Ciera Payton receives the 2016 Los Angeles Pioneer Woman Award
To honor the contributions of individuals who serve the city by advancing the status of women and girls, the City of Los Angeles Commission On the Status of Women presents the Pioneer Women of the Year award to remarkable leaders whose lifelong work has enriched the lives of women and girls.
This year Councilwoman Nury Martinez recognized and honored Ciera Payton for her work and contribution to Los Angele City Council District 6. For the last 3 years, Ciera Payton has dedicated her summers to provide an arts-based camp, titled The Michael’s Daughter Project to the youth of District 6. Funded by the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs and hosted by Casa Esperanza, Ciera allows students to channel their pain and challenges through the art of creative writing, theater, and filmmaking. Ciera has 15 years of experience working with inner-city students through arts-based learning. Check out her speech below from the LA Pioneer Woman Award Ceremony.
This award this is a huge honor and I am both humbled and surprised. I couldn’t be more grateful. Thank you!
The work I do at Casa Esperanza began years ago in New Orleans. I was a teenager working a summer job with the Anthony Bean Community Theater, teaching underprivileged and at-risk youth. When I, my 14 years old self was also underprivileged and at-risk.
You see, at that age, my father had recently been incarcerated, my Aunt Kerry died of a drug overdose, my grandmother lost her battle to cancer, and I was sent to live with my mother in the upper 9th ward of New Orleans. I say these things, NOT to arouse pity and/or heartbreaking sympathy, but to make you all aware of the importance of the arts. And why they are essential to my journey.
It was during that time ART became my go to. I developed an undying passion for creating, acting, writing, and performing. Art became my outlet! My guardian angel. And I felt that discovery was too good NOT to share.
At 15 years old, I was hired as Brenda Currin’s assistant for the theater program What Girls Know and soon became Associate director for the years following. We worked with young girls who were at-risk for human trafficking, drug abuse, teen pregnancy, and many of whom had parents incarcerated in Louisiana Prisons. But boy, we would create these plays, perform them to the City of New Orleans and each of those young ladies would become bright shining lights! Confidence, self-assurance, fearlessness looked so dang good on them! We all were elevated through that work and many of those girls went off and dared to go to college, pursue medical careers, become singers, and just love themselves!
Since then, I found ways to continue my work by joining the City of New Orleans’ Mayor Initiative NOLA for Life at Xavier University and volunteering with VIBE Theater and the Harlem Children’s Zone when I lived in New York City. I loved watching the students experience the sweetest of joy of being on stage or in front of the camera. Because that feeling is what saved a girl like me coming from the third ward of New Orleans.
Seeing my student thrive only inspired me to work harder and dream bigger! So, my passion for performing eventually landed me here in Los Angeles.
I wrote and created a one-woman show about my dealings of having an incarcerated father titled Michael’s Daughter. After each show, people would come to me explaining they have a niece, a nephew, or they themselves struggled with the same issues of being a child of an incarcerated parent. During those performances it became clear that I had to teach this work, here, to the youth of Los Angeles.
Soo many of us and our youth are affected by mass incarceration, or have broken family units due to poverty, drug addiction, alcohol abuse, and domestic violence. Art gives an outlet. Art heals.
So in 2014, I applied for and was awarded the Department of Cultural Affairs Artist in Residency Grant to serve city council district 6. D6 is an extremely impoverished, underserved area of the greater Los Angeles area. Art programs are scarce and very limited. A high number of youth are being recruited daily by local gangs and are dropping out of school to join them or take a job to support their families. College is never a conversation. Art isn’t even a consideration.
When searching for a host organization, the office of Councilwoman Nury Martinez directed me to Casa Esperanza and I have been there teaching the Michael’s Daughter Project ever since. Casa Esperanza sits in the middle of Blythe Street in Panorama City; A neighborhood known for the original gang injunctions in Los Angeles. Casa Esperanza was created by a group of Immaculate Heart nuns, with the help and support of local LAPD and government officials, who wanted to bring HOPE back to their community.
Maritza Artan and the whole staff have been just a joy and a pleasure to work with. They have supported me wholeheartedly. And I truly love working with the students there. They are seriously bright stars in the making! The Michael’s Daughter Project is an act of social activism. My goal is empower these teenagers who are dealing with incarcerated loved ones, deported family members, who are at the risk of being sold into human trafficking, dropping out of school, and joining gangs. The issues are endless…and the Michael’s Daughter Project serves as a prevention tool by sparking life into our youth so that they can make healthy life decisions. This is about building strong communities!
I can’t just receive this award without acknowledging the whole village that has enabled me to do this work! Thank you Maritza Artan, the beautiful staff of Casa Esperanza, the students who make this program thrive! All the volunteers and teaching artists, specifically Buddy Lewis, Phylicia Wissa, Charley Mac, Samythra Saba, Leianna Seals, Sharon Donnan, and a very special thank you to the Department of Cultural Affairs for providing the opportunity to create my program. And last but not least THANK YOU Councilwoman Nury Martinez and her staff, notably, Eddie, Marcos, and Lenora. I can’t thank you all enough!
Lastly, I must note that this program has barely gotten by on very small funds and the help of a number of volunteers and countless I.O.U’s. This work needs money, financial sponsorship, and core support. Every year searching for money and volunteers is a huge challenge. I’d like to call upon everyone here today to acknowledge the value of arts based programs and make it your personal duty to see that unlimited funds are available for such programs. We need your commitment!
God Bless you all! And ASPIRE TO INSPIRE!