,” explained Serrano. “But what we offer is another way of being together.  A lot of our kids see violence in their homes.  Art is the starting point for them to learn how to be together respectfully, to learn to collaborate successfully when we work.”

Nomads who participate in the writing, photography and music labs sit on the floor or in folding chairs. The minimalist, temporary nature of the venue creates a setting that seems conducive to creative output.

The public arts lab, taught by Serrano, takes place outside in the apartment courtyard. They are encouraged to closely observe their community and think about what they like about it and what they would like to change.

(See photo gallery of the public art lab: The Art of Observation.)

“I want the labs to be a special opportunity for the kids to re-engage with their neighborhood.  I want them to re-consider what it takes to make their home and community safe, healthy and sustainable,” Serrano explained.

Cynthia LLerenas is pleased with how all the pieces of this program are falling into place, and she wishes similar opportunities were open to other young people.   “If we had recreational opportunities for kids in every apartment complex it would eliminate 95% of our problems,” she says.

Her experience working 17 years as a prevention specialist has taught her a thing or two. “Kids don’t want to be involved with gangs, but they get sucked in, partly because there aren’t other viable alternatives, partly because the parents have lost control at home.  But there are no easy fixes.  A program like the NOMAD LAB requires on-going commitment from organizers, teachers and parents:  “You have to be passionate and you have to have a vision.”

“These kids are finding their niche,” she says.  ”Some of them come from a background where they have no self-esteem.  Now they are raising their hands in class and trying out for sports.  It’s all about building confidence.”

A big part of her job is to help parents and youth to learn how to access resources that will help them keep their neighborhoods safe.   In meetings that take place after the labs, parents learn how to access social and legal services as well as employment opportunities.   For communities to be sustainable, so it is important the talents and resources of people who live in the neighborhood must also be utilized.

Serrano says the mothers are in the cooking lab are “incredibly bright and resourceful.” Their energy and organizing talents help make the whole project run smoothly. It’s not just the moms.  When Nomad dad Jose Chunga  proposed labs for parents, he volunteered  himself to teach a computer class which has become a success.

Serrano says the NOMAD LAB Art Project is all about breaking down walls of fear and insecurity between neighbors.   “It’s hard for people to invest in their community when they are afraid of each other.  We are trying to create a safe context for people to interact and see each other as people who are very rich in resources.”

As for the kids, Serrano hopes that the observation skills she is teaching them as artists will carry over to change the things they don’t like about their community.   “I want them to learn to be critical observers in a positive way.  I would like them to ask themselves: ‘What is my say? Even though I am young, I have a lot of power.’”

“If we do anything right at least we can give them models and other alternatives about what a home can be.  We can encourage them to become dreamers.  And their dreams can influence their lives and the lives of other people.”


The NOMAD LAB Art Project is a collaborative effort between the Valle Del Oro Neighborhood Association, the City of Santa Clarita, the Los Angeles County Human Rights Commission and The Village Apartments.

This post is part of a series documenting Sam Breen’a Spartan Restoration Project. Please see his first post here and check out the archive here. The CSPA is helping Sam by serving in an advisory role, offering modest support and featuring Sam’s Progress by syndicating his feed from as part of our CSPA Supports Program.