In Richmond, Art Brings Together Police and Incarcerated Youth | Community Idea Stations


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In Richmond, Art Brings Together Police and Incarcerated Youth

The Performing Statistics partnership continued this year, bringing together incarcerated youth, artists, advocates and police. Artwork created during the initiative is sparking conversation about the community’s role in addressing youth incarceration. In the second of our two-part series, Catherine Komp has more for Virginia Currents.

Join the Conversation: See more artwork created by teens in Art 180’s Performing Statistics initiative and join the conversation by tagging photos, tweets, and your responses with: #MoreThanStats

Resources and Events: The “I am Powerful” exhibit will be displayed at Art 180, October 7-November 21st. Find out about this and other events at Art 180 and Performing Statistics. Listen to part one of our series, on statewide efforts to build community-based alternatives to youth incarceration. Find tools teachers can use in the classroom, Legal Aid Justice Center’s research on school policing and U.S. Department of Education resources for school resource officers.

Listen to all the poems created during the 2016 Performing Statistics Art and Advocacy Camp. See the short films youth made on parenting, jobs and mentors.


Paper and pencil. Stencils and paint. Cameras and a microphone. These are the tools used by incarcerated youth to tell their stories, to share their expertise...

(Youth Poem: “We”)

When I close my eyes, I see myself in detention
I see myself dreaming
I see myself free

If you were me, you would know
That I’m scared of sharks
That I am not a criminal
That I love being outside
That I’m scared of losing my mom
That I fear I will be nothing...

For eight weeks this summer, youth in Richmond’s Juvenile Detention Center came to the non-profit Art 180 to be a part of the Performing Statistics Initiative. In the bright and open space, they were guided by adult mentors and artists. After working with poet John Blake, the youth created their own pieces. I helped out by doing an audio listening session and recording and mixing their poems.

If my voice were heard, I would say
That I’m determined, but I need an education
That I want to succeed
That there’s always beauty in the struggle

I would tell you to listen
To see that I matter because I am somebody
Because I am black
Because the system is taking my life
Because I am human.

Stencil artist and educator Kate Decicio assisted the youth in making large and brightly colored portraits, overlayed with text: “I need a job, not a jailhouse;” and “I’m smarter than you think, don’t incarcerate me, educate me.” Gina Lyles is Art 180’s Program Coordinator.

Gina Lyles: They were excited to see these portraits and these pictures turn out to look exactly like them and reflect who they were and then the words and the poetry that were around the art pieces were just as powerful.

The teens faced many challenges before reaching the juvenile justice system. Lyles says their backgrounds are similar to hers.

Lyles: First and foremost they come from lower economics, not a lot of opportunities, parents are incarcerated, parents that are not incarcerated are basically taking care of a single parent home with more than one child in the home, finances are low. Sometimes these kids are not eating right or don’t have things they need to be able to be productive in school and also in their communities.

The youth also made short videos, aided by filmmakers OK Keyes, Elizabeth Williams, Ben Surber and Craig Zirpolo. Mark Strandquist is Performing Statistics Creative Director. He says they didn’t want to tell the teens what to make, but they started with a question: How can we keep kids free?

Mark Strandquist: And so they then worked with filmmakers from across the city to, amazingly in two to three days wrote, storyboarded, shot and edited a series of films that sort of answer that question: What can we do to keep kids free?

Lyles: One of my kids did a film about needing a job and how just because he’s 15 doesn’t mean he should not be allowed to work. That’s based on the laws. A lot of these kids again come from single families, they have one mom, the mom has three kids, they knew their mom’s scrambling and they want to help. If they can’t get a job, what’s the other alternative? So that’s what that film is about: not having opportunities for employment because of their age.

Another film was about, I had a young man who actually has a son himself. His film was about writing a letter to his son, and talking as he’s writing the letter telling his son that he didn’t want him in a situation like he was in. He loved him and he can’t wait to see him walk and see him crawl and see him smile. I’m not sure what his home situation was concerning his dad, but it seemed like he wanted to do things differently and even though he was incarcerated, he still was optimistic that he was going to change and he was going to be able to support his kid. So beautiful, beautiful piece.

The youth were exposed to new skills and creative outlets, but they also answered a big question most had never been asked before: What do you and your community need to be successful?

Strandquist: A lot of the project isn't about looking to kids to the talk about how tough their life is or how sorry they should be, but about asking them in a very real and honest way: What do you need to stay out of the system? What do other youth need to never end up in it?

