For 10 years Julie and I have been telling our story, how our life experiences led us to creating Upstream Arts. The community of players that helped build this organization is full of stories as well, personal paths that have merged with ours. As part of our “Year of the Teaching Artist,” we would like to share their voices, their stories. In the following post, Teaching Artist Aaron Fiskradatz recounts his journey. Aaron joined our team a year and a half ago already firm in his commitment to the craft of teaching artistry, but that’s not the only influence that brought him here. – Matt Guidry, Artistic Director, Upstream Arts
Nothing about Upstream Arts is inevitable. It takes the dedication of countless teaching artists, partners, families, caretakers, funders, and of course, creative participants to achieve the successes we see in class each day. All of them choose to do the work, and make the art, and only that conscious effort makes the program happen. But while my journey to joining team Upstream was not inevitable, I think it’s fair to say there was a certain force of gravity at work.
I grew up within the disability community. When I was 3 years old, my sister Laura was born. Sometime later, after what was a confusing and difficult time for our family, she was diagnosed with autism. Sensory input was overwhelming to her. Eating was a torture. My parents were told to expect she would remain nonverbal for the rest of her life.
But like so many families I’ve since met through Upstream Arts, mine persisted in the face of adversity. There was weekly therapy, school services, and a host of other support structures that we leaned on. Little by little, Laura’s quality of life improved. Her feeling better made us all feel better.
When the therapy helped her to finally speak her first word—“banana”—it was in the local news. At the time, this seemed to me like such an odd thing to write a story about; kids speak their first words every day, and it rarely makes the papers. Nonetheless, the strange vote of public support for my sister’s milestone put a spring in my step. It felt good to see recognition for such a simple act. Perhaps we need more celebration of life’s mundane triumphs.
My family now looks back on the time when Laura could barely eat and would never speak, and laughs. I challenge anyone to stop Laura from carrying on with a conversation that has captured her interest, or to stand between her and a dessert! She leads a richer, more fulfilling life today because of the support we received, and the compassionate work of our family, day by day. It wasn’t always easy. In fact, it was rarely easy. But it also wasn’t a slog. It was simply the act of living, relying on one another and our allies the way that anybody does to get by in life.
When it was time to leave my home in rural Minnesota and head off to college, I decided on the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. There I studied theatre, which I had fallen deeply in love with in my youth. After a lifetime of Laura’s weekly therapy trips to the metro, the Twin Cities already felt like home. I even shared the campus with a few future Upstream team members, though I wouldn’t know it until years later. Upstream itself would be founded shortly after my graduation.
After that graduation, I was invited to perform a puppet show for an autism classroom at an elementary school in St. Paul. The experience resonated deeply with me, but not because of the students’ response to my performance. The most striking part of the day was when I invited students behind the small stage, and encouraged them to try on the puppets for themselves. The adults in the room—myself included—were stunned when students who were considered selectively nonverbal were able to speak and carry on entire conversations with one another through the puppets. Students who struggled with making eye contact demonstrated the skill clearly with puppets. Art had become a toolbox that the students used to communicate with each other.
Shortly after this remarkable experience, the classroom teacher there invited me to join her team, and I happily served as a paraprofessional in that autism program for 5 years. Seeing disability support from the other side was an eye-opening and rewarding adventure that I will never forget, and the lessons I learned from Ms. Simon about teaching I now use on a daily basis.
As I hungered for more of the arts opportunities I had grown accustomed to during my time in college, I eventually struck out to pursue work as a professional teaching artist. I worked with a handful of nonprofits around the Twin Cities whose mission was to bring art into the classroom, even as it seemed to retreat from the public discourse around education. My background made me a go-to teaching artist for students with disabilities, a role I was happy to fill. And while I was busy adapting arts curriculum for students with disabilities, I began to hear rumblings about “Upstream Arts.”
Here is where the gravity effect really began to kick in. Often, when new acquaintances learned what I was all about: arts, education, and access for all, I would hear, “You should check out Upstream Arts. That’s exactly what they do.” I would express my honest interest, go back to work, and eventually Upstream would get lost in the shuffle. And every time I would hear again, “You’d love Upstream Arts!” I would mentally file it away. Soon I would follow up. Soon.
“Soon” turned out to be about 5 years later, in September of 2015. I answered a call for teaching artists, and had a meeting with Matt and Julie Guidry, the twin engines that drive Upstream Arts. I found kindred spirits, and exceptional people who are passionate about the work they do. In meeting them, and the team of artists and educators that I would join, I discovered individuals with stories both exactly like mine, and nothing alike. I don’t think I’ve ever met a more truly diverse group of professionals. But we are united in our mission: we use the power of the creative arts to activate and amplify the voice and choice of individuals with disabilities.
We all have our unique paths that brought us into orbit with one another. I traveled from my experience as a family member, to a service provider, to a teaching artist, and finally to Upstream. With each of these perspectives in my history, I can appreciate the many ways that Upstream operates: as a service, as an ally, as a space for learning and growth. Arriving here feels like coming home, and I know I’m not alone. Participants, their support networks, teaching artists, all have found a place to belong.
But it is not an inevitable home. It takes interest, and willpower, and time. None of us arrive by accident. “Soon” didn’t come until I made an effort to make contact. And for those that I meet who express interest in arts, education, and access for all, I emphatically say: Upstream Arts. Check it out.