Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Interviews as Inspiration ~ Rachelle Archer


self portrait ~ by Rachelle Archer
I ran into Rachelle at a party recently, and had the chance to ask her about what she was doing. I was so inspired and interested in the work she does, I thought you would be too.  
Art does heal.

Jane LaFazio: What is an expressive arts therapist?

Rachelle Archer: An Expressive Arts Therapist is an artist-helper who works as an agent of change, using the powerful traditions of the arts, ritual and play to facilitate processes of transformation and healing. We are action-oriented and solutions-focused. We work in all 5 art disciplines, using visual arts, dance/ movement, creative writing, drama and music to explore important images and metaphors that arise from the imagination. No prior art experience is needed for our students—our low-skill, high sensitivity approach makes it possible for anyone to express something meaningful through the arts. We work with individuals, families, groups, communities and organizations as healers, coaches, educators, community builders and peace makers. 

Rachelle Archer, at work at Monarch School

JL: Tell us more about the Monarch School, in San Diego, California.

RA: The Monarch School is a unique K-12 alternative education program in downtown San Diego that serves students impacted by homelessness. We are a public-private partnership between the San Diego County Office of Education and a 501 © 3 non-profit, The Monarch School Project. The County provides most of the educational program, while the non-profit raises funds for facilities, support programs such as after school, volunteers, community referrals, medical care, basic needs, counseling, family support and expressive arts therapy.

This spring Monarch School be moving into our gorgeous new facility in Barrio Logan. I am so excited about the expanded opportunities for the expressive arts this new building will offer!!!
students  ~ photo from Monarch School
JL: What drew you to this kind of work? 

RA: I grew up in a very artistic missionary family and began participating in a variety of faith and arts-based outreach to inner-city youth all over the world at a very young age. Music, drama and visual arts were an integral part of those efforts, while also providing a therapeutic outlet for me personally. Combining the arts with helping and healing was something I always knew I would do. In my early twenties I discovered art therapy, which seemed like the perfect combination. After completing a BA in social work and spending a few years working with homeless youth in San Diego, I chose to pursue my dream of bringing healing arts to the population I was serving. I obtained my Master’s in Expressive Arts Therapy, Education and Consulting in 2006 and became the full time Expressive Arts Therapist here at Monarch in 2007.
Rachelle and some of her students
JL: When did you start working at Monarch School?

RA: I got involved in Monarch School in the fall of 1998, when it was a small drop-in center for street youth downtown. The school was growing and there was a huge need for creative outlets and after school care, so I started the after school arts program. I was the very first employee of the Monarch School Project and have enjoyed being involved in developing a variety of enriching and innovative programs for our youth over the years. Some of the things I’ve created here include the after school program, the steel drum band, many wonderful community partnerships, and the expressive arts therapy program.

student ~ photo from Monarch School
JL: Do you work with a group of kids, or one on one? Tell us about a class or lesson.

RA: Fortunately I get to do a lot of both! I offer individual therapy to 15-20 students each week. Students flourish with the one on one attention and processing personal themes through the arts in our small studio. I also get to teach classes and facilitate smaller boys’ and girls’ groups, and run monthly parent workshops.

One thing I’m particularly proud of is the really successful arts-based Community Building program I’ve developed here that allows me to work in most classrooms on campus once a week, year-round. This expressive arts course aims to increase engagement in school and develop a positive school culture. Through the arts and play we create an optimistic learning environment in the classroom where students know and understand one another better and work together in supportive ways. Each student gets an opportunity to shine as we explore various art forms such as painting or drawing, sculpting, creative writing, and performance art. The program offers rich avenues for reflection, personal growth and development as well as developing important social skills, healthy connection to peers and team building.

One of my favorite activities is something I call “Feel Good Freeze Dance”. It’s a fun way to get kids to notice the good in each other and give compliments. Once a group has gotten to know each other a bit and is working well together we have a dance party where each person creates a small poster with their name on it. Then we put on some peppy music and dance around the room. When the music stops each person has to write a compliment on a poster close to where they've frozen in the dance. By the end of the session everyone is moving and writing all at the same time, rushing from station to station to make sure they get a compliment on each student’s poster. Everyone in the group gets to leave with a colorful poster full of positive affirmations, which they often save for a long time afterwards. I have kids do posters for staff members, too. The pile I have saved from all the times we've done this cheers me up when I am having a bad day! I encourage my students to do the same. 

some of Rachelle's students
JL: Can you tell us a few stories about your students and their experiences? 

RA: A few years back a young lady was referred to me. She was 17, failing all of her classes and barely attending school. She and her family had been chronically homeless for over 8 years, with no relief, although she had been in our program since she was 11 years old. Her mother was disabled and unable to provide for her and her brother. This girl was worn out and depressed, moving from shelter to shelter, couch to couch, often not knowing where she would be eating or sleeping at the end of the day. We started slowly, building trust and exploring her interests in art and poetry. She started attending my ‘Coaching for Success’ class for high school students and found some hope for the future, by drawing out her dreams and hopes with others. She eventually hand-made a beautiful collection of her own poetry for her senior project, which she shared with a group of peers and staff. After 18 months in therapy, she graduated from Monarch with honors, enrolled in a local junior college, and later moved into her own place at a transitional living program. She is still doing well in college, studying dance and following her passion for creative writing!

