Sanctuary Philadelphia Independent Cultural Youth (SPICY): Safe spaces and self-care strategies

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SPICY Safe spaces and self-care strategies Sanctuary Philadelphia Independent Cultural Youth Program from 2019-2021


Table of Contents About SPICY


Safe spaces


Self-care strategies


Emerging identities


Self portraits






Program Overview

Sanctuary Philadelphia Independent Cultural Youth (SPICY) was a youth program developed in partnership between Creative Resilience Collective (a local health and social justice collective), Thomas Jefferson University (public health program), and Southeast by Southeast (an immigrant and refugee organization). Through a series of monthly workshops from September 2019 to February 2021, middle school age immigrant and refugee youth from Northeast and Southeast Philadelphia collaborated with artists, designers, and social workers in creative workshops. Through relationship-building, dialogue, and personal reflection, participants learned to articulate and understand their mental health needs, identify safe spaces, and strategies for self-care. Sessions were intended to alternate between the Exchange in Northeast Philadelphia and Southeast x Southeast in Southeast Philadelphia. Due to COVID-19, youth and program facilitators shifted to meeting virtually from April 2020 to February 2021.



Northeast The Exchange at Oxford Circle

Southeast 8

Southeast x Southeast Porchlight Storefront


Defining Spicy


By Hser Nay Christ


Youth participants led the development of the SPICY project name and logo across the first three sessions. 12


SPICY youth learned how to to screen print their logo designs onto shirts.

Felicia Blow of Two Minds Press and Creative Resilience Collective led a screen printing exercise with youth at the Exchange.

Sara holds up her finished shirt. 14


What does SPICY mean to you?

“SPICY is about a bunch of teens working together to make the world a better place by sharing our thoughts and stories.” - Sarah










Photo by Jenna Spitz




lp de ila Ph


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rt he ast heast t ou

pa ce s

Through a series of neighborhood walks, discussions, and facilitated workshops SPICY youth identified safe spaces where they felt sanctuary and belonging.

S e f Sa 26

hi a These phrases of care and safe spaces helped to inspire artist Amberella’s goth hearts in English, Arabic, and Karen.


Philly and LA based mixed media artist, Amberella’s public art inspires conversations about feelings of isolation and mental health. In 2019, Mural Arts contracted Amberella to help create goth hearts inspired by youth phrases and safe spaces identifed through SPICY workshops. Messages were translated into Arabic and Karen, as a way to connect with the larger Northeast and Southeast community. SPICY inspired goth hearts can be found at:


Photo by Steve Weinik.

Mifflin Park 500 Wolf St Philadelphia, PA 19148

Whitman Free Library 200 Snyder Ave Philadelphia, PA 19148

The Exchange at Oxford Circle 6434 Castor Ave Philadelphia, PA 19149

Northeast Regional Library 2228 Cottman Ave Philadelphia, PA 19149








Look at pictures from SPICY



bette l e r fe en

Am in my room

Hear my mom talking to family in Egypt


Listen to Turkish music - NOSOK

Listen to music

Am at home

Spend time with my cat

“Home is my happy place”


Listen to sad korean music Lay in bed to try and relax Listen to podcasts


Write poems and journal Read and listen to music at night - HSER NAY 34


Sanctuary and Belonging



Wearing clothes that express who you are When people say “hi” or “good morning” When you can do the things you want to do Spaces you can speak your language Places where all are welcome Feeling like people are gentle with you Feeling comfortable being yourself Feeling understood Feeling accepted Drawing Being with family Being at home, in your bedroom Being at a friends house Being able to share secrets with teachers A calm and comfortable place Not feeling shy with people Time alone or by yourself


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In March 2020, after five in person sessions, the COVID-19 pandemic forced SPICY to transition to a virtual setting. Due to various factors, the transition meant that 6 of the 2 original participants were unable to continue to attend workshops. In the words of one SPICY participant, “SPICY is another home where I can do what I enjoy, which is art and sharing ideas. We discuss topics that should be discussed like mental health... To me, SPICY is happiness.” The virtual program shifted to create more space for youth to share self-care strategies, as well as develop art and language around their emerging identities.








