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Greenville & Hockessin Life

Her life force: Noelle Picara links social justice, education and the arts

Dec 03, 2018 10:51AM ● By J. Chambless

By Richard L. Gaw
Staff Writer

Were one to casually flip through the pages that have documented the latest chapter of Noelle Picara's journey, a likely conclusion upon reaching the end would be that the past seven years have told the story of a very rich and full life.

Over that time, Picara was a highly-respected music and English teacher at the Tatnall School, and one of the school's most prominent mentors in its theater program, where she directed musicals. The number of young people she influenced along the way, both in the classroom and at rehearsals, numbered well into the thousands.

Away from Tatnall, she began to carve her name into the local music scene on the back of emotional live performances, gutsy songwriting, and innovative music videos that supported several self-produced CDs. Picara was an artist without restraint, with a stage persona that was both fearless and vulnerable, and the boldness of her words and revelations never backed away from the truth.

In fact, she put it front and center: Three years ago, in the pages of this magazine, she spoke openly about her long road back from the sexual abuse she suffered when she was a child, but rather than disappear after this revelation, Picara continued to move its narrative forward.

At every concert and on every video, her keyboards and her voice sounded off like musical warning shots.

Then, this past June, Picara closed the book on this chapter and began another. She left her teaching position at the Tatnall School, put her music away for awhile, and began to walk down another life path, where social justice, education and the arts meet at an intersection, in order to create alchemy.

Picara is currently the Community Partnership Specialist at the Design Thinking Academy in Newark, where she is piloting experimental education programs and publishing them nationally so other schools can use it them as model program for their students. It's way, she said, of working with regional and national partners to redesign the way arts education is perceived – by increasing its equity, its access to students and the impact it has on the communities it serves.

Her new position dovetails perfectly with the mission of the Academy, which is to empower all students to be tomorrow’s innovators and lifelong learners who question, imagine, create, and share every day.

“Teachers at the Academy are given so much freedom to redesign how education is done, and to rethink how students learn, and how they become successful,” Picara said. “The students at our school face a lot of challenges, and just as we encourage them to do well on state tests, we also encourage them to be as innovative as they can be. We want them to create solutions.

“Often, when you have fewer resources and more challenges, it forces you to become the most creative.”

Picara’s personal mission is to end the school-to-prison pipeline and redesign public education through community partnerships and restorative justice, using arts education as the key component in empowering students and communities.

This goal dovetails with Picara's current project with the school – producing a multi-media art installation that addresses the criminalization of poverty in Delaware, and the on-going system of de-humanizing people who have been imprisoned, simply because of their inability to pay the designated fines related to their offenses, which are often deemed discriminatory.

Creating the installation has involved every student at the Design Thinking Academy, the entire faculty, and is being developed in partnership with the Christina Cultural Arts Center and the Delaware Center for Justice, the leading non-profit organization in Delaware committed to transforming the quality of justice through advocacy, policy, and practice.

The installation will be unveiled on January 19, 2019 at the Christina Cultural Arts Center, in conjunction with the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday.

Picara calls the installation the largest project she's ever been involved with.

“The students working on this installation are learning about the problem of mass incarceration, learning not to treat this as an issue of shame, but seeing it from the standpoint of a systemic problem,” she said. “They see that the focus of the installation is to take the focus away from blaming the individual and to instead look at it as a societal problem that negatively impacts everyone.

“We're not just re-humanizing people who have been incarcerated. We're also letting the students share their voice. All I'm doing is connecting the dots, to tell Design Thinking Academy students that through art, they can find something that's much bigger than they are, and develop something that can actually change lives and impact the system.”

Throughout her adult life, Picara has been devoted to using the expressive arts as a healing tool for others, and it's at the center of Rehumanizing, LLC, a business concept she is developing that will provide survivors of trauma with access to the expressive arts, and other resources. She came up with the title while listening to Brene Brown's “Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone.”

“I have lots of passions in life, but I thought, 'What's the common thread between all of them?'” she said. “It's what I've addressed in my English classes, and through theater and my songwriting. It has to do with dehumanization – discrimination, abuse, human trafficking, the denial of human rights and systemic racism. It's what I am most strongly against.

“Rehumanizing, LLC will allow me to increase access to expressive arts education and use my platform to amplify the voices of people who have been dehumanized. Dehumanization in any form causes us to deny the humanity of others and, in the process, to lose connection with our own humanity as well. Re-humanizing is a way, through art, to re-build those connections with each other and ourselves.”

While the breadth of Picara's creative efforts – in teaching, music, musical theater and healing – can be measured in degrees of originality, voice and sound, a closer look will reveal a single strain element that runs through every work – her ability to channel her creative energies into conveying what she calls “the human story.”

“I believe I have personally been able to overcome de-humanization in my own life because I’ve had access to performing arts education, financial support and healthcare, and the societal support to share my story” she said. “Every day you have a choice, through your time, money, and energy, to choose where to invest your life force. Each of us has resources, and with my life force I have, through daily practice over the years, developed and refined tools for creative expression and education. It is my responsibility, and I am so grateful to now have the joy and privilege to invest that life force in those who have been marginalized, and to use my public platform to boost their voices.

“Being given the opportunity to experience art together with another person, you see their face, move together in dance, hear their voice and story, and you can no longer dismiss what that person is saying,” she added. “We have to build bridges and listen to each other. We need to get back to the human story, back to listening to each other. Through the arts, we can build those bridges.”

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email rgaw@chestercounty.com.

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