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How Natalia Padilla Is Changing Immigrants’ Lives Through Art

the graphic designer created a class for Dallas teens—and partnered with them on a book project

Some children are visual learners, some auditory, some kinesthetic. There are multiple ways to learn, and the potential that’s unlocked when you figure out how your child learns best is something Natalia Padilla recognizes.

As a self-described human of the world,” Padilla used her graphic design background and love for education to help children in Vickery Meadow become part of a bigger grant project: a class-illustrated book with resources for immigrants.

The summer class for 13– to 15-year-olds, which lasted two hours a day, four days a week during June and Julybrought together kids from Africa, Burma, Mexico and more countries to learn through art. 

We sat down with the mind behind the project, called Dsgn For Us, to talk about the book and what it was like to manage a class full of teenagers—without any prior teaching experience. 

DFWChild: So tell me about Dsgn For Us. Natalia Padilla: It started because I got a grant from the city of Dallas Cultural Affairs. It’s been stressful and exciting, but I’m learning to embrace the challenge. I had a consult with Daryl Radcliffe—he’s an incredible activist and social artist that has been serving the city of Dallas for something like 10 years. He knows a lot of people in Dallas and has a lot of connections, and he just told me to go look into Vickery Meadow. I partnered with Vickery Meadow [Youth Development] Foundation. They allowed me to [hold classes].

Writing the grant and then coming to present the idea—that’s when everything started coming together and everything became really personal. I went in there earlier to calm my nerves, and I cried. I’m like, “Oh my gosh. This is the intersection of my background, exactly who I am, what my purpose is, what I believe in, my passion and my expertise.”

Man, I felt like I was flying. I received the grant, which was also exciting, that I was awarded the amount $15,000. They would only cover 50% of your project.

Child: How was working with the kids? NP: It was a roller coaster because I’ve never taught before. The class I taught this summer…was a conceptual illustration class. They learned about concept, the program Procreate to digitize their drawings, principles and elements of design, research, three different techniques of brainstorm, how to formulate questions, and how to be confident with who they are.

Thirteen to 15 was the age range. Puberty. It’s really awkward. It’s fascinating. It’s so challenging, and it’s so sweet and cute. My thing is to be able to teach to all types of brains and adapt to all types of learners, not just because you have a reading disability or something to send you to another group.

So I try to incorporate music into my class’ visuals. I would give them lectures, but I try to keep them short. [We had a ritual that] was a breathing exercise. We started with three minutes. I brought some blankets, and we would sit on the floor and sit in a circle. We did the breathing exercises every day, and I think that helped them focus and concentrate.

At the beginning of the class was conversation, exercises, and the other half drawing. We would put on music, and we would just draw.

Child: Tell me about the book you made with your students. NP: LOCAL, a bilingual coloring guidebook, includes a lot of resources available to immigrants that the city of Dallas has to offer. Student’s illustrations that are included in the book, design of the book, and poetry included in the book [are complete]. We need to raise at least $15,000 so we can translate the book, keep the website up for a year—so everyone in Dallas can download for free—print, and donate the book to several nonprofits in the book.

Child: You also have a bilingual coloring book called My ABZoo. How did that start? NP: I had a collaboration with the Dallas Museum of Art. I love illustrating, and I never had the courage to pursue a career as an illustrator because I didn’t think I was going to make money. So illustrating after work was my art, was my fun time, was my “me” time. When I designed my [first letter], I thought, “This is fun. I want to do the whole alphabet,” because I’m kind of like a zero-or-a-hundred kind of girl. My designer part of me was like, “But it needs to have a meaning, and it needs to be functional,” and so I’m like, “I’m going to do it in Spanish.”

I don’t like to say this book is for kids. I like to say “for the user” because adults sometimes lose the ability of writing and reading, and they need to learn again because of trauma or accidents. And coloring has been clinically proven that it helps with anxiety and depression.

So the book, it’s a healing educational tool. My ABZoo is about learning to create a magical experience for those who learn through emotions, sight, words, touch and sound, so I’m just giving you different tools to see what works for you because everyone has their own style.

Child: Do you think being bilingual is important? NP: Oh, absolutely. It’s a brain muscle. I think that you get to experience things as a human being that you wouldn’t only speaking one language. I feel things through English that I don’t feel through Spanish and vice versa…it is definitely healthy, and it gives you a bigger sense of perspective because a language is not just a symptom of a culture, but the language becomes part of the culture.

Child: Any future plans? NP: The second book, B, is going to be for the big kids. It’s not going to have the instructional aspect of writing. It’s just going to be heavier on the illustration, and it’s going to have flowers incorporated. The reason why [the first book] is called A is because I’m giving myself room to make 26 books if I want. I’m also working on animations [with English and Spanish voiceovers]. I want to do a YouTube channel because I love animating, so I feel like I need to get this out of my system—you know so you can have a 360 experience with visual and analog.

Book ‘Em

To help Dsgn For Us reach their goal of $15,000, which will allow them to distribute 1,000 student-designed books to immigration nonprofits, donate at dsgnforus.com.

“If [we] raise $20,000, I will give a scholarship to two students for their college expenses, and a portion of the money would go to start the next project by Dsgn For Us,” Padilla says. Copies of the book will be available on the website to print when it becomes available.

To get a copy of the first My ABZoo book, A: More Than A Coloring Book, find it on Amazon for $19.99, or follow the Instagram account @myabzoo.

Image courtesy of Natalia Padilla.