This summer, YOU Boston is running eight different cohorts, serving over 130 youth. The cohorts range from Baking and Pastry to Fashion Design, a new career cohort this summer. Throughout the 7-week program, youth work directly with their Career Cohort Leads and Virtual Instructors to learn and practice their skills in a variety of careers. YOU Boston is fortunate to have Virtual Instructors from all over the country with a range of skills and expertise. The Virtual Instructors create lesson plans, activities, and presentations to help teach the youth the important skills and knowledge of their profession. 

When YOU Boston operated in-person, there were no Virtual Instructors. However, for the past year and a half, Virtual Instructors have become a crucial part of the program. To get a more in-depth understanding of who the Virtual Instructors are and what they do for the youth at YOU Boston, we interviewed Velicia Gourdin, the Virtual Instructor for the Visual Arts Career Cohort. In the Visual Arts cohort, youth are learning about different art techniques, how to apply these skills to create pieces, and about professions within the visual arts field. With Velicia’s help, the youth are learning more about what they can do with art and their future. 

Illustrations by Velicia

Tell me a little bit about yourself. 

I was born and raised in Massachusetts; I grew up down the Cape, and I moved to Roxbury in my early teen years and went through busing. My mom sent me to private school— to Windsor School. At that time there were only ten Black girls in the school, and I made number eleven. So, I learned how to be heard when I was supposed to be invisible. And my art was developing at that time. I was supposed to be a dancer, but I ended up jacking up my knee, so I went back to drawing more. I also loved clothes and was around fashion a lot of my life, so I decided I was going to be a fashion designer… until I went to Pratt (Institute) and took my first pattern making class. I didn’t realize pattern making involved math, and I’m not good at math (laughs). So, I became a fashion illustrator. I finished two semesters at Pratt and then came back to Boston and went to New England School of Art & Design. 

How did you end up where you are now?

When I got out of school, photography was taking over the whole fashion industry. But, I ended up working in instructional design because I had a double major in fashion illustration and graphic design. I did that for the better part of 19 years. It was a long time! And I realized that if I wanted to do my illustration again and do it full time, I wasn’t going to do it working a full time job and not devoting any time to it. So I would work full time during the day, and after I got home, from 6 to 11, I would work on my fashion illustration. So, that was back in 2009, and I’ve been doing that ever since. I moved back to Massachusetts in 2019, and my full time instructional design job ended June 30th, 2019. It was the first time I hadn’t been working a full time job in years. It was pretty good. So, how did I end up here? I think I realized that I wanted to teach more. I realized that I was of an age where all this knowledge is great in my head, but if you’re not giving it to somebody, it kind of withers and dies. You have to give what you know. So I’m a huge believer in passing on knowledge because when you pass on knowledge, it frees up your brain, your heart, and your spirit for you to learn more yourself. 

Why did you decide to become a Virtual Instructor for YOU Boston?

Well, I guess you can gather that I follow my heart. I believe that we’re led to do things, but you just have to be quiet enough and humble enough to hear it. The first semester I was teaching at Pacific Northwest College of Art, I had a lot of kids that were transitioning, you know? It was just a whole mish mash of everything. I really had to become more sensitive to people’s needs, to understand that they were pushed into this environment where they were supposed to be adults but literally, Portland, Oregon was on fire. They had poor air quality; they had the marches in the street after George Floyd— it was crazy for them. So, it kind of pushed me in the direction of looking for work with kids who really need to have art in their lives, creativity in their lives. So I was looking for work, and one day I went and opened up my laptop to a site where I had applied for another job, and there was the YOU job. I was like “Okay, Universe! Let me do this!” I’m a believer in that if you ask for it, you’re going to get it. So this has been a real learning experience for me.

And how has teaching the young people been a learning experience for you?

I grew up in Dorchester, Roxbury, Fields Corner, you know? So, I’m a Bostonian so to speak. But I didn’t really realize where I came from until I got back to this program. It’s made me remember a lot of things and reconnect with a lot of experiences I had growing up. I didn’t grow up with a whole lot; my mom was a single mom, and my grandmother took in some hundred of at-risk children. They would just stay overnight, but she had done that over the course of her life. This program at YOU has made me realize that there’s tons of kids out there that are struggling. If I can impact one to pick up a pen, or draw, or write a story, maybe that will help them to express what they need to express, in positive ways. Express themselves in ways that will bring more creativity into their lives and create more peace rather than chaos.

