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Saturday, August 24, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Front and Center: Brooke Matson brings a creative spark to teaching

Brooke Matson is the executive director of Spark Central, a non-profit creative space in the Kendall Yards development. At Spark Central, people of all ages can be creative, learn about technology (like the robot car she's holding) and use the book collection, computer terminals and technology kits they can check out and take home. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Brooke Matson is the executive director of Spark Central, a non-profit creative space in the Kendall Yards development. At Spark Central, people of all ages can be creative, learn about technology (like the robot car she's holding) and use the book collection, computer terminals and technology kits they can check out and take home. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
By Michael Guilfoil correspondent

Brooke Matson’s high school English teacher inspired her to pursue a career in education.

But Matson’s first job after graduating from Gonzaga University almost extinguished her pedagogical passion.

“I got a split contract to teach at both Rogers and Shadle, so I’d drive back and forth every day. My classroom was a box, and I dealt with a lot of students the system was failing, which was super frustrating. It was a horrible situation for a first-year teacher.

“I remember sitting in the car, so disappointed that I’d spent all these years becoming a teacher, and thinking, ‘There must be a different kind of school out there.’ ”

Today, Matson is helping create an alternative educational experience as executive director of Spark Central, a nonprofit creative space that caters to the West Central neighborhood and beyond.

She’s also among five recipients of this year’s Spokane Arts Awards, which were presented Saturday night.

During a recent interview, Matson discussed joyful learning, rapport with kids, and skydiving.

S-R: Where did you grow up?

Matson: Yakima, Washington.

S-R: What were your interests?

Matson: Everything I do here. I would make books. I loved to write and make art – anything creative.

S-R: Did you have a favorite class in high school?

Matson: English, definitely. And art.

S-R: Any extracurricular activities?

Matson: I played video games, and here we do a lot of tech and robotic stuff, as well.

S-R: What was your first job?

Matson: The summer after high school, I worked at a startup tech company in Yakima, then worked remotely for them after I enrolled at Gonzaga. I wasn’t doing anything glamorous. I edited database codes, stripping out commas and things.

S-R: What did you study at Gonzaga?

Matson: English and education.

S-R: Then what?

Matson: After graduation, I taught for a year at Rogers and Shadle. That’s when I decided to go to grad school and look at other education models.

S-R: Did you find one?

Matson: Yes. I toured Mead Alternative High School, and was amazed. When I walked in, they were building a set for a play, and I was like, “Sign me up!” I ended up working there seven years.

S-R: Have you had mentors?

Matson: Lots. Carole Allen at Mead Alternative was definitely one. She always said learning should be joyful. I really believe that. Part of learning is having fun and playing – getting to explore and fail.

S-R: Tell me about Spark Central.

Matson: Two organizations – Spark Center and INK Art Space – merged this past summer after sort of dating for a while. We’re located in West Central, which has railyard history. So we decided to call it Spark Central – like Grand Central Station – because of the idea that you can go anywhere from here. Our full mission statement is “We ignite the creativity, innovation, and imagination necessary for people to forge the path to their best future.”

S-R: What brought you here?

Matson: I’d been on the board of INK, but had moved to Seattle and was working for a nonprofit when Jess (Walter, president of the Spark Central board) called and asked if I’d be interested in this job. I was really excited to come back to Spokane, because nothing like this has existed here before. Someone described this as kindergarten for adults, although we welcome all ages.

S-R: What skills learned along the way transferred to this position?

Matson: Teachers have to coordinate so much and be organized, and all of that transferred. My job at Mead Alternative also involved some social work, counseling, and even some administrative activities, because we didn’t have an on-site principal. So when difficult conversations come up, it’s not scary or foreign to me.

S-R: How do you see Spark Central evolving?

Matson: We do so much here with film, robotics, art and writing. Where we thrive is finding the connections between those areas. In five years, I see us as the hub of a really creative community in West Central, and Spokane in general.

S-R: What do you like most about your job?

Matson: That it’s never the same. I’ve always been a person who gets bored easily, so it’s nice to wake up and wonder what will happen today.

S-R: What do you like least?

Matson: Budgets.

S-R: What’s your annual budget?

Matson: About $270,000. We’re funded by private sources, including generous grants from the Greenstone Foundation. We have a growing number of donors, and Greenstone Homes (which developed the Kendall Yards community) donates the space.

S-R: How does Spark Central compare with conventional teaching?

Matson: It’s a different world. As a high school teacher, I would ask kids to do a free write, and they would just stare at the page – the idea of writing something personal was so foreign to them. In some ways, conventional schools train the creativity out of kids by constantly testing them. Creativity is like a muscle that gets weak if you don’t exercise it.

S-R: You have a lending library, games and all sorts of art supplies. Do people randomly drop off items?

Matson: Yes, but we had to tell people we’re not taking book donations anymore, because it got so overwhelming – boxes and boxes of old, tattered books that we couldn’t use. If we need a particular item for a program, we put out a call and get plenty of stuff. What we really want is involvement – people participating.

S-R: What about Spark Central are you most proud of?

Matson: The sense of play. Last weekend we did a puzzle challenge where kids got clues that led to other clues, and eventually a key that unlocked a box, and they all got candy.

S-R: What distinguishes Spark Central from other creativity programs?

Matson: We’re all ages, and we have this amazing space. I worked at a writing program in Seattle, but it was very focused on kids and they didn’t have a space open to the community. We take an idea like writing and add other elements, such as coding and video-making – bringing unrelated areas together. We’re always thinking of ways to spark new ideas.

S-R: Does anyone else around here do that?

Matson: There are places that are similar, but different. Gizmo in Coeur d’Alene has laser cutters and other hardware we don’t have, but we do writing programs and other things they don’t.

S-R: What’s your market?

Matson: We consider ourselves part of the West Central neighborhood. After school we see a lot of Holmes Elementary students, and a few North Central students who live in the neighborhood. But our creative programs attract people from all over, and our goal is to be a welcoming, safe space for everyone.

S-R: How do you spread your message?

Matson: Through our website, social media and outreach in the neighborhood. But word of mouth is pretty effective, too. We’ve had people from Montana and Portland stop by who heard about what we’re doing and want to create something similar back home.

S-R: Do some people get the wrong idea about what you do?

Matson: Sometimes they think a little too inside the box. For instance, we’ve had people wanting to offer watercoloring. Our role isn’t to offer classes you can take somewhere else. We’d prefer, say, a watercolor class that parents and kids do together, or watercolor and text layout – something unique.

S-R: What challenges lie ahead?

Matson: We’re in the stage of transitioning from a startup to a normal organization, and that process can be difficult – differentiating between programs that fit our mission and those that don’t.

S-R: Do you have any secret talents?

Matson: I have a knack for identifying with kids and building a rapport with them really quickly.

S-R: What would you change about yourself?

Matson: I’d get better at budgets. (laugh)

S-R: Any personal goals you’d like to accomplish?

Matson: I want to skydive, because that terrifies me, and part of living is doing things that scare you.

This interview has been condensed. Correspondent Michael Guilfoil can be contacted at mguilfoil@comcast.net.

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