Art Works for Flint’s Detained Youth

June 27, 2016

By Shelley R. Spivack

Sixteen years old, alone, and facing life imprisonment without parole for the murder of his best friend’s father. This was Randy, a boy I was appointed to represent in 1988.

The first juvenile in the now infamous city of Flint to be automatically tried as an adult on a charge of first-degree murder, Randy spent the six months awaiting trial at GVRC, Genesee County Michigan’s short-time juvenile detention facility. As his only visitor, I met with Randy weekly. Randy’s focus during these meetings was not on his role as the shooter in a five-defendant murder trial, but on the drawings, designs, and paintings he had created that week. Never having had any type of formal art education, Randy spent his time in detention drawing, both in the art class that was part of the detention center’s educational program and during virtually all of his “free” time. “Drawing was the life preserver that kept him afloat. It was what gave him hope. It allowed him to express himself, to develop a skill, and to become someone other than the first kid in Genesee County to face life imprisonment without parole.” Rosenbaum & Spivack, Implementing a Gender-Based Arts Program for Juvenile Offenders, at xiv (2014).

Fast-forward to 2011. Randy, who had been convicted of the lesser charge of second-degree murder and received a 22-year sentence, had been released from prison earlier that year. GVRC, while still housing youth awaiting trial on both juvenile and adult charges, had been the victim of budget cuts and no longer offered any type of arts education to youth like Randy.

My thoughts in March of 2011 turned to Randy as I saw a flier soliciting proposals for Share Art Flint, a grant program initiated by the Ruth Mott Foundation aimed at bringing arts programing to underserved populations in Flint. As a board member of the Buckham Fine Arts Project, an artist-run contemporary arts gallery, I envisioned a program in which our artist members would share their talents and expertise with Flint’s detained youth by conducting arts workshops at GVRC.

With the help of our artist members, GVRC administration, as well as faculty and students at University of Michigan-Flint, the vision became a reality when the Ruth Mott Foundation awarded Buckham funding for a three-month pilot project to start in September of 2011. TheBuckham/GVRC Share Art Project is now in its sixth year of programming, offering visual arts, theater, spoken-word poetry, and dance workshops to youth detained in one of the most violent and economically and environmentally distressed cities in our nation.

Why Arts Programming?

Research has shown that arts education has a positive effect on the development of youth. However, with decreasing budgets, communities and schools have drastically reduced or cut arts programming. As a result, most incarcerated youth have never been exposed to classes or workshops in the visual or performing arts.

Research has also shown that the introduction of arts programming in the criminal justice system has had a beneficial effect on justice-involved youth. A 2003 study examined a program in which professional artists conducted visual arts, poetry, and music workshops in a detention facility. The researchers identified four major processes that led to the success of the program: “connecting, expressing, learning, and discovery.” Ezell & Levy, An Evaluation of an Arts Program for Incarcerated Juvenile Offenders, 54 J. Correctional Educ. 108, 113 (2003).

Involvement in the arts has also been shown to result in the development of positive identity. This is particularly important for detained youth as “disconnecting from illegal activity often involves imagining a different life.” Through involvement with the arts youth have an opportunity to explore, use their imaginations, and begin to re-create themselves. (Ross,Exploring the Ways Arts and Culture Intersect with Public Safety (Urban Institute 2016). Other studies have found that arts programming can result in reduced negative behaviors and more effective emotional communication, as well as contributing to the development of both cognitive processes and pro-social skills, all of which are crucial for justice involved youth. Id.

Pilot Project Design

GVRC is a short-term detention center housing males and females ages 10–17 who are court-ordered into secure detention while awaiting trial, disposition, or placement for offenses ranging from violation of probation for status offenses to first-degree murder. The facility holds up to 60 youth and consists of three wings, two of the wings housing males and one of the wings housing primarily females. While the average length of stay is 21 days, youth who are awaiting trial on adult offenses often remain in the facility for about six months. GVRC offers basic educational programming; however, as the facility is designated solely as a detention center, there are no treatment programs available to the youth during their stay.