What skills did you feel you would bring as a Virtual Instructor?

I want to teach, and I want to do freelance work, whether it’s fashion or illustration or a bunch of other things. And the job description seemed like the fullest description of what I could offer. I kid you not, it was like, “Let’s write this job description for Velicia!” And I was like “Oh my gosh! I can coach. I can share my creativity. I can hold people accountable.” You know, because when you have kids you learn how to hold people accountable. You have to! It was just like a job description meant for me. I also put in the same amount of time developing the courses as I do for the college kids. The lessons I developed from my college level ones for the YOU cohort were brought down a few steps and simplified. And there’s a lesson at the end of every module: patience, practice, nonjudgement, enjoyment, and being in the moment. Those things are what I feel these kids have lost touch with because their lives are out of control. The other day I had a moment with one of the youth, and that interaction really brought it home to me that I’m where I’m supposed to be right now. 

So you said the lesson plans you developed for YOU have some simplified lessons from the college courses you taught. How did you come up with your whole curriculum for the YOU Boston youth?

I kind of got the idea when I interviewed that these kids haven’t really been exposed to too much at all. But, I kind of thought, ‘okay if I was a kid in a program where I wasn’t getting face-to-face instruction, what would I like to learn?’ And what could I do in my bedroom without jacking up the whole house and getting stuff all over everything? So, I figured out some things that are contained, but that will spark their interest. 

We’ve looked at lots of artists, and thankfully the young people have been able to visit some exhibits, which is wonderful. I think just showing the kids the brainstorming process, the different things that I do, and what I’m interested in is important. I think for the most part I feed off of the things that I want to do and the lesson. For example, if the lesson is not judging your work, then I want to reinforce that it takes practice, that it’s okay to do it over again and have it fail. So, I’ve got a curriculum, and I’ve given the youth a bunch of great supplies. Like, you’ve got a calligraphy book, stuff to do collage work with, a sketchbook, tracing paper— they’ve got a ton of stuff. So, I looked at what I wanted to do for the curriculum, and built in activities. And then I put the list for the materials together. We have bags to do, and we have Inktober. The youth have a list that they can look at, and a lot of them are doodling already. I just kind of try to feed off of what it is the youth are giving back to me. The curriculum is put together, but it’s flexible to meet the needs of the students. 

It seems like you have different lessons you want to teach each class, but what are your goals overall as an instructor?

Every time I go to the MFA, my mind is blown. Every time I go there, I get amazed, and wowed, and inspired. And I decide I’m going to come home and stretch myself and try and do something like that. It’s like going out for a 5-mile run, with the rush of endorphins and feeling euphoric because you’ve gotten some new energy into you. That’s my goal. My goal is to infuse the lessons and spark some creativity. Now, sometimes, because we’re going through the basics, we’re stuck in that big block of housekeeping items in the beginning where they’re anxious to draw, and I’ve near just about bored them to death in 20 minutes going over work. And that’s cool, but I want them to just feel inspired by something they see. That’s why I show them Ekua Holmes’ work and other artists from the area. I want them to be excited by art and its possibilities and how it can change your life. How it can make you a fairly good living if you choose the right type of art. People do graphic novels; people buy stickers. There’s cutesy things that you can make from stuff, and there’s things that really make an impact in the world. And whether you’re designing something for skateboards or to print on fabric, it’s still art. It’s all art. Art is whatever inspires you and makes you feel like you can step out of where you are to someplace where you want to be. So, that’s my goal as an instructor. 

What have the challenges been as a Virtual Instructor? I know it must be difficult to show the young people a technique or what you’re doing sometimes. 

I made it through teaching at PNCA (Pacific Northwest College of Art) by showing screenshots of my work and by making videos on my iPad and showing those in class. I finally got a good setup here to do the YOU class with because it was time to do it. I figured it out finally, but I had to call in my son (laughs). But, the real challenge is face-to-face instruction, or facilitation. I consider myself a coach, a facilitator, and a guide. I am not a teacher. I think people have their own ideas of what to do, it’s just a matter of being quiet enough to hear the voice and being confident enough to know that that voice is telling you where to go. 

