Discovering your voice at The Practice Space

Discovering your voice at The Practice Space
AnnMarie Baines opened The Practice Space at 10261 San Pablo Ave. nearly two years ago.

The term “stage fright” doesn’t quite cover it. Whether it’s in front of many people at a conference, or just one person at a job interview, speaking clearly and engagingly is as challenging as it is important to our lives. And we don’t get many opportunities to practice.

At least, not before The Practice Space opened at 10261 San Pablo Ave. about two years ago.

The nonprofit founded by El Cerrito High graduate AnnMarie Baines is helping kids as young as 8 up to adults in their 80s learn how to find their voice and communicate with clarity and confidence. The Practice Space offers various services from camps to school-based programs to private lessons and organizational trainings.

Baines can relate to those who struggle with communication. Shy in high school, she said she was “semi-dragged” into joining El Cerrito High’s storied Speech and Debate Team.

“A friend of mine just wanted me to keep her company,” she said.

Her experience was transformative.

“By the end of four years, I felt like I could express my opinions, that I had a voice,” Baines said.

And finding her voice played an important role in Baines’ career path. She went on to complete her undergraduate degree at UC Berkeley, worked on education policy at Harvard University, taught high school special education in Boston, and earned a PhD in Learning Sciences from the University of Washington.

As part of her research at the University of Washington, she studied students at a number of schools, including some in the West Contra Costa Unified School District, who were labeled as having learning disabilities or invisible disabilities. Her study aimed to identify what made them feel smart and capable.

“And it really kept coming back to having a voice, feeling like they were respected, having a team to belong to, where they can be purely themselves and be able to listen to other people,” Baines said.

Throughout her professional career, and also as a longtime dedicated volunteer for the El Cerrito High Speech and Debate team, Baines said she discovered the lack of adequate opportunities to learn vital communication skills at schools and in the community. For one, speech and debate teams are expensive to run.

And so Baines founded The Practice Space in order to add this training in an affordable way at more schools, and to help local community members find success in real-world situations from meetings to business proposals to storytelling and podcasting.

It’s not just about learning to speak effectively, but also how to listen, Baines said.

“When I talk about communication here, I talk about being able to express yourself, and be comfortable with that, but also being able to listen to others and to connect with others,” Baines said. “So communication is ultimately about connection, not about competition or being able to drive your own ego.”

The Practice Space offers weeklong day camps for younger students and two-week long camps for high school students, with every camp leading up to a culminating showcase. During the school year, The Practice Space offers aftercare programs. Baines’ goal at school sites is to provide training and curriculum tools so that they can run their own program in about two years.

The inspiration for The Practice Space, said Baines, were three deaths that heavily impacted her from 2015-2017. They included her father, who interestingly enjoyed paying visits to up to dozen varying religious centers, just to have conversations with people there; Cathy Berman, her storied speech coach at El Cerrito High who would pay Baines’ way to tournaments, as she couldn’t afford it; and also a debate team peer who died at a very young age.

“Each room at The Practice Space is named after them,” Baines said.

They helped Baines learn even more about communication, that it’s about “love, healing and connecting.”

“It’s not just about career or improving public speaking as a personal goal,” she added. “It’s about building community.”