Mariam Aryai-Rivera devotes herself to building community and fostering hope in transient spaces. As Program Director of Art Start’s School’s Out New York City (SONYC) program at the Nelson Residence, Mariam offers academic enrichment and art workshops for middle school youth living in the homeless shelter.
Youth affected by homelessness are often in constant transition. Stationed in the shelter 5 days a week, Mariam has grounded herself, and Art Start, as not just an afterschool program, but an everyday, consistent resource for her youth. As youth can find themselves living in the shelter system for years at a time, Mariam seeks to generate stability through art. She schedules a steady stream of academic enrichment and art workshops, enabling her students to creatively explore themes like empowerment, entitlement, identity, and space. Mariam guides her youth to transcend the stigma associated with their situation and helps them to regard their surroundings as precious – transforming the physical space with murals, images of positive icons, and youth artwork which hangs from the ceiling and walls. Mariam works tirelessly to positively transform the surrounding space and the experience of the youth within it.
Beyond art, Mariam also encourages her youth to understand the importance of healthy eating. The Nelson Residence is located in the South Bronx, a food desert. In response, Mariam utilizes her passion for food and environmental justice to pioneer gardening workshops, transforming underused space into a garden with fruits and vegetables. Mariam also collaborates with the Teaching Artists to integrate dance, STEM, and literacy into programs, helping the youth to expand their concept of education, beyond the classroom, but as an integral part of everyday life.
The youth of the Nelson Residence admire Mariam, as they are afforded agency, respect, and are regarded as co-collaborators. In her three years, Mariam has worked with almost 100 young people, and although many of are in and out of the shelter, Mariam makes it her duty to develop a connection with each and every student.
Mariam reminds her youth that homelessness doesn’t have to determine one’s life journey, and it does not define who they are as people.
Prior to Art Start, Mariam served as Food Justice Instructor/Program Coordinator at Children’s Aid Society. Mariam has a degree in Agriculture and has received trainings in trauma and resilience from the Center for Child Trauma, Mount Sinai, oral history from the Columbia University Center for Oral Research.