Performers pose as part of a moving statues sequence in The Art of Me performance

Image Description: Teaching Artists and adult participant-performers onstage during an Art of Me performance in August 2019. Center stage, a participant cooly raises their hand to give a high five to UA Teaching Artist Cristina Castro, a curly-haired Latina woman.

Last fall, Upstream Arts piloted our first series of free online classes designed for adults in our disability community, often living in group or family homes, who are experiencing heightened isolation from their peers and loved ones during the pandemic. These classes were such a success that we’re thrilled to offer more weekly sessions beginning in February. To learn more about what it was like for us to reach members of our adult community at this time, Communications Assistant Elle Thoni spoke with Cristina Castro, an Upstream Arts Teaching Artist who took on the task of connecting across distance through targeted outreach.

CRISTINA: I’m Cristina Castro, she/her/hers, and this is my fifth year of being a UA Teaching Artist. This fall I spent time doing outreach: contacting our established partnerships and also searching for new connections for Upstream Arts, through email, phone conversations, Zoom meetings, anyway that I could reach out to people, and have a conversation – primarily about how the pandemic has affected different groups within our community.

ELLE: And what was the impetus for this? What is the need behind you embarking on this outreach work?

CRISTINA: We as Upstream Arts wanted to get a sense of how people were receiving services, if any, and what their social interaction was at that time with the different shutdowns in Minnesota. How were those who could no longer go out still being included in social interaction during pandemic?

I think a lot of our partners were worried about operating costs, worried about their staff and having to furlough them, there were so many factors that they had to worry about! And so it was really really lovely to be able to say, “Upstream Arts has the funding, please don’t worry about this being another monetary obstacle. We can make sure it’s not, thanks to our wonderful donors and supporters.” That we were able to go to our partners who were struggling and say, here’s how we can help and not add to that struggle.

ELLE: Totally. I feel like you’ve planted seeds of that in this conversation already, but I’m really curious about what’s come out of this work for you. 

CRISTINA: I think I’ve learned that as insurmountable as it feels to connect sometimes in this pandemic, it isn’t. There’s a way. I just love that Upstream Arts believes in “assume ability.” So anytime I was like, “I can’t do this” I had to stop and be like, “no. We can do this.” There will be people who sign up for these classes who have never heard of us before, and who haven’t had the opportunity to have access to us. It’ll happen. There’s so much that we do have to offer. And even if I talk to or email hundreds of organizations, it’s worth it if just 15 people show up to an online class. Every individual that signs up is worth the effort of reaching out to try to offer what we have.

Because that is the goal of these classes. To reach those who seem to be unreachable right now.

ELLE: Yes, absolutely. Because being seen is a need. Especially when you’ve been going however long without being seen and being witnessed, the impact is so huge. And just the amount of engagement and interaction that Teaching Artists like you are working so hard to cultivate even, you know, in non-space spaces like these.

CRISTINA: Yeah, it’s really humbling. In pandemic, one day I’ll be really angry that I can’t go do this thing I want to do and then I’ll be like, “you know what, there are so many things that I do get to do, that a lot of other people don’t.” And I think it’s really been a nice practice of thinking about others and listening to the different obstacles that people have. Like technology! 

ELLE: Yes, and isn’t it more accessible for some? Or maybe there are some ways that it’s more accessible to some?

CRISTINA: Yeah! And that’s a balance too, right? Because we have some participants that are more open and are bigger because they’re in their own living room. Or because they’re in an environment where individuals who love them are around. And so they feel more comfortable making silly sounds or statues or doing acting exercises. Those are some of the pros of people being in their own comfort zones.

ELLE: Mm, that’s beautiful. So this is my last question then: where do you see this work going? As we evolve out of this pandemic, how do you hope that our work is impacted by this time?

CRISTINA: I hope we keep some of the practices that we developed out of necessity, out of “survival mode,” when we switched to an online platform. I feel like our online classes do serve people who can’t get to a physical space. And I hope that Upstream Arts keeps that as an option. That we’re able to branch out even further than the Twin Cities, or Minnesota, or Wisconsin. That we can reach groups in other states through this format that we’ve been able to build during the pandemic. Because I think that we’re realizing that there is beauty in both spaces, that both can work, and if it works – it’s worth doing. Because someone, somewhere, it clicks for them.


To register for an online class, or find a poster that you can share with your networks, visit our Take A Class! page.