ISO: Mentors of Color

Lillyanne Phạm with Karena Salmond 

“I think so many organizations and companies talk so much about the need to diversify, and I think without necessarily talking about the ‘Why.’ And I think it’s that ‘Why’ that starts to make it click.”


2022 is my last year of adolescence, 24-years-old. It’s a major event for me as I transition from being a youth organizer working with youth, to being an adult organizer working with youth. I’m excited (and nervous) to explore how youth allyship manifests in my daily life and art practice. To start off the year, I wanted to confront the toxic narratives of “being self-made” and “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” by acknowledging those who have shaped me and are examples of the ways adults can show up for youth. Youth Program Director of Caldera Arts, Karena Salmond, has been one of my prime anchors. 

In Fall 2020, I completed my Emerging Leaders Internship (ELI) PDX and progressed to Emerging Leaders Mentoring (ELM) PDX. ELI links students of color to paid summer internships in Portland and provides culturally competent workforce development training. If students are recent graduates, they are offered a spot in the mentoring program to establish sustainable support for their intern alums. At this stage, the amazing Director of Mentoring, Partnerships, and Recruitment, Nick Poindexter, asked me what qualities I wanted in a mentor. I gave him a really long list including a non-YT mentor, and was a part of the art world, but didn’t believe in conforming to the art world. 

Nick played with some LinkedIn magic and found my soul mentor, Karena (she/her), who showed me care, honesty, and trust from day one. Since 2020, we’ve had monthly conversations that have helped me survive the uncertainty of exiting college. She also encouraged me to explore and mold my own space in the art world. Karena is currently shaping her Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (DEIA) work and creatively challenging the non-profit industrial complex. Below we expand more on the importance of racially and culturally responsive mentoring and organizational structures, along with the creative practices that are part and parcel to them. 

Karena Salmond’s Selfie

Lillyanne Pham: Hi Karena! Who would you consider to be your first mentor outside of your household? 

Karena Salmond: It’s interesting because I think about mentoring as someone who supports in finding different pathways. This is completely informal, but one person that I often go back to, as someone who really changed the way that I saw myself and my potential, is an old friend from high school. While we didn’t go to the same school, I met her in high school. She is Salvadoran, her parents are Salvadoran immigrants. 

She was probably one of the first nonwhite friends I had made as a high schooler. And she was just unapologetic about her race and ethnicity in ways that were so different than how I felt about myself at the time. And I think through our friendship, in a lot of ways, I became a different person. Even though she wasn’t, you know, there was no structure or formality to our relationship, I do often think of her as someone who impacted my life in a really positive way. And also my growth. That, I think, is certainly typical of friendships, but just a little bit deeper.

Another person that I think about, kind of very differently, is a woman named Sally Putney, I interned under her. She ran the YWCA mentoring program in Kalamazoo, Michigan. In the 90s, internships were often about making copies and entering data, and doing a lot of grunt work. But she really wanted me to have more of an experience. She was also a great mentor herself. She had a lot of different mentees formally. She really showed me what it was like to have ownership in a professional setting. Then I also took on a mentee at that time. She was just a great role model in both what it meant to run a nonprofit program and also what it meant to be somebody’s mentor. So those are two people that I often reflect on in terms of my own mentorship.

Lillyanne:  For the first one, how did y’all meet?

Karena: We met because we both loved the same boy [Karena and Lillyanne laugh]. And she— this is how bold she is— straight-up called me one day and just laid it out: “We both love him. What are we gonna do about it?” Instead of him loving neither of us, Lupe and I just grew to love each other. 

Lillyanne: That’s really exciting to think about, like, when I was writing these interview questions, I really didn’t think about peer-to-peer mentorship. But I definitely feel like that heavily shaped me as well. Especially growing up in a really white town with no ethnic enclaves nearby, just having fellow Brown chosen sisters when I was in elementary and middle school really impacted me— in college as well. Now I’m thinking about it. I’m like, oh my god. Brown friendships specifically redefining and exploring femininity— that brings so many memories. I feel like it’s way deeper with your chosen family than it is with your household.

Karena: There’s something about friendship, which I do think filters into youth work— that unconditional positive regard, right. With people in your household, there might always be some element of judgment. Because they, I guess, will have a bigger stake in your success in life. Whereas that peer-to-peer, I think, is often free of that same kind of judgment and pressure that you get in the household.

Lillyanne: I never even thought about unconditional positive regard. Yeah, then there’s the fact that y’all are the same age, and y’all are growing together and seeing each other grow. And like, that’s exciting as well, and experiencing the same things and having a different lens and sharing that. And having solidarity within peer spaces is really important too. 