“I identify as a Karen refugee. Christian, a woman or a girl... I think my personality is not constant. It doesn’t stay the same... I write in a journal, and whenever I re-read it, I notice myself changing little by little”


“I identify myself as a person that’s pretty much confused in life...since I’m a teenager, it means my personality is like pretty confused. I don’t know who I am, who, or who am I gonna be... I love the part of me that really puts feelings... in artwork. For example, sometimes I draw a sunset if my mood is going down or stuff like that.” “I would identify myself as Asian, Karen, a refugee. The main reason why I say this is because I come from Thailand. Was it Thai...? Yeah, it was Thailand, I think, because I was too small to remember. Little boy coming to America. I didn’t learn about gender until later because I loved Barbie dolls, watching My Little Kitty, My Little Pony, and all these things. I wanted to wear a dress one time, but then again you know, my parents did not [laughs] it was different... but now like, you know, you have people judging you, so you just want to fit in and act normal so you do what fits people instead of what fits you. I’m growing my eyelashes, I want to have like, one of those make-up on me, smoky eyelashes, those make-up. I want to try to wear some lipstick, be a little bit more me, you know? But hey, there’s nothing wrong with my identity, it’s just you have to find what suits you” 43

On June 20, 2020 SPICY teens met virtually to discuss the connections between SPICY and the Black Lives Matter movement. This conversation was documented on Your World of Text. Visit our website →







Hser Nay “Mental health is not a very easy thing to bring up… and I wish it was…”





Why did you include the sky in your self portait?

Do you write every day? HN: Not every day. I write whenever I feel like there’s an event that affects me... I just write whatever comes to mind.

HN: I included that because I wanted to be free. I think of the sky, [because] it’s not limited... And why did you incorporate the flag? Can you tell me more about what your culture means to you? HN: Culture is a big thing for [my mom], so it’s also a big thing for me… And it’s something that I identify with and I’m always going to identify with so I included that.

A photo of clouds Hser Nay found for her portrait.

“If I don’t journal it out, then it’ll just be stuck in my head forever. If I put it down then it’ll feel less heavy on me.” Does journaling help you escape from your physical surroundings and access a different space in your mind? HN: When I’m writing, it’s like I’m letting go of where I am right now. Not like being in a different place, but just letting go of where I am. Do you ever go back and read the old journals?

Hser Nay’s self portrait sketch. The Karen flag.


The old journal entries? I reread them and sometimes it doesn’t even sound like me… Like I would have never expected myself to be that way.

Does it make you think that you’ve grown? HN: Yeah. It shows I’ve grown a lot with the way I think about myself and especially other people. Before, when I journaled, I journaled a lot about how this person is so mean to me... Instead of gossiping about them to other people, I wrote about them in my journal… As I kept going... the entries that I wrote, weren’t really about their problems, [they were] more about how I affected them and how I felt. How do you feel after journaling? HN: I feel more peaceful. If I don’t journal it out, then it’ll just be stuck in my head forever. If I put it down then it’ll feel less heavy on me. Are there any places where you feel really understood or a sense of sanctuary? HN: Right now there’s not really a place that I feel at peace. It’s cause I don’t really go outside a lot, especially during this time. There’s not a place that I have peace with right now.




What does a place or space of belonging mean to you?

How do you understand mental health for yourself?

How has the pandemic affected your mental health?

HN: I’ve always wanted my own space. On my Pinterest, [I create] apartment boards. So I always save those cause like, that’s kind of where I want to be like alone, by myself.

It’s like how you’re feeling. I’m not sure how to put it into words, but like how your mind is feeling, like the place inside your head. I’m not sure how to describe it.

If you had a home or apartment of your own? What would it look like?

I think that’s a great explanation. Do you ever talk about mental health with your family and friends?

HN: The pandemic made me rethink the stuff that’s affecting me. Like I used to think, I cared about how I look because I was scared of how people were gonna think of me, this and that, but since COVID happened, like you don’t get to see people that much anymore. So like, the thing that I really thought about was like, how [am I] perceiving myself. Is that… because I’m scared of what people will think of me or is that just because I don’t like myself.

HN: I would make it very empty. I wouldn’t bring a lot of stuff with me. I would probably just put stuff a house needs like, bed [and] a couch. Do you have a lot of siblings? How many siblings do you have? HN: I have a really big family. I have five including me… [and] I share this room with my oldest sister and my youngest sister… It’s really small… My older sister arranges it [and] we just... improvise. Were there particular things that you really enjoyed about SPICY? HN: I really enjoyed hearing [about] other people in their experience and learning about how their school was.


HN: Not really with my friends, sometimes, with my family, not a lot. Do you think mental health is something that the older people in your family know about?

That’s a really wise question to ask yourself.

HN: They know about it. I’m not sure if they care about it much. Is it something that you wish that people talked about more like either with their families or with their friends? I kind of wish it was a comfortable topic to talk about. Talking about mental health is... not a very easy thing to bring up and I wish it was...




“...the ocean, sea water… it’s one of the main things I think of when I want to feel free or I’m’s just a place for me to go to my imaginary place.”





