Interview with Brenda Hernandez, National Museum of Mexican Art: “In an homago state of mind”

1Brenda Hernandez is not only a Programs Coordinator for Yollocalli Arts Reach, a youth initiative of the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago. She is also Yollocalli alum, and a former high school teacher (and has written about art education and cultural issues for Contratiempo Magazine). I invited her to speak with us today about her recent involvement in the publication of an unusual free guide: HOMAGO – a guidebook. The only thing unusual about it, actually, is that they make it sound so easy to translate and put into practice recent research on how youth learn through their interaction with digital media. I just had to ask her to explain it all to us and help us think what this might mean for those in museums managing youth learning environments.

Barry: Brenda, please say a sentence or two about Yollocalli Arts Reach, the role digital media plays, and why you are interested in supporting youth learning environments?

Brenda: Yollocalli Arts Reach is a youth initiative of the National Museum of Mexican Art. We provide a platform for youth 13-25 years old to explore urban art practices and collaborate with emerging artists. Digital media has become more and more a part of our programs lately because artists are widening their practices and we want youth to experience art as it is now. It is important for us to provide our students with as many creative outlets as we can in order for them to find their niche.

Youth learning environments have always been interesting to me, especially when we open up the idea to all possible learning environments, not just school or after school programs. Many times people that work in fields like ours have such great intentions and want to provide so many innovative programs for youth that we become obsessed, even narcissistic, and over look what youth are doing already in their own worlds.

Youth create learning environments unconsciously: when they form cliques or become active in specific cultures like anime or spoken word. All we try to do, and I love to do, is support these youth cultures and their subsequent learning environments by bringing them into our institution and offering more resources for youth to continue doing what they were doing without us.

Barry: So what is HOMAGO (other than sounding like a type of sushi?). Anyone can read the original report from three years ago here, but what has it meant to you in practice?

2Brenda:  HOMAGO is an acronym developed by the cultural anthropologist Mimi Ito that reflects on the learning process youth engage with when using digital media like the internet, facebook, technology etc. It stands for Hanging Out, Messing Around and Geeking Out.

When I first read about homago I immediately had a sense of relief because it validates informal learning practices, not just youth’s relationship with digital media. Once I got over the excitement of finding something I had always believed in but was never able to describe, understanding homago allowed us, at Yollocalli, room to explore our programming options and experiment with Open Studios.

You see, artists have always worked in the ‘homago way’. They hang out in their studios reading or just zoning out scheming. They invite friends over to check out what they are working on they might even collaborate. They sketch and draft out ideas or journal as a way of messing around. Artist geek out on their projects or the prospects of forming a part of a collaborative or large scale goal.

As you hear this you might be nodding your head in agreement thinking, “Hey, I do that too!” Homago is fluid and natural so it made sense to us to try to let a homago rhythm of making unfold in a few of our programs.

Barry: Did learning about HOMAGO just help you better understand what you were already doing or did it also change you practice?

3Brenda: It definitely helped us understand what we have been doing at Yollocalli but it also changed  how we evaluate or observe programs that are formal. When you learn about homago you consequently learn about how ingrained formal learning is in our brain and what we do and what lense we use as educators.

I came to arts administration after having worked as a high school art teacher for the Chicago Public Schools. That background made me think that a “good and rigorous” education had to be structured and linear. But that kind of environment can also make you have a very adultist perspective on youth and their environments.

For example, before homago, a person may observe a group of teens at the park with their skateboards and think “geez these kids are just goofing off.” If that same person had a general understanding of homago instead of thinking that the kids were “just goofing off” they would realize that the kids are not just hanging out at the park but in fact they are learning collaboratively. The skateboarder teens are messing around, experimenting and problem solving, in order to geek out and perfect a move, join a competition or teach their friend what they learned on their own.

In the digital age, homago is facebook, instagram and texting. Sure they are gossiping about who cut the lunch line today but let’s not take for granted that youth also talk about school, family issues, their futures, and much more. Teens are living homago all the time.

And this is only the beginning of understanding informal learning spaces, which makes me very excited for the future.

Barry: Where did the idea for a Handbook come from?

Brenda: Yollocalli Arts Reach is a member of the Hive Chicago Learning Network. They support us in our interest with homago and how we can “apply” it to our programs. The guidebook was a way to share our experience with the rest of the Hive members while creating something tangible we could use for teaching artists and for program development within Yollocalli.

Barry: Please share some examples from it, to give people a sense of the type of things your Handbook can help people to do?

Brenda:  Our handbook can help people morph their current programming into programming that is mentor run and collaborative in nature. We want the adults that lead programs to feel empowered to learn and form nurturing relationships with students. Embracing a more ‘casual’ space is important when our goals are to make sure the youth feel comfortable and safe (physically, intellectually and even spiritually) because only then will youth feel liberated to explore and experiment —> the homago way.
Barry: How do you think Museums can use your Handbook and learn from your example?

Brenda: Well, first off we hope more museums are interested in learning about homago and informal youth learning environments. Secondly, we certainly hope our guidebook facilitates that first step in understanding the internal administrative and educational dialogues that keeps us from letting go of “structured” programming.

We are still learning how to keep that balance. I am still learning too.

I am, for the most part, in a homago state of mind.

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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