I interned for DREAM!, a restorative justice organization in New York City. They use art programs such as filmmaking inside schools to teach students how to do peer mediation in the Bronx. They found that it kept kids in school from fighting and lowered neighborhood crime. When youth give each other advice and stop conflict on their own, it is way more productive than an adult figure coming in that power structure. It makes me really curious about youth solidarity for adults. Does that mean empowering youth to empower themselves?

Karena: I think it’s a lot about holding space. Because I’ve seen that peer-to-peer connection and support at Caldera Arts.(1) Last summer, at camp, we did these small group bonding times at the end of the day, and it’s the adult staff members’ responsibility to hold the space and facilitate. But, in one of the groups that I joined, the group was just talking about their day and one of the students mentioned that they had a hard day and they had family stuff going on. Most of the students in the group brought forth so much support for this person and so much empathy. And there was so much you know, Oh, that’s really hard. And, Oh, I went through something like that too. Yes, our programming is about art and the environment. But so much of it, at its core, is about community and support.

Lillyanne: I feel like the youth stereotype, especially teens, is that they’re very much in their own worlds. There’s Gen Z who are too into social media and too into themselves. I feel like if you give them a chance, just listen and sit there, rather than try to control a situation, teens and youth eventually show that they can have as much emotional capacity as someone who is older. Ageism is real. 

I also want to ask about your BA in Fine Arts at Kalamazoo College and your decision to pursue an MA in International and Multicultural Education at the University of San Francisco. What inspired you to explore a non-traditional pathway in the arts?

Karena: What inspired me was working at Chicago Children’s Museum, where I, every day, got to see play, imagination and creativity come alive in very young children. I had an entry-level job in their Education Department. And I just became really interested in child development and what the possibilities were, especially outside of a traditional school setting. I loved being able to see learning and discovery take place outside of a formal institution. 

As we’ve talked about before, I think I sort of lost my grounding and connection as an artist after college. So, I was just thinking about the next thing and decided I wanted to go back to school and study education. I knew I didn’t want to be a classroom teacher; I wanted to go back into nonprofit youth work. At the time, I didn’t even know that arts education was a field or a possibility of connecting my art background with my education background, until I happened to get a job after grad school with an arts education organization. Then it continued and went down that path from there. 

Lillyanne: If other people want to go into arts education, do you feel like that’s a smooth path? 

Karena: I do, because in my program —I can only speak for my program, which was very liberal— we had really critical conversations about race and how race comes into the classroom. I think that experience challenged me to think critically about systems in ways that I hadn’t in previous education. I think that gave me experience in engaging in critical conversations in the workplace. And, you know, we are also still living in a professional world where credentials often matter. And so I just recognize that having that degree, I’m assuming, has helped in getting jobs.

Lillyanne: Did you have a thesis for your program? And beyond that, how has your training in education changed the way you think about your own early education?

Karena: I did a thesis on a case study at a child development center that was rooted in the Reggio Emilia approach, which I had become familiar with when I was working at the museum. It is, in a nutshell, an approach to early childhood education where really everything is connected, there’s no separate reading units, or separate art units, or whatever, it’s all connected. They view art as a language. I was really drawn to that aspect of the approach, and really just the child-directed approach. Which is a lot of what children’s museums are about, setting some context and letting children explore. 

It definitely made me reflect on all of the rote learning that my education was and how nonexponential it was. I feel like I’ve retained nothing of what I learned in high school. I think the most useful class in high school for me was my word processing class where I learned home row and now I can type really fast. But like, I don’t remember anything that happened in history class. I just think it was not relevant to me. And not taught in ways that felt meaningful enough to actually retain. So yeah, I would say learning about different approaches has definitely shaped how I reflect on my own upbringing and how I approach youth work today.

Fallen flowers, foraged and assembled by Karena and her daughter.

Lillyanne: Delving deeper, why is it important for Black and Brown youth to have access to mentors, especially in the arts?

Karena: We talked about my friend Lupe, and the reason I kind of cite her as a mentor is because of her race and ethnicity. And I think Sally, the mentor who ran the YWCA program, is really special.  In the mentoring field, she was really ahead of her time back then. But we didn’t talk about race and the role of race in mentoring, which I think is really important. My mentee when I was with that program was African American and we just didn’t talk about what it meant for the mentoring dynamic. What is race? How might race impact the mentoring dynamic? I think that was a big missing piece for me. I think fast forward to now, you know, I can speak for myself. I know, you and I, obviously, come from quite different backgrounds. But, just as an Asian person, I feel so much affinity with you, simply because of how we look, right?

