079: Boston Speaks Up with Sara Mraish-Demeter, CEO/Founder of ARCK
Sara Mraish-Demeter is an artist, educator, mother of three, and founder/CEO of Art Resource Collaborative for Kids (ARCK), a nonprofit delivering creative programs with social justice themes in Boston Public Schools since 2012. Born in Jordan to Palestinian refugee parents, she came to the United States at age 15 and Boston was where she first experienced real support and opportunity.
In Boston, Mraish-Demeter quickly learned that none of her schooling transferred from Jordan, so she had to go back to school and get her GED. It was through this incredibly low point in her life that put her in an environment to realize that the lack of arts in school prohibited kids from expressing herself. What first seemed like a nightmare, led to her calling.
She has now made it her life’s mission to promote cross-cultural inclusion and understanding among Boston’s children. She is passionate about using art as a vehicle to reimagine education and unlock each child’s full potential. With ARCK, she has forged many partnerships with schools, businesses, institutions, and artists to bring youth voices to the wider community through projects such as “I Am, We Are,” a collaborative public art mural, and “Walls that Speak,” a showcase of immigrant students’ stories. Internationally, during the summers of 2013-14, she led art workshops for Syrian refugee children in Jordan.
Mraish-Demeter was named a 2016 EXTRAOrdinary Woman of Boston by Mayor Walsh’s Office of Women’s Advancement and selected for the Power Launch inaugural Social Change Fellows cohort. She is an active member of the Beacon Hill Circle for Charity, which supports Boston children and women, and a former board member at the Center for Arabic Culture. She holds a B.A. in Psychology with a minor in French and completed the Nonprofit Management and Leadership program at Boston University.
In this episode, Mraish-Demeter dives into her story, inspiration for founding ARCK, the many lessons she’s learned across her wide range of experiences throughout her life, and so much more.
Where did you grow up? And how would you describe your childhood?
I was born in Jordan in a war torn region. I am the oldest of six children. My family was modest and I had a rough childhood despite that I learned strong family values. My father worked in Queries- my mom was a homemaker - When my father lost his fortune, we lived in very precarious times- I quickly became responsible for raising my siblings. At home life was tough and at school it was more tough - because I had no escape - so I found refuge making art hiding in the attic of my home - certainly my childhood was not ideal - but it shaped and influenced who I am today and what I believe in.
Who were your role models growing up?
Thinking back at the environment in which I grew up- there was no real strong role-models in the way I think about a modern women today-in fact even as children we were not really allowed to express ourselves- but I always seeked people who had artistic and philosophical inclinations- I remember this one person I met when I was 14- he was my neighbor - he occasionally tutored me in math- but he was also a poet- who had big vision about the world- who really inspired me to think about the role of creativity in my life.
What is the first career you remember wanting to pursue?
Reflecting on my immigrant journey it became clear to me that I wanted to change the life of children and women especially. Naturally my first career interest was to support women's social and economic empowerment through microfinance programs. I have always been an artist at heart. I didn’t know how to put it together at first. But life has a funny way of showing up.
Suddenly it all made sense to me- I found my calling and ARCK was born.
The real instigator was when my children attended the Boston Public Schools- I realized the same thing was missing from when I was in school back in Jordan. Personally I did not want history to repeat itself. I knew I wanted to make a difference, so being in the US gave me the opportunity to realize my potential, especially when I met teachers who were my role-models in high school and college.
To help out our younger listeners tuning into the show, can you speak on the importance of providing our nation’s youth exposure to art/creative outlets?
In a complex world today’s youth continue to be faced with social, political, environmental and economical challenges - the burden is very heavy. How do we better prepare them? I have been thinking about this question for the longest time- what I would say today - is really based on my personal experience as a mother, an artist and my professional journey with ARCK is that creativity is a gift to humanity. I could write a book about the outlets that art and creativity provide. (I am in fact writing a book).
First thing that Art does is a tool for self-reflection and self-acceptance - Art helps heal and it’s a vehicle to express emotions. I am a firm believer that the practice and the process of art not only opens the door to creativity and innovation but it also fosters resilience, adaptability and openness to the other. You get to create your own future - I would encourage youth to seek any opportunity in art making activity- creating and innovating
We need to close the creativity gap in order for young people to find opportunities to thrive.
