Alum uses art to make a difference in her community

When Jeanette Arellano was a child growing up in Houston, she struggled with English. Since Spanish was her first language, she had difficulty with most academic subjects. “There was no one to help me, but my art teachers helped me. Art was a way to express myself and connect everything that was going on in my life.”

Art is a gift that Arellano now shares with her students at Hayes Bilingual School and with her community in Milwaukee.

The National Education Association recently awarded her its César Chávez Acción y Compromiso Human and Civil Rights Award for her teaching and community work. The award honors those who embody the spirit and philosophy of activist Chávez.

Jeanette Arellano works with her students at Hayes Bilingual School in Milwaukee. (UWM Photo/Troye Fox)

Arellano is an alumna of UWM’s ArtsECO program, which develops and supports teachers as they integrate arts into the classroom. She came to UWM as a post-baccalaureate art education student. She was a part of a group of art teachers in an ArtsECO cohort who earned emergency teaching certification while working full-time for MPS.

She found a welcoming space in the program with a diverse group of teachers she was comfortable with, she said. “I felt like I was in the right place.”

Help and guidance

While she was concerned about the classwork because of her own earlier struggles with academics, she found help and guidance in the program. Josie Osborne and Professor Emerita Kim Cosier, co-founders of Arts ECO encouraged her, Arellano said.

“They said, ‘don’t worry about it. Just do the work and we will help you.’ They were not only open and accepting, but also caring.

 “It would be 10 o’clock and night and we’d be in classes, and Josie and Kim were right there with us bringing snacks.”

Arellano has tried to bring that caring attitude to the students in her arts classroom at Hayes, located in the heart of the predominately Latino south side of Milwaukee. She encourages them to develop art that grows out of their own experiences.

However, while Latino themes may be an important part of what they create, Arellano likes to share the work and inspiration of other artists of color with the students. One recent day, for example, the focus of learning and creation was on First Nations art. “I try to incorporate as many artists of color as possible, so they see that all artists are not alike.”

In addition to her teaching, Arellano is active with community organizations. When the pandemic hit in 2020, many households were suddenly without income (especially undocumented families on Milwaukee’s near south side). Arellano and a small group of local artist/activists quickly mobilized a food and necessities pantry, Ayuda Mutua MKE, that fed hundreds of people and provided them with essential supplies.

Community involvement

And Arellano has helped the community in a host of other ways: She has taught citizenship classes at Voces de la Frontera for six years; she co-founded Raíces Revolucionarias, a Milwaukee-based women’s collective centering on the importance of cultural work to strengthen communities; she works with artists in the Art Build Workers collective; is a leader in the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association; and organized teacher leaders to successfully advocate at the school board to ensure that every child in Milwaukee Public Schools has access to art, music and gym.

Recently her classes at Hayes were working on making prints, a hands-on activity they became deeply involved in. “Right now, they’ve been very excited to work with material they’ve never been involved with before,” said Arellano. “They can preserve and make multiples of the story they want to tell.”

She tells the students that art is a way to advocate for change, making banners and posters. “Art doesn’t just belong in a museum.”

In nominating Arellano for the national award, Osborne summed her up: “She is humble, powerful, righteous and positive in the face of adversity, building community at every turn.”

Arellano is humbly grateful for the honor, but insists her work is part of a team effort. “I don’t think it’s the award that makes the difference. It’s the continuous work to make sure our voices are heard.”

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