I think a lot of the reason I lost connection as an artist after college is that there wasn’t much representation. I got really cynical about the art world because what I saw in magazines and galleries was very white-centric. It felt very about who this person knew: if you had a connection, you could get a show. And I just was so completely turned off by that. 

Gif of Karena’s Kitchen Sink Barre, April 2020.

Lillyanne: I definitely feel you’re also getting at the power of representation. It’s much more than numbers. Race and ethnicity are social constructs as we know, but I feel the need to acknowledge the corporeal realities of it. Connecting that to the arts, it is very rare to have an intimate space with representation. Versus seeing someone’s art about their racialized experience. There are actually few spaces where artists of color can connect. Did you have any of those spaces in your program or even outside of it?

Karena: When I moved to San Francisco, I found that. But, when I think about my undergrad experience, sure… I had some good professors. But I don’t remember seeing, looking at, or talking about many or any work by artists of color. All of my professors were white. The class that I hated the most was art history and it was completely about early European art. This was a small liberal arts school. And I would hope that the program is different now. But, at the time, it was just a sea of whiteness all around, in both content and who was there.

Lillyanne: How would you advise folks to build artists of color solidarity spaces for the students of color themselves, in the syllabus curation, and the decision-making processes?

Karena: I really can’t imagine any fields of study where it would not be relevant to consider the representation and critical conversations about race in that field. To even exist in our world today, we all need to think more critically and responsibly, about why representation matters and how that’s going to be achieved.

Lillyanne: I agree with you. I feel like we’ve talked about centering critical race conversations in syllabus curation before and it’s very much unavoidable. You would really have to purposely not do it. Or not know enough of it and not want to do the labor for a syllabus.

Karena: Yeah. Even if it’s in a European art history class, you could raise the question and have a section of the syllabus: why are there only white artists in a European art history context? 

Lillyanne: How do you involve more artists of color in programming? How does Caldera Arts conduct outreach? Like involving artists of color, not tokenizing them, and actually having them fully access the community.

Karena: A really successful example is Caldera’s Artist in Residence Program. I don’t have the data with me. I’m pretty sure 100% of our residents in 2022 identify as BIPOC or from historically underrepresented communities. I think it is a success that has been built over time. None of this I can take credit for because it’s not my program. But our current Arts Center Program Manager, Jodie Cavalier (she/they), and before her, Maesie Speer (she/her) really built a program that prioritized BIPOC voices and artwork. 

It definitely didn’t happen overnight. There was so much thought about: 1) who the organization was reaching out to, 2) how accessible our application materials were, 3) who was on the deciding panel. I think we’ve now gotten to a place where we have this really strong network. We also are very explicit. Now, we will list on our application materials that we prioritize BIPOC artists or folks from historically underrepresented communities, and we have those same people reviewing applications and making decisions. 

Lillyanne: Yes to people reviewing the applications too. You’re getting representation within the process and the program. For example, if your artist residency program was all white, do you feel like artists of color would want to apply to that? I know a lot of organizations that have a majority white staff and they’re expecting BIPOC folks to work for them. Or they work with BIPOC communities but they don’t have any BIPOC in their organizational system. How do you break this cycle? 

Karena: I think I will say that, personally, often if I’m job searching or just curious about an organization, I’ll go to their staff page to take a peek. And I think a strength if you look at Calderas’ staff, you see a lot of Black and Brown faces. I think it’s easy to think about communications as sort of, I don’t know, like fluff marketing, right. But I think it’s a poignant thing when someone is really intentional and thinking hard about what you’re communicating,. Whereas I think if you clicked on our staff page, and it was all white folks or white presenting folks. That’s where some judgment and questioning come in. 

We have one staff member who is a youth program alum and then some other staff who started working at camp like 12 years ago and are now year-round staff. When we are hiring, we’re being really thoughtful about the aspects of a job, salary, and hiring processes through an equity lens which in turn will impact the future of our organization.

Lillyanne:  […] Your internal organization matters and it really reflects your relation to BIPOC communities. (summarized)

Karena: I think so many organizations and companies talk so much about the need to diversify. And I think without necessarily talking about the ‘Why.’ And I think it’s that ‘Why’ that starts to make it click […]

Lillyanne: I’ll obviously delete some of our private experiences. I think I will summarize our conversation. As you’ve taught me to ask, can a nonprofit program or organization support whoever they’re trying to bring in? What does that support really look like? Are they willing to give away their power and disperse it? The way that has to happen if you’re making space for BIPOC communities. 

Karena: Totally, there’s no way you can diversify and be successful without doing things differently. 

Lillyanne: So, what does your creative practice look like in a nonprofit?

