Beat the Odds® Spotlight: Brian Semsem

19-09-BTO-Spotlight-Semsem-0Brian K Semsem, BTO Alumni – May 2017
Program Director at Every Neighborhood Partnership

Driven by a passion to build community and help students learn social-emotional skills, Brian Semsen shares how he began his Beat the Odds® journey with no musical background, and now facilitates newsworthy and grant-awarding drumming programs in Fresno, California. 

With what populations do you work?

Prior to attending the Beat the Odds® (BTO) training, I had never played the drums nor had any musical background or training. Now I work primarily with elementary-age youth and some middle schoolers. Recently, two high school counselors have expressed interest in having assistance for implementing drumming into their small group work with students.

Photo from Fresno Bee

In what ways have you integrated drumming and social emotional arts into the work you are currently doing? What difference has it made?

Every Neighborhood Partnership (ENP),, a non-profit with the vision to see Fresno holistically engaged and thriving, has been working with Fresno Unified elementary schools in providing recreational after school programs for over 15 years. BTO has allowed us to now provide a recreational and engaging activity that helps support social emotional learning (SEL). Moreover, we are now providing drumming activities for community events and youth gatherings throughout our community.

BTO has definitely made a difference in the way we are able to connect with teachers and kids during the school week. We have found that BTO has given us the ability to build stronger relational connection with kids and provide meaningful support to classroom teachers.

One of our school principals shared a story of a child who had been exposed to a difficult traumatic family event and had not been speaking very much. The student was present for one of the first BTO sessions at that school and the principal later reported that it was the first time that the student had spoken in a group setting in weeks.

19-09-BTO-Spotlight-Semsem-2What does “social emotional arts” mean to you?

One of the really cool experiences I had from the Certificate Program in Social Emotional Arts (SEA), which I received in the Summer of 2018 after BTO, was learning that expressive art is more about the process and less about the product. That was a vitally important concept that allowed me to see a greater value for myself in exploring and accessing my own personal creativity. More importantly, it has allowed me to share this important shift in thinking about expressive art with kids and adults alike.

Looking back on Beat the Odds® (BTO), what have been some of the most impactful components of this training for you, personally or professionally?

One of the cross-cutting principles that I learned from BTO,  that I have tried to incorporate in other engagement activities, is the idea that simply being present as part of the “circle community” is participation. It has been amazing to see kids show up, be present, and receive acknowledgement for their participation. Through this, they become more active in their participation over time.

Interestingly, I use this approach with adults as well. We often have observers either from the school district or the community who visit a BTO session and are invited to join our community. Many decline at first until we explain that simply sitting in a circle with us is participation and that they are not expected to drum. On almost every occasion they join in on the drumming activity.

What skills did you learn in the BTO program that you use today?19-09-BTO-Spotlight-Semsem-3

One of the most utilized tools I use from BTO and SEA is the “I See, I Notice, I Wonder” framework for effective feedback. I have actually incorporated this language structure in training  school-site staff and teachers on how to more effectively work with students in a non-judgmental way when addressing disruptive or unwanted externalizing behaviors.

What are your goals working with social emotional arts?

One of my goals is to build our capacity to provide more social emotional skill building activities to students and schools across our community. One of the first steps towards achieving this goal is to ensure others are getting quality training and professional development in social emotional arts. Additionally, I think building capacity will also require validating the effectiveness of SEA interventions and programs in building student social emotional competencies.

19-09-BTO-Spotlight-Semsem-4Have you experienced any “Aha!” moments since participating in the BTO training?

Actually, I have experienced many “Aha” moments but perhaps one of the most personally significant is that drumming is something I enjoy doing as a personal self-care practice. My initial engagement with UCLArts & Healing and then BTO was in pursuit of effective programming and interventions that we could use to help build student SEL skills. Today, this training and practice means so much more.

If someone were to ask “why drumming?” what would be your response?

If asked “why drumming?” I would have to say “simply because it’s fun.” And beyond simply being fun, it works on so many levels in terms of building unity, connection, and a sense of well-being. Finally, the research geek in me would say because it’s supported by good science.

Any words of advice to those interested in either taking the BTO facilitator training and/or incorporating social emotional arts into their current profession?

Photo from Fresno Bee

My advice to those interested in either taking the BTO facilitator training or incorporating social emotional arts into their current profession would come in the form of the iconic slogan of my adolescent years, “Just Do It.” My confidence in my own personal journey and experience allows me to share that if you embrace the concept of process over product you will find incorporating social emotional arts into your work effective and fulfilling both professionally and personally.


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