Longtime KIND Partner Artolution Empowers Youth Through Art

March 18, 2024

In honor of Social Work Month and Youth Art Month, we are highlighting one of our key partners, Artolution. Artolution is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to strengthen communities through collaborative art making and has projects across the United States and internationally. We sat down with Artolution’s CEO and Cofounder Joel Bergner to talk about how Artolution has been collaborating with KIND and leading our clients through therapeutic art projects since 2019. 


Please tell us about Artolution and how you first started working with KIND? 

Artolution was formed to work with vulnerable communities, mostly children and youth. One of our big areas of focus is people who are displaced: refugees, those who are internally displaced, those who are seeking asylum. So KIND was a perfect match for us. In 2019, Paul Hastings law firm, our pro bono legal counsel and supporter over the years, introduced us to KIND and partially funded our first collaboration, two big mural projects in New York and D.C. The clients helped create the ideas for the murals, painted the murals, and created performances where they told stories about what they had created. The stories were fantastical and fictional, but many related to the actual experiences of the client.  

A great thing about the arts is being able to explore difficult things that you might not want or be ready to talk about with people, but that you can explore through fiction, theater, dance, and fantasy. Through art, we can explore difficult, traumatic things that we’ve gone through. That was the concept of the project. Another big component of our projects is relationship building. For the first projects, most of the KIND clients had never met before. The project was a way for them to meet each other and interact with their lawyers and KIND staff, who often came and painted with them, interacting in a very different way than you do when you’re sitting in an office talking about a legal case. This is more free and much more fun—it allows relationships to blossom in a different way. That was a valuable part of the project as well.  


Why have you continued to collaborate with KIND over the years?  

I love working with KIND, first of all because of the people. All of the staff I’ve worked with have been great. We all want to provide an uplifting experience for the clients, recognizing what they’ve been through and what they need. We have the same mission of wanting to help and empower these kids. The clients have also been amazing to work with. You see the amazing creativity of children and teenagers who have been through so much and are still going through a lot, but they still find joy. They find ways to connect with others, tell new stories, and create art. They’re so talented and have so many ideas. There is so much hope for their lives and future. That is at the core of what KIND does, and what inspires me when I work with KIND. We’ve done many projects together and it’s been a powerful experience.  


What’s your favorite thing about working with KIND clients?  

I love the characters, stories, and ideas that the kids come up with. For one of our murals in New York, a 14-year-old girl from Honduras created a mythological baby character. She said, “My character looks like a baby, but she’s a thousand years old.” She had drawn the baby with wings that looked like demon wings and said that’s because her parents were demons—they had mistreated her and not shown her love. But she decided to break the cycle: she went out in the world and got a magical baby rattle, and with the magical baby rattle, she throws hearts, love, and world peace on everyone she comes across. It’s a fantastical character, but she clearly identified with the character personally. The client painted that character on a big wall in the East Village in New York for thousands of people to see.  

She also helped to create the animation for that character and then performed as that character at the final event. She created a costume and for the love she wants to spread around, she got glitter and blew the glitter into the air [laughing]. She did this dance and jumped around and spread the glitter. What an inspiring character for her to put in the world and embody. I love those moments. I never would’ve thought of that in a million years. The creativity and the way that kids express themselves, it’s beautiful and fascinating. 


How did you come to this work? Tell us about the birth of Artolution.  

I’ve always loved art since I was a kid, drawing and painting and all of those things. As a teenager, I gravitated towards big public spaces: graffiti, street art, murals, public art. I saw these spaces as a way to send a message to the world, spaces that could be accessible to everyone and not just in a gallery for a few people, but out in the world—that appealed to me a lot. In my late teens and early twenties, I got into community work. I worked with the mentally ill at a facility and with the homeless in Chicago. I then worked as a counselor with youth who had experienced abuse and neglect and had severe challenges. Many of the teens were traumatized, couldn’t pay attention for five minutes, and had behavioral issues. But when they would draw or do a dance routine with their friends, they could focus and interact with others in a positive way for an hour or two. It really struck me that the arts are a powerful tool that can be used in this way. That led me to do mural based projects with street kids in Brazil, and then in the Syrian refugee camps in Jordan when the Syrian war broke out. I spent a lot of time there with the kids and artists there. That foundational work turned into Artolution.  


What is the typical process for a Artolution project? 

Every project starts with workshops in which we introduce kids to the art forms they’ll be working with, whether murals or performance, or clay animation, and then the kids discuss what they would like to create and what topics interest them. We do a brainstorming session and talk about what issues are important to them: What is your message to the world? What are your dreams for the future? We also play games and do fun activities. Play and fun are an important part of the creative process, to get people out of their shells and able to interact more freely with others.  

We also do things like drawing sessions where everyone gets to draw their idea. Some people express themselves better through drawing versus speaking. You might have an idea and be too shy to say it but can draw it. Then we do the art making and together create the design for the mural, or for a performance. We create a story collaboratively. The rest of the time is the making, the creating together. That means getting out on the street, getting paint all over yourself, painting this big wall, rehearsing for a performance, or if it’s animation, making clay characters and learning how to animate those characters through stop motion animation. 

Each project is different, but they all share the common thread of expression, relationship building, and collaboration. We focus on collaboration and relationship building because it’s not really about the arts as much as it’s about using art as a tool for impacting the lives of the participants, helping youth feel better about themselves and are able to express the things they’ve gone through to others.  

It’s important that kids have control over what they create. Each individual participant gets to be creative and do their own individual work in the context of the bigger work. With animation, for example, they get to create the characters, and each character has their origin story, superpowers, weaknesses, personality. This is so important for these kids—for most of them, a lot of things in their lives have been difficult and out of their control. They haven’t felt agency. To have things that you can control, you can create your own world, you can create your own story, you can decide what happens to this particular character—at least in that one context, you get to decide, you get to be the one with the power. That is something they can take with them to other elements of their lives outside of the workshop space. 


Could you tell us about your international work? 

We do a lot of work in Colombia. We have longstanding programs in Uganda, Bangladesh, and Jordan, where a lot of the youth we work with are refugees from Syria, Rohingya, South Sudan, and Congo. We’ve worked in Ukraine and Eastern Europe, Nigeria…We work a lot with UNHCR and other agencies. I just got back from traveling to Kenya for a new project there.  

Collaborative art making is universal. I’ve worked with elderly homeless people in Manchester, England, men and women and youth in prison, and people of every age, from babies to elders. Everyone likes to express themselves. Everyone gets something out of collaborating on a creative project. You feel this comradery, this sense of, “What are we going to make together? We have a chance to share a message with the world. What are we going to say?” That’s universal. Everyone has a stake in that. Everyone feels something when they have that mission. Even people who don’t necessarily like or care about painting, it’s about the experience of working with others and creating something together. That gets people excited. We’ve found that this is a powerful medium that can be used literally anywhere with anybody. 

KIND's Psychosocial Services

KIND’s Social Services team helps children and families globally, adjust to a new country, language, home, and community, and works to address the traumas during their journey to safety.  We have connected thousands of clients – and their families– with essential medical care, mental health care, educational opportunities, and crisis intervention to ensure their well-being and safety.