Karena: Historically, we could go all the way back to philanthropy, right? And how funding and nonprofits have often formed over the years, which is by well-intentioned white folks with deep pockets. And I am not saying I’m not grateful, or that these people didn’t have great ideas or start really incredible things. But I do think, if we don’t acknowledge the role of whiteness in the history of arts organizations and nonprofit work, there’s a big miss there. 

I think we need to shake things up and look at different perspectives, all the way from how nonprofit and art organizations are funded in relation to the folks that those organizations are serving. And then there’s a lot in between. There are leadership structures, decision-making structures, whose voices are involved in the direction of an organization and the programming that it offers. Just having spent so much time in nonprofits, I am really drawn to the stuff in between. It’s hard to say, Oh, it’s this one thing. Because it’s not, it’s so varied and deep.

Lillyanne: How can creatives work within and against the nonprofit industrial complex system?

Karena: I feel like my day-to-day and the way that I’m most frequently flexing creativity is in creative problem solving, and trying to envision a different way forward. I think of artists and creatives as the OG innovative thinkers. I think so much of Art and its power is being able to look at something through a new lens, or see something in a way that you haven’t before. 

I really think the industry needs people with different perspectives and different ideas of how to do things differently. I know it’s easy for myself to get caught in the cycle of like, Oh, well, this funder really likes this. Those structures are just so ingrained in me. So I love the idea of a new generation of creative thinkers just coming in and taking risks and exploring other ways.

Lillyanne: You mentioned earlier the concept of art as a language. Are you picturing this in the nonprofit world? What really drew me into socially engaged art was seeing cultural work in action in a nonprofit setting at Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO)(2). I don’t see many nonprofits that incorporate arts organizers as their own department. It’s usually one small lens throughout the whole organization. I was wondering what would happen if more nonprofits embrace art as thinking, engagement, and community building?

Karena’s Top 5’s, Feb 2022. Doodle for Caldera Arts zine.

Karena: Something I think about a lot is that outside of creative problem solving, Caldera, as an arts organization and as staff members, spend very little time during our workday making art. And so much of what happens in our youth work is the joy and love in exploring new creative pathways. There’s a disconnect, right? How much of that comes into how we run the organization? And I don’t know what the answer is, what the role of doing that is? Or should it be in our work? It’s just something that I notice.

Our program manager is compiling a zine from some of our artists in residence and now she’s solicited staff contributions. I spent maybe like an hour last week working on my zine contribution. But I had this thought process of like, Oh, I’m like on the clock, should I be doing this right now? This was a doodle. This was not like an extensive project. But I was feeling some guilt over spending time doing something artistically creative that was part of work. Because I’m so used to work meaning emails and meetings. I had those feelings come up for me.

Lillyanne: Embracing art as joy and letting joy live within work is something that needed to be named, so thank you! Leading to my last question, how do you practice creativity outside your dance practice? 

Karena: I think we’ve probably talked about this a lot in the past, but I do feel like most of my creative practice if I’m not doing an Instagram dance class is with my kids. I’m drawing alongside them or drawing something that they demand and draw. Which is nice, but it is different. I wouldn’t say it is as fulfilling as if I had time and space for my own exploration. 

I know, we’ve also talked about my need for structure and accountability. So that remains an ongoing challenge in my creative practice. I feel like these days I’m most interested in just trying different mediums. A theme of my life has been holding small bits of knowledge about many different areas, but not being an expert on them. Right now, I want to do a block print of the house that my dad grew up in. And I will maybe work on it for 10 minutes at a time, like once a month. So, maybe six months from now, I’ll have something for you [Karena and Lillyanne laugh]. It’s all in bits and pieces these days. 


(1)  Learn more about Caldera Arts here.

(2)  Learn more about APANO here.

Karena Salmond (she/her) is a Portland-based nonprofit worker, mother, Korean American, creative thinker and sometimes maker. She currently serves as youth program director at Caldera Arts and has dedicated her career to art as a vehicle for social change. When not working, Karena can be found dancing, cooking, and daydreaming about vacations.

Lillyanne Phạm (LP) (they/bạn/she/em/chị) was raised by Việt refugees in a trailer park near cornfields and suburbs (b. 1997). LP is a multimedia storyteller, placekeeping facilitator, social media scholar, and cultural worker. LP grounds their work in ancestral knowledge, the world wide web, and community-powered safety/sanctuary. Since graduating from Reed College in 2020, LP and their work have been rooted in East Portland exploring the power of BIPOC youth decision making. LP also builds community as a member of Metro’s Equity Advisory Committee (EAC), the Contingent’s SINE and ELI network, 2022 Atabey Medicine Apprenticeship, and the O82 Art Crew. You can follow LP’s work on IG: @lillyannepham or website:

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