In our highly messaged world, it follows that activism is followed closely by art. Sometimes the two are indistinguishable from each other. Film and music celebrities perform to raise funds for an earthquake-ravaged Haiti, a farm workers’ union organizes through political theater. Robert Redford is no stranger to this connection. Building on his history of work within the environmental movement, the actor has created the Robert Redford Center- an organization which holds its first event this Thursday, entitled “Art and Activism.” It will feature a public conversation with Redford himself on the title theme and present awards to two honorees, both of whom have elevated their responsibility to help others to veritable art forms.
Victor Diaz, one of the two leaders that will be recognized this week, might have benefited from a program like the one he runs today back when he was a teenager. Berkeley Technology Academy is a step away from traditional continuation schools, one that acknowledges the complexity of life as an underprivileged teenager. “Nine times out of ten,” Diaz says “a kid will tell us ‘I’m selling weed because I can’t get a job.’ We’ll work with them on resume building, help them with their job search- it’s not unusual for us to even buy them clothes that they can go to an interview in.”
This kind of holistic approach for students for whom the traditional educational system has failed is something that Diaz has worked hard to promote in his five years as principal at BTA. The academy strives to keep kids enrolled through their completion of high school, dodging the pitfalls that can occur with conventional “rehabilitation” schools. Typically, students are sent back to their original high schools after a few months at alternative schools- where the same factors that caused them to fail in the first place continue unabated. “[Our approach] holds us accountable to provide all the things they need to graduate,” says Diaz.
The principal has a pretty good idea of what these things are- he was one of these at-risk youth at one point. Bounced around from foster home to foster home- not to mention six different high schools- in his teens, Diaz managed to make it to community college, where his work with young people ignited a passion to make life better for them. He went back to school, and a master’s, law degree and PhD later has worked in county schools, SF Unified and juvenile hall. “This was the population I felt most connected to, that I felt like I had more to contribute to,” he says.
Under his watch BTA- whose attendance is 100 percent racial minority- has become a place where students and their families can receive more than just algebra and PE classes. In the past, young women were directed to off campus women’s advocacy groups when dealing with issues of abuse, but BTA now holds a class on women’s issues and has a health center for private, confidential care. They hold men’s classes as well for their guys that are going through tough personal issues and host health fairs that offer information to parents on Medi-Cal and vision screenings. “We try to do things in house and do them more efficaciously,” says Diaz.
The principal has changed up the staff on site too, to be more involved with students as human beings. “We’re not there just to teach math, we know that sometimes [ensuring kids’ success] requires a home visit. Many of our kids are in foster care, living with a non-custodial, biological parent. 30 to 40 percent don’t have someone to advocate for them. Another 30 to 40 percent, their parents are working overtime to pay their bills.”
Avery Hale's only 16- but she donates shoes to developing countries and is getting a Redford award of her own
When asked about his upcoming honor, the principal becomes uncharacteristically shy, deflecting praise towards his peers. “Sometimes I’m a little embarrassed, overwhelmed by [the award]. I know a lot of people that are doing way more important work.” But he underscored the importance of the fact that the Redford Center is giving an activism award to an educator. “Sometimes a teacher who is preventing five kids from dropping out of high school- it’s not as ‘sexy’ [as foreign aid work], but it’s really important.” He says he’ll be encouraging the board to continue highlighting the achievements of “everyday” teachers and school administrators.
But are the kids at BTA impressed their principal will be getting an award from the star of “The Untouchables” and “A River Runs Through It”? Diaz applauds the “amazing” achievements by Redford in his career on screen and off- but was unconvinced his student body would be asking him for autographs. “They don’t know who he is! We live in a small world here.”
The Redford Center will also be honoring Avery Hale, a 15 year old who started an organization that sends footwear to shoeless kids in developing countries three years ago. Hale created her charity drive after seeing photos from her parents’ trip to Peru of little ones with infected feet, and has now shipped or delivered countless pairs to kids on three continents.