• Aisha Coons

Community Leadership Spotlight: Roberta Wentzel-Walter

Updated: 5 days ago


“A leader is a witness and guide for those served, helping to cultivate and develop their strengths while modeling the active pursuit of personal growth and wisdom. Albert Einstein said, ’Art is standing with one hand extended into the universe and one hand extended into the world and letting ourselves be a conduit for passing energy.’ A leader is a conduit for passing energy.”


As part of our Community Leader Spotlight Series, we spoke to Roberta Wentzel-Walter.

In this candid conversation, Roberta walks us through her journey of being the leader at Arts Unity Movement (AUM), its defining work, opportunities, achievements, and challenges confronting this Bay Area nonprofit.


About Roberta and Arts Unity Movement


“I'm kind of like an art missionary.”


Roberta cofounded the nonprofit Arts Unity Movement (AUM) with Coleen Lorenz and three others. AUM was incorporated in 2011 and is located in San Mateo, CA. It was “founded to focus on the therapeutic use of arts to connect communities and empower change.”


Roberta is also an ordained minister in the Terra Nova Seminary, an eclectic and ecumenical organization. Along with her writing group, Sisters of the Holy Pen, she has published six collections of poetry, edited by Dr. Pamela Eakins. The titles are: Pandemic Corona, Death, SacredEarth, Liberty, Justice, and Sanctuary.


The Journey


CLASS: Welcome, Roberta. Can you please tell us a little bit about yourself? You can discuss your professional journey, education, early days of your career, etc.


Roberta: I fell in love with art at an early age. I was one of those children that didn't veer away from art in 4th grade, as most people do. I studied art and music in college, but I had a side interest in spirituality and Jungian psychology, which I just studied on my own because I was fascinated. The only thing I learned in college that I could really make a living at was photography. I shot weddings and other events, and exhibited my photographs. I worked in 2 labs; a lab specializing in large format prints and lab that refurbished old photos. I spent a lot of time in the dark room, which is a toxic environment.


I had developed epilepsy when I was 15, but in my early 30s, I started getting really sick. My seizures occurred with more frequency. I think the exposure to all the chemicals made my symptoms worse. I had to put my career on hold and focus on healing. I happened to have a friend who was a mentor in healing and who introduced me to some healing techniques. Four years were devoted to intense healing—mind, body and spirit—I haven't had a seizure in how long? 32 years now. I'm not taking any medications.


Healing was a big part of my life, but it prompted a major U-turn. I had a child, and moved from Novato to Guerneville. I tried to restart my career in photography again. It was just daunting. So, I went into sales, driving all over the county testing water and selling water treatment equipment.


Since I had gained so much knowledge about water, I got sucked into running for election as a director on the board of the Sweet Water Springs Water District. I was elected and served for two years. I wandered into a situation where I found corruption going on. I took my role seriously and interfered with some powerful people. That is a whole other story.


My son was born about six years after my daughter. I started to meet art therapists while I was doing my rounds. I was to the point where I was really sick and tired of my spiel trying to sell water softeners. Many of my water treatment customers related to me as if I was their therapist. So, I started grad school at the age of 42.


I just fell in love with the field. Art therapy was everything that I had been studying all my life: psychology, art, healing. They all came together. Grad school was wonderful and difficult. I had the opportunity to work with a variety of different populations: with school age kids, with children at risk of abuse and neglect, and with severely emotionally disturbed teenage boys in group homes. I started an art therapy studio near my home, where I ran Artist’s Way groups and had a small private practice. I had finished most of my supervised hours when I was laid off, due to not being ready to pursue a doctorate. I had two small children.


About that time, my son got Lyme disease and he almost died. He was in the hospital for a week. I was able to be home with him to give him IV antibiotics 3 times a day. He had a shunt in his wrist that went to his heart. I got a job that spring at Santa Rosa Junior College teaching in the non-credit program, working with elders. I taught art, music appreciation, and life story writing. I was really enjoying working with the seniors.