Have there been any other struggles because of the virtual aspect? 

I don’t get as much hands-on as I would like. I would love to take a small bag of fabric and just dump it on everyone’s desk along with some glue and maybe some odd shape, and just say “Okay, make a collage on this object.” But I can’t do that. Also, I think that there are some challenges because we assume. I’m assuming the kids know how to use all their technology, but there’s a couple of times where I say to upload something someplace, and they don’t know how. So, that hands-on ability to show them how to do things is missing too. I can show them a video, but when you’re online it can be easy to be distracted, so it gets kind of lost. Being able to keep track of who’s paying attention is important too. There’s also the fact that when some of the kids show up, you know they just rolled out of bed (laughs). So the kids are really missing the social quality of that interaction of getting up, getting ready, and showing up. My commute might be from my bed to my desk, but that’s my commute. I think some of them are getting it, but that’s my one frustration with the virtual setting. It’s more impersonal. 

Right, I can imagine that teaching virtually hasn’t been easy. But I know you’re working with a great group of young people. So, what are the best parts about being a Virtual Instructor?

The best part of this is that I don’t have to drive any place (laughs). But really, I think one of the best things about this is seeing that the kids already like to sketch. They already like to make these little drawings. Like, one of the kids made these cute little drawings today— sun, moon, stars, planets, a meteor— on a piece of tissue paper. He was frustrated because his marker was soaking the tissue paper, but the drawings were so cool looking. They were so immediate. They were spontaneous, and I just wanted to see him do 50 different ones on a sheet. So I was like, “Do some more of these. Do a bunch more of these.” I’m excited that they already have a niche; it’s just that no one’s noticed that it’s their niche yet. And I’m always on the lookout to learn new things, so when I watch them become excited by what they see or when they turn in a drawing that is phenomenal, it excites me. It makes me want to try harder and try other things. And the same things that I’m telling them to do, I need to do. Practice, get your sketchbook out. I’ve been drawing in my sketchbook working on a series of children’s book illustrations, and this has been a really really productive summer for me so far. So, it’s good! It’s good (laughs).  

You mentioned you’re working on some children’s book illustrations this summer. What do you do besides working as a virtual instructor?

I had become interested in writing in 2018. There’s a lot to be said for the difference between texting and emailing versus writing somebody a verse, or some kind of funny poem or limerick or something like that. So I’ve really been into that. My partner is a poet. He’s unpublished, but he is a poet, and he needs to be published (laughs). So that is my goal in life. But this summer I’ve been doing crafty things. It’s just like a conglomeration of hands-on craft things because I want to get into dying some more fabrics. I bought stuff to dye more fabrics with and do tie-dye and some African printing. But, I’ve been sketching a lot, and not sketching with my iPad but sketching traditionally, which is a lot because I’ve just been using my iPad steadily since about 2017 when I started travelling. 

But, let me just go down the list. I’ve been doing some children’s book illustration character development. I’m also working on my portfolio with this site called Workbook. I’m hoping to give up the part of trying to find work for working. For somebody actually handing me a brief and saying to work on this. That’s where I want to be. I guess I’m in preparation, you might say. I’m preparing for the next stage of my creative career. And teaching is part of it, you know. And I also hope these students, like some of my (PNCA) students from last year, still contact me with questions and for guidance. I want to prompt these kids in this class to stay in touch with me for their art. I’ve always got time to look at somebody’s artwork. Always, always, always. Yeah, that’s important.

Is there anything else you want to share about your experience? 

I would recommend this program to any student, art student, who is looking to grow. I think it would be really great if YOU could partner with places like Suffolk University, Mass College of Art, ICA, and MFA to find people who can visit. I just see so much promise in this program and in these kids. In partnering with bigger institutions we can funnel the kids somewhere where they get to be taught by different instructors. The exposure to what is out there, I think, would be really great. 

But, outside of that, I think this is just a great opportunity. I’m enjoying my summer. I’m learning a lot, and I’m enjoying the kids a lot. Some of them are a real hoot (laughs). And they’re full of surprises, so it’s been great.



Interview and article by Elizabeth Si