UTEP Partners With Housing Authority to Improve Quality of Life

By Lisa Y. Garibay

UTEP News Service

Twelve oversized panels join together in a splash of colors, images, and messages on the main wall of the Housing Authority of the City of El Paso’s (HACEP) main office. This is the work of public housing residents and exhibition instigator Valente Francisco Saenz, who is working toward his Master of Arts in interdisciplinary studies at The University of Texas at El Paso.

The “Art-HACEP Community Expression Project,” as Saenz calls it, is part of a much larger picture that is an example of collaboration between UTEP and the El Paso community.A large canvas at the Housing Authority of the City of El Paso’s (HACEP) main office is the work of public housing residents and exhibition instigator Valente Francisco Saenz, who is working toward his Master of Arts in interdisciplinary studies at UTEP. A large canvas at the Housing Authority of the City of El Paso’s (HACEP) main office is the work of public housing residents and exhibition instigator Valente Francisco Saenz, who is working toward his Master of Arts in interdisciplinary studies at UTEP.

Each public housing community received a blank canvas and drawing materials with which to create their own message about who they are. Saenz produced a master canvas that assembled the pieces into one work of art.

"It’s more than a thousand drawings and messages representing the diversity of all the participants, from children to adults, with no guidelines," Saenz explained.

Saenz, who goes by “Pancho,” returned to UTEP for his bachelor’s degree in painting and museum studies after working for several years in international banking. Aware of the challenges museums are facing in declining attendance and support, he decided to pursue his master’s degree in interdisciplinary studies, focusing on museum research and communities.

An interdisciplinary group bringing UTEP faculty together with HACEP personnel assisted Saenz with his academic goals. Through the collaboration, research is coupled with community engagement, which in turn helps to strengthen partnerships and cultivate new opportunities.

“One of the goals that the Housing Authority has is to develop its youth,” said group member Maria Flores with HACEP community services. Other members include Hector Olvera, Ph.D., research assistant professor at UTEP’s Center for Environmental Research Management; Virginia Hill, resident relations specialist with HACEP; Ernesto Castañeda, Ph.D., assistant professor in sociology and anthropology; Lucía Durá, Ph.D., assistant professor of rhetoric and writing; Holly Mata, Ph.D., research assistant professor in UTEP’s Hispanic Health Disparities Research Center; and William Medina-Jerez, Ph.D., associate professor of education.

The need to focus on the children in public housing led to the development of the Alpha Youth Leadership Academy. The interdisciplinary group created the academy to foster continued education and success among children living in HACEP communities.

Saenz became involved as a student in Castañeda’s class, which conducted an initial survey of public housing residents that kicked off the group’s funded work. He turned that experience toward his interest in understanding how art can better connect with diverse communities. As an undergraduate studying both art and sociology, Saenz noticed that there was a difference between the quality and quantity of visitors at UTEP’s Stanlee and Gerald Rubin Center for the Visual Arts and the quality of exhibitions. His focus turned to aiding museums and artists to increase audiences by improving the connection between art and the public. The interdisciplinary committee embraced his idea of a community expression project through visual art and included it as part of their grant work within HACEP residences.

The $20,000, yearlong grant, “Socio-Ecology of Hispanics: A Translational Research Agenda for the Human Development of Hispanics in the U.S.,” was funded by UTEP’s Office of the Provost and Office of Research and Sponsored Projects with support from a National Science Foundation Innovation through Institutional Integration (I3) grant. Funds went toward employing UTEP students and purchasing equipment for the HACEP classrooms where most of the work took place.

Even though the work has been concentrated within HACEP communities, it has applications for communities all over the country, especially given the anticipated increase of the Hispanic population in the United States.

“The sustainability and prosperity of the nation hinges on our capacity to fully develop the Hispanic population,” Olvera said.

Giving this population the opportunity for self-expression is an important part of increasing quality of life.

“Art is a powerful tool to enhance our learning skills,” Saenz said. “When a child observes his drawing as part of a larger work of art, his mind starts saying, ‘What’s next? I can do it!’ and then he starts believing in himself. We can change the way these communities think.”

The group is now working to publish the survey’s findings while also getting the next stage of their work off the ground.

“We’ve involved a couple of students in nursing and public health as well, so they’re getting experience,” Mata said. “[Castañeda] had a whole class of undergraduates who got trained in research and actually conducted the survey. The grant that [Olvera] got funded a couple of graduate students. So everybody’s making connections and there are a lot of areas of overlap with our areas of interest and expertise, but the bottom line is we’re all working to address the needs of HACEP.” This extends not only through Saenz’s work, but also to classes Durá and Medina-Jerez are teaching on the science and literacy through cooking as well as a holiday staging of “It’s a Wonderful Life” by the children participating in the Alpha Youth Leadership Academy.

“Through the collaboration, a lot more people benefit from it,” Flores said. “We are so grateful that this group has helped contribute directly to the goal of making the children more prepared and more ready to be economically self-sufficient.”

Mata added, “Most of the issues that all of us address are just too big for any one of us to go looking at through our own lens, so working with everybody else and getting their perspective really helps.”

Saenz is encouraged by how his work has flourished beyond any plan or expectations. HACEP has decided to keep his artwork up at their offices; a short documentary film by undergraduate digital media major Gabriel Lira chronicling Saenz’s project is creating buzz both within and outside of the University; and the Housing Authority wants to keep artistic collaboration going in ways that are being excitedly discussed right now.

“Art is not just an add-on to any of this work,” Durá said. “It’s a very important bridge to science, between English and Spanish, between verbal communication and writing. Illustrations become the basis for communication.”