Can you tell us about what you incorporated in your portrait?

Why did you want to participate in SPICY?

NA: I put the ocean [and] sea water, because it’s one of the main things I think of when I want to feel free or like I’m sad.., it’s just a place for me to go to my imaginary place.

NA: I wanted to participate in SPICY because I wanted to be a part of a group who wants to make... people feel welcome in a place that they don’t really know anybody in.

I also want to put my favorite bird. It’s like an ocean bird. It’s called the albatross. The way [it] makes me feel is… like a ship [going out to] the sea. It’s another sign of freedom for me. So those are the combinations of my freedom when I feel stuck.

What has SPICY meant to you over this last year?

Are there songs, words, or poems that you really identify with? NA: There’s a song called “Kendine Gel,” it’s a Turkish song that has... touching words for me. What’s the general meaning of the song? NA: I think what it means is that a person who is somewhere high and looks down sees all the faces are very blurry and looking at him, and he’s up high and wanting to jump down. There’s that voice in his head saying to him to come... back to where you belong.


Photo of the ocean. Source: ZME Science.

Why is it important for you to feel freedom? NA: Mostly because sometimes I feel that I’m stuck in a situation or I’m sometimes sad, I want to feel like I’m outside of that situation I’m in.

NA: It means multiple things, but I really feel like it means that... no matter how many races there are, how many people from different places there are, I feel like one group. We all understand each other, we all have the same experience.

What are some experiences that you feel like you share with each other? NA: Like a lot of people are refugees, some of them are immigrants. You know, I’m one of the immigrants... and a lot of people went through the stuff I went through, like hard times with money, finding a place to live, finding work, and all that stuff. Why is it meaningful for you to be able to share a community with people who understand that? NA: I want to share it because if there’s anybody that needs help, or who really is new to this place, new to this community, [they] know what is going

One time I really wanted to use the bird [when] one of our family members... passed away in the beginning of the year... Shen died when she was sleeping and her baby was just born... I’d use the bird to imagine that I’m flying in the sky, like a free bird, and going to see her.

Albatross birds flying. Source: 57

SELF-PORTRAIT to happen in their future. Like if people really don’t know how to speak English, don’t know what to do in their lives... learn from what we immigrants and refugees did. Do you remember when you first learned about the concept of mental health? NA: I don’t really remember, but I went through a lot of mental health issues. Like I went through depression and anxiety and all that stuff. I was suffering from suicidal ideation. I wanted to, you know, end life. Which is very bad when I think about it... but with the help of people that I know that are not from the same family that I am, I got to the point that I am right now. I got to feel welcomed in this life. How did those people help you feel welcomed in this life? NA: One of the steps that they made me do was go... to a therapist, which I still do to this day. That therapist started to help me know how to understand people, how to control all the feelings that I have, and all that stuff. And that really helped me understand myself and other people better.


What are some things that you have learned about mental health over the years? If you wanted to talk to someone who is younger than you about mental health, what are some things you would say to them? NA: That’s kinda hard. I mean, I usually go through those stuff a lot with my sister. Sometimes my sister would be going through the stuff I went through. I’ll say, like, don’t really make yourself feel bad or try to change yourself to fit with others. Never give a chance to anybody to make you feel bad about yourself. Always love yourself the way you are, no matter who you are, how you look like, how your body shape looks like, anything, just love yourself the way you are. When you first started seeing a therapist, was it hard to get used to talking to someone or did you feel embarrassed at all when you first started? NA: Yeah, like a couple of months into me going to a therapist I felt like I was a sick person, like, I was a crazy person, I wasn’t supposed to do that, you know. I hated myself for that, but I did not stop. I didn’t want to stop.

NOSOK ALI I have a lot of trust issues with people. It took a lot of time, me trusting the therapist, you know. I wanted to trust her, but I always remember the hard times I went through when I always trusted somebody. It’s more, more like a past life issue. So yeah. It’s been kind of hard. How long have you been seeing a therapist? NA: I think this is my second year… I feel like I’m not suffering from depression anymore, I trust myself more, I feel like nobody can make me feel bad about myself, you know? And if I get angry or sad or just feeling that I don’t belong in this life, I just try my best to either talk to my therapist or do some stuff that makes me happy.

what I gone through that day. Like what happened in the day that made me feel sad, and how do I feel. And sometimes I keep it. And I sometimes I just rip it into pieces, and just throw it in the trash. If it has a lot of negative energy into the paper -- like if it comes to the point that when you read what’s in the paper, you feel like you’re going to be so sad, to the point that you want to just not talk to anybody anymore -- I literally just rip it and throw it in the trash. Just like “bye bye negativity.” And my favorite cartoon! Tom and Jerry...[and] I have Tom and Jerry in real life. I have my female cat and my male cat. They always run after each other like they’re in some type of safari.

