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Totem Star offers online music programs to youth in response to COVID-19

The idea for the youth-focused nonprofit was formed in 2010 when Daniel Pak and fellow co-founder Thaddeus Turner hosted a summer program at Rainier Community Center for 10 youth recently released from Juvenile Detention. Over the summer, Pak and Turner spent 240 hours with the youth creating and recording music.

Totem Star artists supporting Kiddus Fecto during Winter Magic – Photo by Avi Loud

“We had Bloods and Crips in the same studio, and we were all a happy family,” Daniel Pak, co-founder and Executive Director of Totem Star.

Three weeks after the conclusion of the program, Pak had what he calls an, “aha” moment when he found out 1/3 of the youth had already been booked back into the detention center. In that moment, Pak remembers thinking, “We need to have a place where young people can always come. A safe and encouraging creative sanctuary.”

That creative sanctuary is now 10 years old and, according to Pak, has mentored about 2,000 youth. Located inside Youngstown Cultural Arts center in West Seattle, Totem Star has become a central hub for young artists looking for studio time, mentorship, and most importantly, family.

“It’s a real thriving and beautiful community”, youth artist Mirabai Kukathas explains. “Once all this [COVID] started, it was like, ‘I can’t see my family anymore!’”  Kukathas, who was set to compete in the final round the MoPop Sound Off! before the event was cancelled due to COVID, is one of many youth who were worried when Totem Star was forced to shut its doors in March. However, due to quick action from Totem Star staff, the programs never missed a beat. “Pretty much immediately, I get these emails saying not to worry because everything is moving online,” she recalls. “We can book sessions like normal, but only through Zoom. We can’t record stuff, but we can chat, we can write songs, we can cry, we can make jokes, and it’ll be the same.”

It may not be fair to say that everything remained the same, but there are some ways Totem Star has improved. With all sessions becoming digital, it has become easier for artists outside of the Greater Seattle area to participate in programs. Since closing their doors in March, Pak has brought in a singer/song writer from Auburn and reconnected with an alumni who is currently studying abroad in Holland. Speaking of using technology to expand Totem Star’s reach, Pak says, “The whole remote sessions model really gives us a sneak peek into what the future looks like should we decide to expand. We could literally serve any young artist in the world right now.”

Co-Founder Thaddeus Turner (right) working with Mirabai Kukathas (left) in The Studio. Photo by Tracey Wong

Totem Star has shifted smoothly to the new world of remote meetings. During normal times, teens would come to their studio Monday-Friday during after school hours to hang out with friends and work on music. Now, in addition to remote one-on-one mentor sessions, they host big virtual meetings via Zoom every Wednesday and Thursday where youth can still connect with their Totem Star family. Communications Manager Tracey Wong points out, “We had a physical open mic night that was twice a year, but we have now brought it online at #TotemStarLive and it’s a virtual open mic every first Friday.”

Mirabai performing at Summer Kick Off – Photo by Maurice Harnsberry

Totem Star is currently accepting applications for new artists. To any youth considering joining, Pak says, “Totem Star has always been a welcoming and inclusive space for any young person passionate about music to discover a new family.”
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