An Artist in Equity: Michael Willen Winner of 2021 Odessa Brown Ken Feldman Award

When Michael Willen, art therapist, was growing up in Boulder, Colorado during the 1990s, he heard lots of talk about accepting those who were different from you. Reality, however, often didn’t align with the talk.

“You couldn’t be openly gay or talk about something like being transgender,” he recalls. “I wanted a community to connect with, but I didn’t have that resource until I went to college. I wondered why we couldn’t have more of that.”

These days, Michael is helping build an open, accepting community for students at the Alyssa Burnett Adult Life Center and inpatients at Seattle Children’s. His crowning achievement is Diversity Club, a class at the Alyssa Burnett Center that celebrates diversity and helps students become advocates for equity.

For these reasons, Michael recently received the 2021 Odessa Brown Ken Feldman Award, one of Seattle Children’s highest honors, which recognizes individuals or teams that encourage, promote, and display compassion and advocacy for all people.

The Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic helped establish this award in 2006 to recognize individuals and teams that, beyond their formal job description, model diversity, inclusion, and quality care with dignity. A committee administers the award every year.

Finding his passion

Michael joined Seattle Children’s in 2005 as a pediatric mental health specialist on what is now called the Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine Unit. In 2012 he received his art therapy degree, and two years later he moved to the Alyssa Burnett Center as an instructor, where he integrated art therapy into his classes.

Since 2018, Michael has served as an art therapist at the hospital, working primarily with inpatients on the Cancer Care Unit. But his passion for working with the adult students at the Alyssa Burnett Center is so strong that he continues to teach there one day per week.

“Working in mental health is different from working with chronically ill kids,” he said. “That counterbalance is really important for me, and that’s part of why I still work at the Alyssa Burnett Center. You celebrate things differently, and you’re challenged in different ways.”

The Alyssa Burnett Center offers lifelong learning for people 18 and older with autism spectrum disorder and other developmental disabilities. Students learn about topics such as social skills, fitness, art, music, creative writing, yoga, and coping skills for managing strong emotions. It’s unique within Children’s ecosystem of care.

“The students call it their college or their school,” Michael said. “We try to honor that and give them the best education we can.”

Diversity Club

One day, a student came out as transgender in one of the center’s classes and asked to be called by a new name. While most of the students supported their peer, one student and her mother were upset. Children’s explained our organizational values to that family and supported the student who had come out.

“It got me thinking that gender is such a confusing thing,” Michael said. “A lot of people with autism think in binary terms, but gender for many of us is not binary. So, I wondered how we could have that conversation and teach the students that this thing they might think is black and white actually has some shades of gray. At the same time, there was so much other stuff happening in the world: COVID-19, George Floyd and Black Lives Matter. I wondered how we could have those conversations and create a safe space for students.”

These musings inspired Michael to start Diversity Club in spring of 2021. Diversity Club is a quarterly class where students explore different aspects of identity and diversity, learn about current events and important movements in history, engage in creative projects and activism, and celebrate all aspects of diversity as they learn to advocate for themselves and others.

A quick look at the class syllabus shows that few topics are off limits. Sessions include “Celebrating All Abilities,” “Let’s Talk About Race and Racism,” “Exploring Gender,” “Drag Culture,” “Bias…What is it?” and “How to Make Political Art.” While many sessions include an art activity, they’re largely discussion-based.

Students have embraced Diversity Club with enthusiasm.

“There’s so much positivity, connection and respect,” Michael said. “The students ask questions, share their experiences, show empathy for one another and thank one another for sharing.”

Diversity Club has also been rewarding for Michael and Kayla Morrisey, the classroom assistant who supports the class.

“I love Diversity Club,” Michael said. “It’s been one of the most positive things during my time at Children’s. The kindness and curiosity and decency these students bring — it’s been really inspiring.”

Diversity Club has been so successful that Michael developed a similar class for inpatients at the hospital called Art and Advocacy. The class explores a different topic each week and incorporates an art project into every session. Since it can be more challenging for inpatients to engage in activities than for students at the Alyssa Burnett Center, Michael said Art and Advocacy has had mixed results. He and the entire Creative Arts Department, however, are committed to identifying the barriers inpatients face and adjusting the class to better suit their needs.

Broadening the conversation

The students at the Alyssa Burnett Center have touched Michael deeply. Unfortunately, resources become scarce for people with autism spectrum disorder and developmental disabilities when they become adults. Michael wants to change that, and he reminds us that our understanding of diversity must be broad in order to achieve equity.

“It’s important to talk about neurodiversity,” he said. “At the Alyssa Burnett Center, I have students of all races, genders and sexual orientations, and they also have developmental disabilities that put them at a disadvantage for accessing resources. That’s a huge piece of the equity conversation for me.”

Michael appreciates Children’s investment in the Alyssa Burnett Center and its support of Diversity Club. He’s also glad Children’s is grappling with its own inequities and is channeling so much energy into anti-racism and equity, diversity, and inclusion efforts.

“It’s been challenging for everyone, but I love that the conversation is happening and that it’s a daily dialogue,” he said. “I think it’s a positive step, even though there’s some pain that comes with that growth.”

“Soulful work”

A piece of student art from the Diversity Club at the Alyssa Burnett Adult Life Center.

Despite his substantial efforts to promote equity, diversity and inclusion at Children’s, Michael was still surprised to receive the Odessa Brown Ken Feldman Award. Being recognized largely for Diversity Club was especially meaningful.

“I feel very honored, flattered and humbled,” he said. “Diversity Club is more than just me — it’s made for the students, and it’s really important to them. I’m really happy that’s being recognized.”

Even more, he appreciates that the award recognizes frontline workforce members and their importance in creating a more equitable and just organization.

“It’s challenging and hard work, but it’s also soulful work,” Michael said. “I love that Children’s recognizes a lot of the diversity work happens on the frontlines.”