As technology rapidly expands and the nature of the workforce changes, it is our responsibility as adults to prepare young people to become leaders in the world to come.
The World Economic Forum Future of Jobs Report states that, in the coming decades, “‘human’ skills such as creativity, originality, initiative, critical thinking, persuasion, and negotiation will increase their value, as will attention to detail, resilience, flexibility and complex problem-solving. Emotional intelligence, leadership and social influence, as well as service orientation, are also set to see particular increases in demand…”
ARCK takes seriously our responsibility to cultivate these creative and human skills in young people, and understands creativity—as both a process and a mindset—to be a fundamental driver for deep interdisciplinary learning to meet the whole person.
As an entrepreneur, do you have any advice for young people that have an idea they want to pursue or passion for something they want to change? Where should they start?
They should approach their passion or what they want to pursue with curiosity, thoughtfulness, and critical thinking. Like an artist approaches its medium - painting or making music or writing a play - there is a process. Being an entrepreneur is like an artist- faking it till you make it. Exploration and trial and error is a part of the experience. Look inward to find the problem so you can find the solution.
What was the primary inspiration for starting ARCK?
As I mentioned earlier through my lived experience and the immigrant journey I had as it was clear to me that my passion and purpose in life is to re-imagine education - to democratize education to achieve an equitable and sustainable education system for all - ARCK where I meant to be in my life. This is what I advocate for.
Could you speak about your time in Jordan? Any big takeaways from your time over there? (Lessons learned, perspective changes, etc.)
The big takeaways - life is not simple for a lot of people in the world. Inequities exist for everyone and we have to work collectively to truly make real and meaningful change. Racisim and discrimination exists everywhere still. We have to mobilize like-minded people to have a deep conversation about reimagining education for equity and to make true and meaningful change. My observation has been over 30 years that is not only in Jordan or the US or other places - we all have to remember all the systemic issues we have are all rooted in our education system. Our education system needs to prioritize mental health and wellness, creativity, social justice and equity to provide access and opportunities for people to realize their full potential - to create a better world for all.
We need to find people who are like-minded. Every culture is rich and different in its own way- the reality of my life that made me want to create my own reality to amplify my voice.
Is there a particular person or event that helped shape the career path you took?
What is the biggest challenge you’ve overcome getting to where you are today?
“Aim to retain” is my goal - to retain talent and I know that this is an issue everywhere - I think many people are looking to work for companies that can provide psychological safety and a culture where employees feel safe, seen, heard and included.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from your experiences leading others thus far?
Important to be humble and vulnerable. Biggest lesson learned- only work with people who can join you on the bus that share similar values and visions. The team is what makes the leadership role shine and grow - without having the team of individuals join your journey it will be hard to keep going.
How would you describe your leadership style?
Collaborative and radically candid that includes everyone’s voice.
What sorts of challenges and opportunities have you found in the pivot to virtual business and networking during the COVID-19 pandemic? Did it affect ARCK?
We saw an opportunity for our growth due to a cohesive, passionate, and adaptable team who are creative and thinks outside the box.. Staying nimble was one big thing for us by shifting to online learning and gaining support from our community due to the pandemic. Our community and the schools realized that our program is needed more than ever to help students cope and heal during COVID-19 and the racial injustices. We have been working on inequities from the start of ARCK, but due to the pandemic all of these issues surfaced. Our priority is to ensure that kids feel safe, seen, and heard in order to learn and reach their full potential. Kids shifted from not turning on their cameras during our zoom classes to turning them on due to our lessons that built trust and confidence.
FINAL QUESTION: We like the idea of ending our episodes with a challenge for the listeners/readers. Whether it be reaching out to an old friend, reading 5 pages a day from a book, creating a new healthy habit… what is one challenge you have for the listeners?
Create your experience by allowing yourself to listen and be aware of what is coming to your mind at the moment and ask yourself - why did you react the way you did? Can we stop reacting, and instead start creating your world - we are co-creating with nature and our life experiences - listen to what your little voices are telling you and react to them by creating the change that needs to happen. Creation produces the experience and the experience is what you need to live a fulfilling life.