Staff Spotlight: James Billman

This week Angelica speaks to James Billman, about youth work, storytelling, and the role of sounds in their classroom.

A: Tell us about yourself and your role at CAC. 


J: I am somebody who has engaged with youth work off and on since I was about 15. For about 15 years. I have also been involved with community organizing and student organizing for about 10 years which is one of the things that brought me to the art center. I think it is really important for youth to have mentors and people that support and empower them to find their own voices and tell their own stories. While I am not somebody who has a super fleshed-out art practice, art is something I see as an important tool and I do enjoy artmaking and being at the center. A lot of the work I do with young people at the center is giving and teaching young people frameworks that allow them to tell their own stories. 


A: How do you exercise creativity in your classroom and outside of the classroom? I know you said you don’t have a fleshed out art practice, but it could be any other outlet really.


J: In the classroom, it’s mostly centered around storytelling. I also try to keep music playing to set a tone of the space being held in a certain way and curated in a certain way. Having music as part of the process. In my own life, I have been a musician for 25 years, and played a bunch of different instruments, and so I am less active at the moment, but I am part of a street marching band called School of HONK! I am playing music as much as possible and doing a fair amount of sketching and drawing, but mostly abstract work.


A: What do you enjoy most about working with youth/ being at CAC?

J: When I was 15, a friend recommended a program at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in the South End and so I worked there for a summer to teach. It’s come full circle in a way, I was apprenticing with somebody who was an animator so I was helping to teach figure drawing and animation classes, but also CIT youth work. That opened my eyes in many ways in what young people needed in terms of support and more generally, how important it was for kids to have support systems in their lives and communities. The youth programs at the art center and st.stephens are locally focused and centered on social justice, as opposed to just a service delivery.That is what, to me, what is very important about the art center. Having that as part of our mission, our vision, is really important. The way that we think about art and the way that that moves us forward. The reason that I returned to youth work is because young people’s voices need to be heard and centered. 


A: Where can people find your art?

J: Look out for the HONK festival, and also, I write poetry so maybe look out for some to be released. 


A: What have you been up to working from home?

J: Watching documentaries, cooking, trying to tend to my plants which are new but needed some love. Taking long walks, taking short runs, trying to get outside whenever possible. Hiking. 


A: Where do you hike?

J: Breakheart Reservation and I forget where else, a couple different mountains. 

A: I don’t really know where to hike here. I’m not from Boston. 

J: Blue Hills are great as a start, but not super rigorous. There are a fair amount of places. 


A: What have you been up to with your tribe/class/ in community sessions?

J: In the community sessions, I’ve been doing sound shares. Having them think about sounds that are bringing them joy or getting them energized, but also music that is helping them to calm down. And then having them reflect and journal about how enjoying music and art can be forms of self-care. In tribe, mostly, I will be doing mindful art prompts. Simple directions, but leaving the prompts wide open so they can really make the pieces their own. 


A: Thank you for talking to me. 

J:  Cool beans. Thank you!


Community Art Center, Inc.

119 Windsor Street, Cambridge, MA 02139  I  617-868-7100

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