In designing the pilot project, our team of artists, university professors, and criminal justice professionals sought to create a program that would enable the youth to develop their artistic talent in a safe and nonjudgmental atmosphere while at the same time allowing them to express their “pain, joy, and hope.” Ezell & Levy, supra. Working closely with the GVRC administration, we developed a plan that would expose a maximum number of youth to arts workshops. Two separate workshops—visual arts and spoken-word poetry—would be conducted for a period of four weeks in each of the three wings, and each workshop would be taught by a team of two artists and limited to a maximum of ten youth. At the end of the three-month pilot project, an exhibit of the youths’ work would be held at Buckham Gallery in downtown Flint.

The artist-teachers we chose to participate in the program were all working artists who had previously taught in community or youth arts projects and had a demonstrated ability to connect with youth of all backgrounds as well as an ability to teach fundamental artistic skills and techniques. Because none of the artist-teachers had previously worked in a detention facility, training sessions were held with GVRC staff and administrators so that all the teachers had a clear understanding of the rules of the facility.

In the spoken-word poetry workshops, the artist-teachers “challenged the youth to explore their own feelings and helped them use language as a means of self-expression and communication.” (Rosenbaum & Spivack, supra, at 20. During the sessions, they were not only teachers but mentors and active participants, choosing themes such as mistakes, negative and positive identities, and life stories. Each workshop followed a basic format, starting with an exercise allowing the youth to create their own identity by naming themselves. The artist-teachers then presented pieces of their own poetry relating to the chosen theme and helped the youth become “active” listeners by questioning them about what they had heard. The youth were then challenged to write their own pieces and, at the end of class, present them orally as spoken word.

The artist-teachers leading the visual arts workshops not only taught drawing techniques but also worked with the youth to improve cognitive skills, sharpen their observational abilities, cultivate imagination, and work cooperatively. A primary goal of the workshops was to enable the youth to “see” beyond their immediate surroundings and to use art to reenvision themselves and their futures. During the workshops, the youth completed group mural (Fig. 1) as well as individual drawings and projects (Fig. 2).

Pilot Project Outcomes

Several methods were used to gauge the outcomes of the pilot project: review and evaluation of the youths’ work, youth surveys and focus groups, and interviews with artist-teachers and GVRC staff.

A review of the youths’ writing indicated that the boys tended to focus on the violence in Flint and the loss of loved ones due to death or incarceration. For example:

It used to be fight and get knocked down

Now it’s run up with your chap you get shot now. . . .

It used to be a couple of murders, its been a lot now. . . . 

and

All my life I grew up seeing cocaine, guns and money.

While I sit in a cell, I think it’s like hell but really its not

I miss my fam, my dad is gone

I don’t have anyone but my mom,

My dad is locked up because of what he did.

The girls, while also focusing on violence, often wrote about the violence inflicted on them by their “loved” ones:

A little innocent girl no more

You forced on her what she never wanted

You cause destruction

Devastation

I hate you

and violence inflicted on them by themselves:

Self mutilation

A bad reputation

I feel sum agitation

Everyday I’m feeling pain . . .

This just too much, I’m so ashamed.

Gender differences also emerged in reviewing the youths’ surveys and in interviews with the artist-teachers. In the surveys and focus groups, the girls were extremely positive about the spoken-word sessions while the boys reacted more favorably to the skills learned in the visual arts workshops. Observations by the artist-teachers and GVRC staff confirmed these results. During the spoken-word sessions, many of the boys felt uncomfortable with verbal expression and instead created word art, while the girls easily engaged with words, both orally and in writing. Conversely, in the visual arts workshops, the boys more readily engaged with the projects and enjoyed “making things” more than the girls.

A second issue regarding gender was also observed. As many of the girls had been victims of sexual abuse, workshops combining both boys and girls made it difficult for the girls to feel safe and freely express themselves, a primary objective of the program.