Then my husband got a job in San Mateo. So, in July of 2001, the whole family moved back to the Bay Area. Shortly after we moved there, 9/11 happened. I had discovered this really cool walking path near my son’s school. One day, I was in the playground having just dropped him off. There were helicopters circling over. I was looking at them, wondering what was going on. There was another mom there. We started talking to each other, ‘What's going on with these helicopters?’


We got a conversation going, and I said, ‘Hey, there's this really cool place called Water Dog Lake.’ So, we took a walk, and before the walk was over, we were planning an Art and Movement Therapy Workshop. That was Coleen Lorenz, who is a movement therapist, choreographer, director, teacher. We just immediately started working together. I started work as a social worker at a local Regional Center, and Coleen got a job teaching dance at Notre Dame de Namur University and Notre Dame High school.


One summer, she got this Aha! She said, ‘I have to start a professional dance company.’ And it's, ‘Really Coleen? You're going to work in the summertime?’ ‘Yes.’ So, she did. Coleen created an amazing work called Earth Dance. It was about a man totally transformed by an encounter with earth, air, fire, water, and ether. It was an archetypal piece. Coleen recruited all these amazing dancers. The show was so good that we produced another performance. I helped with the publicity and got some people to come and do reviews.


Coleen was doing the choreography for “A Christmas Carol.” One of the dancers that was in “A Christmas Carol,” was a teacher who brought her whole high school class to see this show and assigned them to write an essay on it. Her name was also Roberta. When we read those essays, we were so blown away that we knew that we have to start a nonprofit to support this, especially because Roberta wanted to give us money, and we didn't have any way to take it. We started the process of creating a nonprofit. And then we thought, ‘Wait a minute. It's not just the dance company. It's art therapy, movement therapy, Reiki. It is everything.’ So, we changed the name from NewGround Theatre Dance Company, which is the name of the dance company, to Arts Unity Movement because our whole point was to use the arts to create unity, and it included movement.


We produced shows and events. We also developed workshops to go with the shows. We were using the theater at Notre Dame and finding venues to do our workshops. Then one day, when our board was meeting at Notre Dame High School, we made a huge collage on a giant piece of butcher paper to envision having our own place. What would we envision? We wanted a healing center. So, soon after that, we found a location, and we founded one.


Eli, our marketing person, was interacting with the Behavioral Health and Recovery Services. Toni, their deputy director of Youth Services, came to have a conversation with Eli and Coleen. I happened to walk in to the center. Toni was someone that I had known for years in my capacity as supervisor. We’d been in many county meetings as supervisors to discuss about bureaucratic things. And that clinched the deal. Toni had been looking for a drumming teacher, and so she hired us. We negotiated a contract with Behavioral Health and Recovery to do drumming with kids that were incarcerated, which helped pay our rent. Eventually, we added other services like art therapy and dance.


CLASS: Wow, thank you so much. That's amazing. It seems like everything happened full circle. You grew up with art, had an interest in psychology, and then you end up doing art therapy. It seems like almost everything happened for a reason when you look back. For example, you were saying you worked in the water district, and then you later saw Toni. And then she helped you too. It just feels like everything lined up.


Roberta: Yeah, that's interesting. When you're in it, you're just kind of going through it like a ping pong ball or something.


The Unique Leadership Challenge


CLASS: As a leader of AUM, what are some challenges that your organization has faced in the past or continues to face?


Roberta: When the pandemic hit, we lost some of our board members. We had furloughed most of the dancers. We had to go totally virtual. I had to learn Zoom in a day. I tested positive for COVID right then, though it was a mild case. I got over it, though I lost my singing voice. I was glad we could work virtually. We got some grants. We managed to survive the pandemic on a shoestring.


Last spring, we recruited some new board members that are really excellent, high-powered people. In May, we produced a hybrid event that was similar to events we had previously held. We called this process EAX, Empathic Art Exchange. In previous years, we invited people into the center to look at the choreography that was in development. They would respond visually and then develop art pieces. These were displayed in an art show at the big dance event that we have every year. Well, we couldn't invite people into our center, but we did have a live stream show with dancers and a singer. The audience was on Zoom.


