People in Your Neighborhood: Elizabeth Tobias works to promote diversity and inclusion via arts and advocacy

La Jolla artist and arts advocate Elizabeth Tobias says art is a "powerful agent of change."
(Elisabeth Frausto)

La Jollan and arts advocate Elizabeth Tobias is an artist herself, producing works she hopes will promote diversity and inclusion. The latest endeavor in her portfolio of art and advocacy is chairing the 2021 “Creative Conversations” event for Rising Arts Leaders of San Diego, for which she is a board member.

The event, at 6 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 14, at Quartyard, 1301 Market St., San Diego, is planned to uplift Black voices in the arts, with Roger Guenveur Smith, Charles McPherson, Gill Sotu and Gaidi Finnie discussing their careers.

Tobias said the event is built around Rising Arts Leaders’ desire to “be the change we want to see. Boards of organizations are still really not inclusive. As much as there’s a push for diversity and inclusion ... it is still not quite there.”

“We focused on uplifting Black voices in the community [because] we really want to encourage other leadership to come forward to learn from the distinguished careers of all these artists, who really have all created very unique and distinct careers that are not highly commercial and not cookie cutter,” she said. “They follow their own voices and creative instincts.

“We want to call on all the different art institutions in San Diego to really look at and have the opportunity to really explore ways that they can change the representation.”

Tobias, who grew up in Chula Vista, La Jolla and Coronado before moving to Los Angeles and then returning to La Jolla in 2012 with her husband and daughter, said she has been a multidisciplinary artist for more than 20 years.

She originally worked in production of music videos, commercials and independent movies, then started independently exhibiting art in her neighborhood.

“At the same time, I started cultivating my relationships with the neighborhood, and I’ve always tried to do arts advocacy and community organizing,” Tobias said.

That advocacy has come in the form of participation on several arts boards, such as the Arts+Culture Community Advisory Council in San Diego.

Along the way, Tobias earned a master’s degree in spiritual psychology and has used it to advance her arts advocacy and create “art projects that were really more able to be responsive to the community.”

“Art is such a powerful agent of change,” she said. “It is a playground for thought and expression. And it’s an opportunity for people to come together and abandon their everyday thinking to an imaginative space where anything is possible.”

If she can “captivate people’s openness in that space, it’s a great opportunity to contemplate very difficult issues,” Tobias said.

Rising Arts Leaders of San Diego was formed to offer professional development to “young people who are getting leadership opportunities and really learning how to take the next step in their careers” in the local arts industry, Tobias said.

“Our board really tries to be exemplary of practicing accessibility and inclusion and equity,” she said. “I’m the oldest person on the board, but it’s been really great for me to have this intergenerational collaboration.”

Diversity always has been at the forefront of Tobias’ arts work. The theme was apparent in her Echo Park community in L.A., she said.

“It’s always tricky when artists come into a neighborhood and gentrification starts to happen,” she said. “I think as a community, we really wanted to make sure that we were … not bringing the latest art movement to the community and alienating all our neighbors who had been there for generations. That was a very thoughtful process.

“We see this a lot, where once artists start to improve a neighborhood, then other developers and people become interested and then the rents start going crazy.”

When she returned to San Diego, her first studio was in Barrio Logan “and I felt like there was a lot of that similar vibe going on, where we were in dialogue with the neighborhood: How can the arts uplift the neighborhood rather than alienating it?”

Humanitarian issues are at the heart of Tobias’ own art. Though she was creating “immersive art experiences that were dealing with different existential issues, I felt like I wasn’t adequately trained. When you’re facing a trauma or a catastrophe, I felt the utmost responsibility and duty to get more training in this as a facilitator.”

She became an expressive arts therapist, working daily “with people who need support, and we work through the arts as a healing modality,” she said. She is “scaling up” the same principles in her art installations in museums and galleries.

“I take this work very seriously,” she said.

For more information about “Creative Conversations,” visit

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