As a result, we decided to create a “gender-based” program for girls that would concentrate on spoken-word poetry and that would employ the basic principles of gender-responsive programming: safety, connection, and empowerment. Bloom & Covington, Gender-Specific Programming for Female Offenders: What Is It and Why Is It Important (1998). The spoken-word workshops would be limited to female residents and would also be taught by two female artist-teachers. For the boys, the decision was made to concentrate on the visual arts workshops.

Gender-Based Workshops

Gender-based programming grew out of the research conducted by feminist criminologists over the past two decades. This research indicates that girls’ offending is both qualitatively and quantitatively different than boys’ offending. Their “pathways” to delinquency differ as do their needs once in the juvenile justice system. Girls often follow a pattern characterized by earlier and more frequent victimization (physical, emotional, or sexual abuse). These traumatic experiences often cause them to run away, abuse substances, fail to attend school, and become involved in domestic violence situations in the home. These behaviors subject girls to further victimization and exploitation and also lead to “criminal” acts such as theft, drug use, and prostitution. Once in the juvenile justice system, girls are more likely to be “over detained” and returned to detention more frequently than boys. Girls are also more at risk for serious mental and physical health issues and for self-harming behaviors. Rosenbaum & Spivack, supra, at 7.

Acknowledging the differences in girls’ “pathways” to offending and their needs once in the system is crucial to creating a gender-responsive program. Ideally, such programs should “use an integrative, cooperative, and holistic approach, foster empowerment, emphasize strengths, employ gender-responsive cognitive-behavioral elements, and build self-esteem.” Rosenbaum & Spivack, supra, at 8.

Girls’ spoken-word poetry, dance, and theater workshops. The team, through careful research and observation, has developed a gender-based program for girls that now includes spoken-word poetry, dance, and theater. Workshops are held weekly and all girls at GVRC are invited to attend.

Spoken-word poetry lends itself well to the principles of gender-based programming. The process of writing and speaking gives the girls the opportunity and ability to tell their own stories in their own words. It gives voice to their thoughts, dreams, and hopes, as well as to their fears, faults, and frustrations. It allows them to “own” their words and to begin redefining themselves, as opposed to be being defined by others.

One project participant put it this way:

Writing is like my emotions pouring out of my soul on paper. No one understands until my pen and pad connect. It makes me feel like no one is around to judge my speech or critique but only to take it all in. Writing expresses that soft sad side people rarely get to see. To watch my words soak in is like music to my ears. Writing is ME.

One of the most significant aspects of the workshops is the connection that has developed between the artist-teachers and the participants. Through focus groups and surveys, we have learned that the girls are very grateful that people actually listen to them and believe that what they say has meaning and is not seen as “stupid.” One of the girls stated, “You actually listen!!!! Thank you all.” In addition, the artist-teachers have often made connections with the girls that last beyond their time at GVRC.

Mood surveys indicated a significant improvement in the girls’ mood after participating in one of the spoken-word workshops. Words used to describe their mood before the workshop were “frustrated,” stressed,” and “angry.” Moods most often identified after class were “happy,” “chilled out,” and “calm.”

Improvements in self-esteem, self-awareness, and empathy can also be seen through their comments in surveys and focus groups. The girls indicated that they learned that they are the only ones who can change themselves, that they can get through the bad stuff, that they can’t run from their problems, that “I am a brave and happy person, even with everything I have been through,” and that they can do better in life. They credit the spoken word for gaining an understanding and respect for one another, learning to trust women, and learning that they are not the only person hurting. Most importantly, they state that the workshops enable them to learn to tell their story so someone else doesn’t do it for them.

Dance and theater workshops were developed to complement the spoken-word program. In the theater program, an emphasis is placed on increasing the girls’ self-confidence when speaking in a group and the use of body language. The dance workshops were developed with the objective of decreasing the girls’ sense of isolation and addressing the sense of detachment from their physical selves many of them experience as a result of trauma and physical abuse. These workshops address issues such as negative body image, self-confidence, and physical awareness of self and others through the styles of modern and contemporary dance. The classes include warm-ups, introduction of short choreographed dance steps, improvisation, and discussion.

