In this installment of our series on DCA students who have combined their design skills with their entrepreneurial spirit, it’s a great pleasure to introduce DCA student Luis Antonio Pichardo, founder of the non-profit organization DSTL Arts.
What is the mission of DSTL Arts?
DSTL Arts is a nonprofit arts mentorship organization that teaches, inspires, and hires creative, at-risk youth, ages 16–21 years old. The name of the organization, DSTL Arts, is a type of acronym for our overall ideology: Develop Skills and Transcend Limits through the Arts.
What was your inspiration for founding it?
DSTL Arts was founded in 2012 and is the culmination of all my experiences, both professional and personal, coming together after having had a terrible mentorship experience while I was in grad school. Having entered CalArts’ MFA program in creative writing with more than 8 years of experience working in the nonprofit field, I had grown tired of the arts being devalued by organizations that primarily serve low-income communities: communities that are typically communities of color. As a self-identified artist and poet, I felt a need to change the perception of the economic and individual impact the arts have on the most underrepresented of communities.
I started my nonprofit career when I was 18 years old as a tutor for at-risk youth, and as I moved up in the nonprofit world of San Diego County, I came to be the director of a work-readiness program for “at-risk” youth. In my eyes, the 16–21 year olds I worked with were actually “high-potential” youth. Their home and family circumstances didn’t stop them from aspiring to more in their lives. And having grown up in the same way as many of my students, I knew what the challenges were. They faced, much like me, a cultural stigma that surrounds careers in the arts: a stigma that results in dreams of being a working creative mocked as unreachable, unattainable, or just plain ludicrous.
After spending two years in the MFA in Critical Studies (Writing) program at CalArts, I felt even more disenfranchised than I had ever felt. My mentorship experience didn’t provide me with anything; my academic experience taught me nothing in the way of improving my skills as a writer, much less how to enter the publishing or arts world. I felt angry. But that anger became fuel for what eventually came to be a realization that mentorships, when executed properly, can have a profound and lasting impact on an individual’s life.
My disenfranchisement, as a person of color from a low-income family with aspirations of being a working artist, turned into a drive for life-long learning. I took it upon myself to learn how to establish an artistic practice that would be profitable. I took it upon myself to acquire skills that would make me self-sufficient as a creative entrepreneur. I took it upon myself to share that knowledge with the youth and adults I serve today through the programming we offer through DSTL Arts.
Who does it serve?
DSTL Arts serves creative, at-risk youth ages 16–21 years old through our flagship Arts Mentorship Program. To-date, we have served more than 10 youth at any given time, with me being their primary mentor. I founded DSTL Arts with my fiancé, Jennifer Fuentes, who also helps me provide mentorships, recruitment, and other workshops in our community. In total, as of 12/31/15, we have provided a total of nearly 3,000 hours of mentorship with some incredible stories to share about our students.
Our original three students, who started our then-pilot program in February of 2013, have gone on to be leaders and artists in their own right. One such student, Erick, has become a service member in the US Marine Corps, providing leadership and artistic services within his duties as a Marine. Brian, a poet and aspiring journalist, has published multiple volumes of poetry and short stories, both through our Arts Mentorship Program, and through local anthologies, and also become a teaching artist, teaching poetry to high schoolers. Ana, our original photography and visual arts student, has probably had the biggest success so far. With our guidance, Ana has gone on to establish her own freelance fine art wedding photography business and is successfully on her way to making it a sustainable business in the next year. But that is not all. Other students in our Arts Mentorship Program have also had great success, such as Laura, who was first runner-up during the inaugural LA County Youth Poet Laureate competition in 2014, with a sizable public reading record for a 21 year old.
How have your studies in the DCA program contributed to your work at DSTL Arts?
My experience developing our programs and our image in the community would not be complete without the skills I learned through the Design Communication Arts program at UCLA Extension. From branding, to re-branding, to having the ability to create marketing materials and merchandise for our programs has been all thanks to the skill building I did through the DCA program. The most effective use of my skills as a designer has actually been in the legitimizing of the artwork and concepts our students have as it relates to publication and logo design. As an organization that nurtures and develops business skills in our youth, it is important that I work alongside our students to help them develop a product that they feel proud of. My design skills have helped them sell chapbooks, fine art prints, and more. My skills and feedback have helped them feel confident in their portfolios and business plan development, while also helping them develop a language for working with designers and photographers in their future artistic endeavors. There’s a lot that I gained from being a DCA student at UCLA Extension that I am now able to transfer to our next generation of creatives.
To learn more about DSTL Arts, our programs, and our students, visit http://DSTLArts.org. There you’ll find our web store, as well, where our Arts Mentorship Program students’ artwork is for sale, with 50% of the sale price going directly to the pockets of our youth, helping us further teach them important business and financial skills.
To learn more about my personal artwork, feel free to visit my personal website at http://smileyfaze.com, where you’ll be able to view and purchase my own fine art, photography, and poetry chapbooks as well. A portion of my personal sales will always benefit DSTL Arts.
Thank you, Luis!