The art camp is just one part of the Performing Statistics initiative, which continued and expanded this year following a $500,000 grant from the Robbins Foundation. Legal Aid Justice Center and the RISE for Youth Coalition educate participants on the “school to prison pipeline,” its costs and Virginia’s status leading the country in youth referrals to law enforcement. The Richmond Police Department is another major partner. Recruits, beat police, detectives and school resource officers see and discuss the art and training manuals made by the youth. They have conversations with advocates for families and experts in trauma and adolescent brain development. All these partners all came together at a community forum to discuss solutions.

At the Richmond Public Library, youth, officers, advocates, teachers and other community members break into groups. They’re given scenarios where a teen was arrested. Their task: rewrite the script with a better outcome, one where the youth doesn’t enter the juvenile justice system.

(Scenario: Mark is a 14 year old African-American freshman...)

In one scenario, a student is late for class. A school resource officer lets several white students proceed down the halls, but Mark is stopped and handcuffed.

Roundtable discussion: You can’t know all the kids...but try to get on a one-on-one basis… And the physical contact is definitely an escalation… And I noticed in the story he said he was worried and upset..

Each table includes at least one youth, some who have experienced incarceration, and a Richmond police officer. Chief Alfred Durham is seated at this one.

Alfred Durham: What is the school’s policy on tardiness, reporting late for school and what is the officer’s duties and responsibilities… There was no reason for arrest, I can tell you that now...
Community member: Respectfully, I think we tend to focus so much on policy and procedure as opposed to be present in the interaction, right? So whether it was wrong for him to be in that place at that time… I think it could have been handled differently.

Other tables are working through scenarios where youth are arrested after standing in a noisy group outside a pharmacy;  another for using a cell phone in class. The groups ponder: what were the youth thinking? Was defiance a sign of distress? What kinds of de-escalation tactics would work?

Roundtable discussion: So officer has asked you all then, if you don’t mind, if you can go back in, do your shopping or if you’re waiting, move over here, what’s your response then?

An hour later, representatives acted out their group’s re-written scripts. In a few, the police officer and youth switch roles.

Officer (as read by youth): I notice you’re a little late, everything ok, what’s going on?
Student (as read by Chief Durham): I’m just trying to make it to class, I had to turn in my project.
Officer (as read by youth): Let me make sure you get to class… Can I talk to you for a second, that okay?
Student (as read by Chief Durham): Yeah, that’s okay…(applause)

Through this exercise, the teams worked out some difficult questions. Where’s the responsibility for change, is it on the young person or the adult? What about systemic issues? What happens when there’s more respect and compassion? At the end facilitator Michael Rohd with the Center for Performance and Civic Practice asked participants what do they want to remember from tonight?

Participants: Something I want to remember from tonight is that people are actually willing to sit down at the table and talk about different ways of addressing the problem instead of coming up with a one-size fits all solution…
The diversity of the people who were willing to show up and participate in this.
All perspectives are relevant to initiating conversation to find a solution to whatever the problem may be…
I’d like to remember the power of community ‘cause this is amazing. I really didn’t know what to expect, who would show up, who would care. To see the diverse faces has warmed my heart and given me hope. I want everyone to know it’s not one person’s responsibility… it’s everyone’s effort.
I want to say I’m excited to be here. On the officer part, it’s extremely important that each officer build a relationship with everyone in the community they serve…
I want to remember our courageous young men and women, for coming out and taking a stand and being a part of something so special in the community, as well as our police officers who came and volunteered today. You’re taking part in something amazing, very powerful. We need you all just as well as you need us.

Strandquist: All of our work, we want to not only create space where youth voices are really held up and celebrated but that the structure of our exhibits, our programming, our events, really take things to the next level. Go beyond just witnessing an issue but try to actually solve it. And I think what we saw at the forum was a way that a very diverse group of people, a couple hundred folks in the room, could come together and ty to actually understand an issue from a human perspective, understand it from the youth and police perspective, but also layer in their own expertise.

Lyles: I just want folks to be just as excited this change and what we’re trying to do here and the kids voices, be just as excited about this as you are about elections, as you are about Christmas, as you are about your birthday, as you are about getting a new car or sending your kid off to college, be as excited about this. I know that people have jobs, they have lives, they’re busy from day to day and may not have time. But something as small, just stopping by and checking out the artwork and writing them a note saying that, Hey, here’s some words of encouragement. It’s a small thing you can do: Continue doing this work, we’re proud of you, we need you… That one small thing goes a long way.

The work created by youth in juvenile detention during Performing Statistics summer program will be exhibited at Richmond’s Art 180 before traveling across the state and the country. In November, a parade will bring together the initiative’s participants and take the artwork and its messages out of the gallery and into the streets.

(Youth Poem: I am Powerful)

For Virginia Currents, I’m Catherine Komp, WCVE News.

All photos courtesy Mark Strandquist and Performing Statistics.