Results from surveys and focus groups indicate that dance allows the girls to release and express their troubles, their anger, and other emotions; that dance gives them confidence and is liberating; and that that they can communicate and cooperate with their peers through dance.

Boys’ visual arts and theater workshops. The artist-teachers in the boys’ visual arts program take an expansive view of these workshops. Instead of looking at the workshops as a place to merely teach drawing skills, they view their workshops as a “positive agent for change within the community.” In leading the workshops, they view the relationships developed between themselves and the students, as well as among the students, to be of primary importance. As a result, the level of trust that has developed has led to a 100 percent participation rate. Their goal is to create a nonjudgmental atmosphere in which the students can take ownership of the process by engaging with simple tools to learn to make something new. They also seek to teach the students that the creative process and engagement with objects, such as a pencil and paper, can be used as a means to channel anger and frustrations, not only while they are at GVRC but also when they are released.

As the facility houses both short- and long-term residents, one of the challenges has been how to structure the workshops so that both sets of students remain engaged. One of the ways they do this is to create a series of workshops that allow the youth to engage in a long-term project, such as a mural, consisting of segments that can be completed in one class. This has resulted in improved focus, concentration, and problem-solving abilities.

The goal of the boys’ theater workshops is to introduce the youth to different forms of dramatic expression while developing their problem-solving skills, enhancing their ability to work cooperatively in a group, improving their verbalization skills, increasing their awareness of body language, and giving them an outlet for creative expression. The instructors use various improvisation techniques ranging from short-form improv to longer, partnered scenes with built-in challenges. They also create real-life scenarios, such as interviewing for a job, to introduce various life skills into the workshops.

During the spring of 2016 the artist-teachers introduced a new series of literacy-based workshops: “Shakespeare Detained.” The goal of this project is to encourage and foster language enrichment through an experiential exploration of the most popular works of William Shakespeare. The workshops explore Shakespeare in an enriching and understandable format that challenges the youths to recognize, analyze, and practice language and forms of literary expression that relate to their own lived experiences.

As with the girls, the feedback received from the youth in both the visual arts and theater classes has been very positive. The results from mood surveys are similar to the girls’ and show a marked improvement in mood after participation in the workshops.

In both classes, the most significant response was in respect to their own creativity. They learned that they were capable of being creative and how to express who they are in positive ways. By participating in theater workshops, they learned communication skills and they learned that they can act like different people, which they didn’t know was possible. Visual arts taught them not only art skills but also how to work as a team, respect for others, patience, and that they can do good things if they put the time into doing it.

Let Our Voices Be Heard 

The value and meaning of programs such as the Buckham/GVRC Share Art Project can best be summed up in the words of the youth themselves. Below is an excerpt of an “I AM” poem written by one of the project participants:

I am that girl that hundreds want to see

succeed and thousand want to see fail

I wonder will those thousand live to see me

succeed

I hear those thousand coming up to me when

their evil ways catch up with them saying

“Did you really make it?”

“Yeah I made it.”

I AM SUCCESS. . . .

I cry when I cant find a outlet for

my anger, displaced emotions, and feelings

of regret but yet, I cry. My tears fall upon

my cheek and I realize where I should be. . . .

And its not a prisoner of my own mind 

I AM FREE. . . .

I understand the consequences for my

Actions so I replace reality with 

Satisfaction but Troubles the numerator

for my fraction. . . .

I dream that my city realizes its potential

and that I no longer tote pistols just to 

prevent being a victim

I try to be my self and not anyone else

; because a lot of people change and its

hard to go right when you used to left

I hope I never make more mistakes

because mistakes can take over your

life and corrupt all your good

deeds

        I AM UNDEFEATED

From “ I Am Me” : A Collection of Poetry and Stories Written by Young Women (2015).

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