On a sunny Monday in June, 14 teens arrived at the Sonoma Community Center for their first day of Self-Expression Camp.

At first, it felt… awkward. The campers shyly (and a little nervously) eyed one another as they went through introductions and heard about what was in store for the next two weeks. They were quiet and tentative as they made pronoun buttons, worked on soft 3D fabric sculptures and constructed coil pots.

But on Day 2, as they explored indigenous poetry and played with papier-mâché, the ice began to break – and by Wednesday’s movement class, it was hard to believe that there’d ever been any ice to begin with. Friendships had formed, and phone numbers had been exchanged; each camper seemed to find their unique place within the larger group.

There was David, who emerged as a natural leader and began to arrive early every day to help set up. There was Chelsea, who was quiet and reserved but lit up with passion when she talked about animals. And Lisa, who had a natural eye for color and made the most beautiful hues during a pigment making session. Together with their instructors, the group had succeeded in creating a shared space where everyone felt safe to explore who they are and what matters to them – without fear of judgment, ridicule or harassment.

The community center’s Self-Expression Camp for teens was a two-week program that encouraged participants to explore and play with different modes of creative expression. Offered in partnership with Positive Images, a grassroots LGBTQIA-plus advocacy organization based in Santa Rosa, each day was loosely structured by a theme inspired by the original rainbow pride flag: Magic/Art, Spirit, Nature, Sunlight, Healing, Life and, finally, Harmony/Serenity. To that list we added the additional themes of Play, Voice and Truth to underscore our interest in encouraging participants to express themselves freely and fully. Through a variety of creative projects, our goal was to offer a judgment-free, stimulating environment for teens of all identities to discover their personal creative talents and joys.

Our goal was also to uplift thriving artists who represent marginalized communities. Camp activities were facilitated by a lineup of talented young instructors, each of whom identified as either queer and/or a person of color. On Day 3 campers made paper with Anela Oh, a multi-disciplinary artist of Chinese Malaysian descent, who recently completed a residency at the community center. And on Day 7, our campers worked with muralist Rima Makaryan, whose Sonoma County Monarch Project leverages art as a way to humanize and support immigrants in our community. Our other amazing instructors included poet Rosie Alonso, movement therapist J.T. Bymaster, printmaker Ash Hay, sculptor Maria Paz, zine producer Taira Creager and multimedia artist Chelsea Rose Kurnick. Many of them shared with us how much they would have loved a camp like this when they were in their teens – and how much of a positive difference it might have made for them.

For all of us on staff, witnessing the success of this camp was likewise inspiring. Not just because it was our first in-person program after more than a year of virtual classes, but also because the shared, creative space our campers built together is exactly what we hope to cultivate and offer as an organization. A community center should be a place where everyone feels safe and welcome to be exactly who they are. To tap into their creative voice. To find enrichment, to feed their soul and to connect with their community.

We learned important lessons last year about the meaning of that word, community. Quarantine helped a lot of us realize just how vital it is to stay connected with others. And as we at the community center brought people together in our virtual art classes, and saw people from all walks of life (and from all over the globe) joining us, we also remembered that connection doesn’t require proximity, or sameness. All you need for a vibrant community is a sense of openness and authenticity: for each of us to be able to share our true selves and embrace others’ true selves in return. And, finally, we realized the power of art in cultivating exactly that kind of authenticity: because what is creativity, if not the most authentic expression of who we are and what we believe?

Since 1953, this is exactly what the center has been committed to: We’ve been a place for creativity, connection and community. And so we feel especially called to bring those lessons from 2020 with us as we reopen our doors. We take seriously our responsibility to create and sustain a space where folks of all identities feel welcome, safe and heard. With that in mind, we’ll be evolving our summer Self-Expression Camp into a regular series of weekend workshops and after-school programs, so that local teens have year-round access to the kind of inspiring, judgment-free creative environment we saw them foster here in June – and to the amazing instructors we were able to showcase as part of this new program. We’ll also be assessing what barriers might be keeping some of our neighbors from participating in our events and programs, and then putting in place new measures – including an expanded scholarship program – to reduce or even eliminate those obstacles.

Ultimately, our goal is simple: the Sonoma Community Center wants to make sure that everyone in our community finds something here to suit their needs and interests. And that means we want to hear from you. What kinds of experiences or opportunities are you looking for here in Sonoma? How do you want to connect with your community? And what would you like to see at your Community Center? Reach out to us and let us know!

Charlotte Hajer is the new executive director of the Sonoma Community Center. Reach her at [email protected]