The Key Initiatives

CLASS: What are some of your key initiatives such as projects?


Roberta: I've been doing workshops all these years such as Artist’s Way, Vein of Gold, Chakra work, Grief and Loss Support Group, Synergy and Synthesis, and Visual Journaling. I continue to work with the kids at Juvenile Hall and Camp Kemp. We are members of the Behavioral Health and Recovery Services Contractors Association. Through an MHSA grant, AUM has been providing trainings for professionals in the mental health and addiction community to help with their secondary trauma so that they can keep going. People in these fields experience burnout from working with traumatized people. Last year, we focused on racism in the workplace. We provided a slide show on black trauma, white privilege and fragility, and provided strategies for dealing with these issues clinically. We had Gary Stanford Jr., an African American director, choreographer, dancer, actor, collaborate with us. The training included an art activity and a dance to provide a visceral experience of the material. Gary and Coleen performed a dance describing the history of racism. Coleen represented the white perspective, Gary the black perspective. They presented the piece at the EAX to a virtual audience. It was wonderful.


We're working on another EAX. We will showcase Gary and Coleen’s piece because we believe it needs to be out there. There are two more pieces. We’re collaborating with an African American art therapist. Her spoken word piece will be performed with the NewGround dancers. The third piece is on interracial marriage. It is possible that we will be collaborating with an art program in East Palo Alto. If it is possible to have an in-person performance, the show will be interactive with the audience. The audience will be provided with response cards for written comments. At the end, the audience is invited to the stage, where there is an art supply buffet to respond visually. The resulting images will be posted together at the back as a collage. We did that at Notre Dame Theater, and it was amazing.


CLASS: Yeah, that's so cool. Thank you. So how has your social work influenced how you help with art therapy? Or has it?


Roberta: Oh, yes it has. I forgot to mention. I've also been studying Kabbalah and Tarot for 20 years. I did a 2.5-year ministerial training at Terra Nova Seminary. So, that mixes with the social work too because basically, it's all the same. Social work is all about heart. It's all about caring for people, for helping people, making the difference, trying to move things along, and providing the missing link that people need to get what they need. In Terra Nova Seminary, I studied world spiritual traditions, astrophysics, Kabbalah, Tarot. The task was to make my own theology, which boils down to three things. It’s: loving, kindness, forgiveness and gratitude. All of these things infuse my work. I'm not overt. I am not public about being ordained. That's not what I do. It’s more like an underlying idea. Coleen’s favorite image is a heart. She's been trained in HeartMath, which also infuses our work. We are very interested in neurobiology.


So, social work, spiritual traditions, Heart Math, even physics, combine to provide an underlying theoretical basis for the work. We have learned that our energy extends and can be measured. It is beyond our physical bodies. And a positive vibration or emanation can have a positive effect on other people in a room. One person can influence their own circle of people. A positive change in one person can have a ripple effect that keeps going. Our intention is to be a positive force that can change the world, just one person at a time. So that's what infuses the work. And it's all connected. It is interesting that many of the people that I was connected to when I was in social work are part of the present network. I substitute teach sometimes. I think I've run into a few of the kids that I saw as babies.


My real love is working with Coleen to create transformative programs. People have been very blown away by Coleen's work. It’s amazing. The combination of art and movement is potent. The kids in juvenile hall say that art makes them feel calmer.


CLASS: Wow. Yeah, that's amazing. It seems like art has provided you so many opportunities and ways to help yourself. But also, it has provided you opportunities to help other people too.


Roberta: Yeah, I'm kind of like an art missionary. Coleen and I have this wonderful dynamic. She gets the juices going with movement. Our memories are alive in our bodies. Coleen has techniques to get people comfortable with movement. Images arise spontaneously. I facilitate the expression of the images with art materials, which doesn't require any skill, only a willingness to experiment.


The Proudest Moments


CLASS: As a leader at Arts Unity Movement, what are you most proud of?


Roberta: That is a hard question. I am proud of the quality of forty plus events that we have produced over the years. Perhaps what is up now is that we managed to survive the pandemic and to recruit some truly remarkable new board members.


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