Earlier you were talking about how you’ve learned ways to make yourself feel better when you’re feeling low or kind of depressed, do you have any tools you want to share? NA: I mean, the first thing I do when I feel... sad, I just go sit down somewhere quiet, just put some music on and write


Hae Paw “Mental health is not a very easy thing to bring up… and I wish it was…”



SELF-PORTRAIT Are there places in Philadelphia or outside Philadelphia, where you feel like a sense of sanctuary, or you feel like you can be yourself? HP: The Navy Yard I guess. On the side, near the river. It’s a path to walk on, just to calm down.

HP: I’m usually with a close friend. We walk down the path, or stay in the car if it gets too cold...

Navy Yard photo taken by Hae Paw.

Are there any other places or spaces you’d like to mention?

That’s beautiful! Where does that come from?

HP: It feels like nothing’s stopping me to do anything. I’m able to do whatever I want.

HP: I don’t know. I just want to do that. No one wants me to, they’re all against it.

Do you like nature? HP: It’s calm. It’s not, how do you say it, too distracting, especially when there’s not that many people. Yea, I just look at stuff, look at the view.

Circa green photo taken by Hae Paw.

Have you ever been close to experiencing it? Hae Paw: Like with light rain... During heavy rain I’m not allowed to go out.

HP: I feel like it passes quicker… during the moment, it feels slow and calm, but then when you look at the time it went by so fast.

Are there poems or words or phrases or song lyrics that you find comfort in?

Is there a particular part of the view you like?

HP: There’s a saying. Something about “don’t feel bad for feeling.”

HP: No, not really. I guess during the sunset, any side. Or the sunrise.

I think we all feel different types of emotions. In this society, we always get judged for being different, I guess, like they expect everyone to be nonchalant.

Are there other places that are important to you?

HP: There’s Ciera Green. It’s just up so high. I feel fresh, I guess.


What does that calm feeling feel like in your body?

Do you feel like time passes differently too, when you’re in these places?

Do you have any particular memories there? Or what do you like to do when you’re there.

I want to be alone, to take time for myself, but then, I also don’t want to be alone.


HP: I like anywhere where there’s water, views and like, not as many people I guess. Where we could take long walks. To reflect. I like places where you can walk*laughs* I don’t know how to describe it… I’ve never experienced this before, but I want to walk in the rain. Like soaking myself in the rain. Heavy rain.

Do you remember where you heard this saying? HP: I downloaded this app called Motivation and it gives you a different quote every day, like different types of motivation. And that was one of them.


SELF-PORTRAIT Would you recommend it to other folks? HP: Yea, especially teenagers I think. What color speaks to how you feel? HP: Light blue. It’s kind of sky blue. How does sky blue make you feel? HP: Just calm. Light. Less stress, lightweight. I’m still thinking about the quote that you chose for your portrait. Are there times when you feel like you have to bury your feelings? HP: I feel guilty for feeling down sometimes. Because there’s people out there suffering and like me... I don’t have that much going on. Why did you want to include this river from Thailand? HP: I was born there. Not in the city, on the border of Thailand.

A photo of a river in Thailand where Hae Paw was born.

What would you do if you were in this place? HP: As a kid we’d usually play around with the water.





SPICY Participants

Project Partners


Creative Resilience Collective (CRC)


Jenna Spitz, MSW, Teaching Artist Ila Kumar, Teaching Artist Felicia Blow, Teaching Artist Feini Yin, Teaching Artist Dianne Loftis, Teaching Artist Andrea Ngan, Program Organizer

Mue Paw

Southeast x Southeast (Part of Mural Arts Philadelphia)

Shahed Sarah

Mena Nay Kaw Hser Nay He Saw Hae Paw Briana

Ujjwala Maharjan, Program Coordinator Melissa Fogg, MSW, Program manager Nadia Malik, MSW, Porch Light Director Thomas Jefferson University

Thomas Chen, MD/MPH (c), Graduate Assistant Lyena Birkenstock, MD/MPH (c), Graduate Assistant Asha Chintala, MPH, Capstone Student Amy Henderson Riley, DrPH, MCHES, Project PI / Lead Alex Baukus, MPH, Clerkship Student

Acknowledgements This project was generously funded by Community Driven Research Day (CDRD), Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.



Sanctuary Philadelphia Independent Cultural Youth