Through ArtForce Iowa, Christine Her and her staff help give Des Moines youth a place to heal
This story is part of the Des Moines Register’s People to Watch in 2021 series. The stories highlight Iowans we expect great things from in the coming year.
Before the pandemic, Christine Her’s role as executive director of ArtForce Iowa also included being executive chef.
Every workshop began with sharing a homemade meal and the highs and lows of the day for each young artist, staff member and mentor. The youth that the nonprofit serves — refugees, immigrants, first-generation Americans and those involved with the court system — grew to know one another better and realize they had more in common than not. Then, they would make music or paint together — no English required.
“Being able to break that bread every day allowed so many of our youth — all of them — to really come together and be like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I cannot believe I thought that about you,’” Her said.
When ArtForce Iowa stopped all on-site programming in March, Her led efforts to distribute laptops, connect kids to WiFi and deliver packages of art supplies. Artist mentors started holding classes on Facebook live and scheduling one-on-one virtual workshops with young people. Staff checked in with families to make sure they could afford groceries each week. And in October, the “ArtForce Iowa family,” as Her calls it, got to share another homemade meal. Her’s team gave out baked chicken, mashed potatoes and pie, and they all ate together over Zoom.
She worried that the tough conversations kids have at ArtForce Iowa — about mental illness, intergenerational trauma and poverty — would not translate virtually. But the support that Des Moines youth continue to give each other this year has proven her wrong.
“ArtForce Iowa isn't a physical space. It is the people,” she said.
For empowering youth amid adversity, Her, 30, is one of the Des Moines Register’s 15 People to Watch in 2021.
'Power in helping other people'
Born to Hmong refugee parents from Laos, Her grew up in Des Moines longing to be seen and accepted.
At school, Hmong people were never mentioned during history lessons — even though thousands like her grandfather aided U.S. troops during the Vietnam War. At home, Her’s passion for music and art was met with resistance from her parents. Like many immigrants who fled war and endured poverty upon arriving in the U.S., they believed a career in medicine or law would be the most prosperous path for their daughter.
While studying at Drake University, Her found community with other first-generation Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders. Every year, the TOGETHER youth coalition held a talent show that encouraged local high schoolers to express themselves through art.
“Sometimes the world that we live in isn’t made for people like us, and we have to carve out our own little world … to be part of that change,” Her said.
After graduating in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in creative writing, political science and philosophy, Her took on various roles as she tried to find a new place to carve out for herself. She assisted refugees with legal paperwork, performed market research and dabbled in event coordinating. She worked for the Register in an administrative role from late 2014 to early 2016.
But Her felt most inspired when mentoring young people in songwriting and vocal performance at ArtForce Iowa.
“That really made me want to wake up every day,” Her said. “It let me know that there was a lot of power in helping other people step into their own purpose.”
Shortly after leaving her job at the Register in 2016, Her became the manager of DSM Heroes, ArtForce Iowa’s program for refugee, immigrant and first-generation American youth. Another program, Creative Pathways, serves youth who have been involved in the juvenile or family court system.
Her was promoted to executive director in August of 2017.
The journey to 'healing-centered engagement'
Leading a nonprofit organization at age 27 wasn't easy.
Her said she often felt “way too young,” unprepared and not good enough. Some days, she had no idea how she would make payroll. The summer of 2018 brought a flood that destroyed $90,000 worth of supplies, and the group's building lost water a few months after that.
Founder Yvette Herman said when funds were low, staff would hug each other and laugh about it.
“We would acknowledge what we were up against, but just never gave up,” Herman said. “We know that we're here for a reason.”
Her and her team realized that to best serve young people — many of whom have experienced homelessness, witnessed violence or struggled with self harm — they had to take care of themselves too. That led them to focus on "healing-centered engagement," which Her said "does away with the 'white savior' complex."
"We do not have the mentality that we're here to heal," Her said. "Instead, it's, 'Hey, I'm messed up, too ... and together, we can heal.'"
This willingness to be vulnerable has been key to building trust with Des Moines youth, she said.
DSM Heroes program director Emma Parker agreed.
"The young people in this community know when people are not being their true selves, and that's something that Christine has always been, without a doubt," Parker said.
With the guidance of mentors, youth in the program have learned instruments like the ukelele and bass guitar. They have written slam poetry and songs about everything from teenage romance to abuse. They have experimented with embroidery, origami, sculpture and watercolor.
Art has been a bridge, such as for two boys who at first wanted nothing to do with each other. One had a history of arrests, and the other had escaped genocide in his home country. They were from opposite ends of town. But once they got into a recording studio together, they started making beats.
"It was so cool to see because they didn't need language to do that," Her said.
'Our young people are so resilient'
Even amid this year's pandemic and subsequent economic crisis, ArtForce Iowa is over budget for the first time in its history.
That's because of "all the individual people who recognize that the work that we are doing is valuable," Her said. The organization has received donations from companies such as Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices First Realty and charities such as Variety.
In the next year, Her hopes to continue paying forward that support, distributing funds and art supplies to other nonprofits to help serve more young people.
Most importantly, Her says, ArtForce Iowa's success is a credit to young people's power.
"The organization is only as resilient as the young people that we get to serve," Her said. "And our young people are so resilient."
About 'People to Watch'
The Des Moines Register's "15 People to Watch in 2021" are movers and shakers, givers and doers. They were chosen by newsroom staff from scores of reader and staff nominations. Their stories will run in the Register through Jan. 3.
Meet Christine Her
- AGE: 30
- LIVES: Ankeny
- EDUCATION: Bachelor’s in creative writing, political science and philosophy, Drake University, 2012.
- CAREER: Executive director of ArtForce Iowa. Previously DSM Heroes Program manager, teaching artist at the Des Moines Art Center, community engagement and content specialist at the Des Moines Register.
- FAMILY: Partner Kevin Luensmann, parents Meng and May Her, her siblings and their spouses and her ArtForce Iowa family.
Isabella Rosario is a public safety reporter for the Ames Tribune. She can be reached by email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @irosarioc.