Another student story that still pulls at my heart is that of a 12 year-old girl that, growing up in the home of alcoholic parents too caught up in their addiction to notice, had been the victim of sexual abuse at the hands of a family friend for over 6 years. She was often sad, lost in confusing memories, anxious, mistrusting and engaging in risky behaviors that were leading her down a destructive path. Splattering paint wildly and writing poetry with me week after week became a means to let out all the ugliness and find her freedom once again. After a few years her family was able to get affordable housing and she left our school. She transitioned to her neighborhood high school and is doing great. She continues to speak out against bullying and stand for victims of sexual violence.

There are so many stories like that. Kids who sleep in a van for six months with parents and siblings and still make honor roll and have perfect attendance at Monarch. Kids who’ve spent their whole lives blowing from shelter to shelter, finally land here and growing roots for the first time. Families who’ve run from domestic violence find a safe place with us and begin to flourish. It’s an honor to help them write new chapters in their lives!!! 

graduates ~ photo from Monarch School

JL: This work must be so bitter sweet, helping the kids, then seeing them leave…What keeps you going? 

RA: I struggled with this quite a bit when I first started working with kids dealing with homelessness. What has really helped me is having a clear sense of what my role is. It can be really heart breaking to see them go, especially when they haven’t had a chance to make the most of all we have to offer them here. I have come to understand that I am not here to save them or fix their problems. In shared moments together in the studio or in the classroom I CAN inspire them to dream, encourage them to hold on to their hopes, and teach them to take responsibility of their own feelings and choices so that they can make more empowered choices wherever they go. If at the end of the day I know I have opened even some tiny door for my students to feel heard, seen, and valued, and they walk away feeling a little lighter, I can go home feeling satisfied—even if I never see them again. I have been blessed to see so many young people change while they are with us and that gives me hope that things can get better for them, whether here or somewhere else. Their resilience, optimism and open heartedness inspires me every day!
Student artwork

JL: Do you make your own artwork?
RA: I do! The forms that I go to most regularly are acrylic painting, pastel drawing, and journaling. I do some playing around with photography, and I absolutely love to dance in my living room. 
"Something About Holding" by Rachelle Archer

JL: What’s your favorite part of your day and why? 

RA: The best part of my day is when I first walk into a classroom where I am about to teach. The kids are so happy to see me, and especially my Art Cart, their eyes so full of curiosity and excitement about another fun session together. I rarely ever tell them in advance what we are going to do and sometimes the suspense just kills them. The joyful cheers and hugs from my youngest students are the icing on the cake!
Student Artwork
JL: Give us some titles of your favorite books. Any kind~ fiction, non-fiction, or art related. 

RA: Some books that have been really useful to me professionally this year are: Catherine Moon’s “Studio Art Therapy”, Seth Godin’s “Linchpin”, Teaching with Poverty in Mind” by Eric Jensen, Children’s Solution Work” by Insoo Kim Berg and Therese Steiner, 
and just about anything on mindfulness by neuroscientist Daniel J. Siegel
Some artists who inspire me are Scottish land artist Andy Goldsworthy, Brazilian street artist Vik Muniz (Waste Land) and dancer/ choreographer Bill T Jones (“Still/ Here”). 
Rachell's students
JL: Future plans and dreams? For yourself? The school?

RA: The future is looking really bright at the new Monarch campus! I look forward to bringing in more interns from San Diego’s premier expressive arts training program, the Expressive Arts Institute. They will be able to provide more individual therapy, parent support services and more engaging after school activities for our teens. It would also be wonderful to collaborate with professional artists in various disciplines to raise the level of artistic work that our students are exposed to. It’s always been a dream of mine to develop some kind of performance group that shares student stories, poetry, music, dance and art with the school and the greater community to raise awareness and make important connections. 
For me personally, I hope to carve out more time for my little boy, who is my favorite work of art in progress, and get myself back into a dance or art class. Nourishing me as a mother and artist is crucial to staying energized in this important work! 
Baby Kai, by Rachelle Archer

Read more of my Interviews as Inspiration:
Cas Holmes, textile artist

Mary Beth Shaw, artist and Stencil Girl Products founder
Marcia Derse, textile designer
Lesley Riley, artist and author
Danny Gregory, artist and author
Judy Reeves, writer
Carlo Roberts, The Blue Walk travel company founder
Jane Powell, Random Arts owner


  1. If I could do it all again I'd love to be an art therapist.

  2. This is a wonderful interview that explains the field of Expressive Arts and the amazing work with homeless kids that Rachelle does!! Thank you Jane! And thank you Rachelle!! You are a gift to San Diego!

  3. I was so surprised to see Holly's comment, because that's exactly how I feel! At 64 and living outside of the US I don't have the energy to start a whole new career, but it's wonderful to hear from others who are in that profession. I also really admire that wonderful man, the principal of the school.
    Wish I were near there, just so I could volunteer. And God bless Ellen DeGeneres and Skype!
    Such a great interview, thank you for posting it.

  4. Dear Rachelle and Jane

    A fabulous interview. I am also a trained Youth Worker and as an artist worked with mental health and vulnerable adults and children for over 30 years. So understand and admire the work you do. It is bitter-sweet BUT to see people grow in spirit and respond when you touch them creatively is so worthwhile. It is, as you demonstrate, an essential part of our human condition to communicate and respond. Jane....cannot wait to see and hug you.Casx

  5. Oh Jane,
    No words to describe my response to this school. WOW!!!! Thank you so much for sharing this terrific interview.


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