Change Agent: Tehani Sarreal, the Artivist

  • 12/13/2012
  • Terelle Jerricks

By John Farrell, Contributing Writer

Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of Random Lengths News Change Agent series. This series highlights the unsung individuals that serve our communities behind the scenes often unnoticed, working to make miracles happen. Sustained by faith or their determination to give back, these change agents aim to improve the lives of others.

Jennifer Tehani Sarreal is barely 28 and just 5 feet 2 inches tall. Some people would say that a big gust of wind would carry her away. Her flowing hair, her winning smile and her always-cheerful demeanor hide a powerhouse in a white sarong.

A Cal State University Long Beach graduate of anthropology, she has traveled the world seeking wisdom. She is  a world-class dancer who wants to make the world a better place.

Tehani  (that’s the name she uses all the time) had embarked on her vision of bringing together artists to “creatively inspire others to action, to understanding, to inner/outer peace, to begin the personal search for truth.” That quote is from the brochure for Artists for Action, which Tehani founded and for which she currently collecting funding

Artists for Action aims to showcase artists from all walks of life and all media, artists who have come together to advocate the arts and promote peaceful solutions to global issues. She calls them “Artivists.”

This collective of artist aimed to tackle some pretty big ideas, such as diversity and multicultural acceptance, conservation and human trafficking. The list on their website is a long one, but Tehani is determined to address many of them and produce a good show as well. She is steely-eyed in her determination. She says this determination and sense of purpose, comes from her father Josef S. Sarreal.

Her father died four years ago, in 2008, but Tehani is still inspired by him.

“He gave up a lot of his plans to support my dreams and make sure I had all the opportunities he didn’t have,” she said.

Tehani is raising funds for Artists in Action this month. That fundraising is based on a micro-grant from the Arts Council for Long Beach, which paid for her to try and get money from the community for her project. The Arts Council has been very supportive of Tehani’s activities, but despite the fact that she says the process was straightforward and simple. She notes that the grant was, after all, considered by a committee which had to agree with her plans. Even a micro-grant requires planning and scheduling.

This not the first time Tehani pursued a grant for one of her projects. In 2002, when she was just 18, she received a California Association for the Gifted grant, which she used to produce her first show, for which she also directed, choreographed and wrote most of the music.

“I’m very happy about receiving the micro-grant from the Arts Council for Long Beach,” she said. “It fills me with gratitude to know that the arts community is backing a project so important to me…”

She adds that the Arts Council is accessible and quite  involved with the community.

“It’s not intimidating and they are very supportive of so much that goes on here in our town,” she adds. “They have been very supportive of many events I have been involved with here.”

Tehani moves with an easy carriage that tells you at once she is more than just fit. She has been dancing since she was 8 years old, and won the Belly Dancer of the Universe Competition in Long Beach in 2008, despite a broken tailbone and the recent death of her beloved father.

Tehani is particularly interested in the cross-cultural link between dance and spirituality around the world and the way performance art informs and influences social movements internationally. There are others who have similar interests, but Tehani literally went the distance.

Her first experience of international travel was when she went to Costa Rica to work with sea turtles in Cahuita National Park. Sea turtles, in case you were wondering, don’t dance, but Tehani was able to live on her own in Costa Rica and dance to local bands, hearing Costa Rican, Jamaican music and reggaeton.

Two years ago, in 2010, she embarked on a trip that took her to New Zealand, Thailand, India, Turkey, Belgium, France, Spain, Portugal, Brazil, Mexico and, by accident, Peru.

“Peru wasn’t in my plans, but I danced and studied dance there as well,” she said.

It was an adventure she can’t forget and not without its comic side. (For instance, she more or less starved in France when she was stranded at the train station and couldn’t speak the language and tell people she was a vegetarian).

“It was a beautiful experience,” Tehani said. “It was kind of ‘dance hitchhiking’ in a way … I would teach at different studios, take different dance classes, perform here and there,” she said.

She noted that In New Zealand, for example, she met and lived with the Maori people in Rotorua for a period of time learning the traditions and spirituality behind many of their dances — dances she originally learned in California.

Her experiences traveling and living abroad added context, nuance, depth, to her understanding of the issues she was already passionate about.

“Traveling outside of the U.S. didn’t really change any of my political convictions,” Tehani explained. “A lot of the issues and themes portrayed in Artists For Action I have had a position on and haven’t wavered. If anything, traveling abroad only strengthened my positions on social, political and environmental issues.”

Tehani describes Artists For Action as her way of giving communities what we need: a safe space for honest, transparent discussion.

“There is so much silence where we need to be shouting in unison,” she said. “From human trafficking and domestic violence to childhood obesity and the slashing of arts education in our schools, these are continuing issues here in our communities, but we are not having that much-needed public discussion.”

The free artistic event  set for Feb. 23, 2013 she is producing is the first step in that process. Though it’s loosely called a concert, the event is actually so much more. It will have live music, but it will also incorporate other artistic forms and performances from a variety of disciplines. And  more importantly, every performance will be centered on political, social and environmental themes.

“Every artist participating in this event has either a personal or professional connection to their subject, it makes the message that much more poignant, powerful and authentic,” she explained.

 There will also be a community forum featuring a panel discussion with the artists following the performances.

Tehani’s ultimate dream is to see Artists For Action spread to other communities and be able to support Artists For Action projects around the world in terms of resources and training.

“It’s my big dream to see AFA blossom and continue to evolve and progress as far as life will carry it,” she said.

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