How Art is Creating a Youth-led Vision of Justice

Posted by Jeree Thomas, Jul 25, 2017 0 comments

This post is part of our Excellence and Equity in Arts for Change blog salon.

“This way, Attorney Thomas.” I cautiously followed the juvenile correctional officer from the entry way into Beaumont Juvenile Prison in Beaumont, Virginia. She sat me at a small lunch table in an empty, cavernous cafeteria space on the maximum-security side of the facility. Like most prison facilities, it smelled of bleached mildew and the overhead lighting struggled to brighten its concrete walls.

The officer brought in the young man I was there to see. He introduced himself as Da’Quon Beaver and shared his many concerns and struggles. However, despite the very difficult situation he faced, Da’Quon had a light about him. He was intelligent, motivated, and way more than whatever decision he made that resulted in him being tried, convicted as an adult at the age of 15, and incarcerated there.

At that time, I provided direct representation, but I also lobbied state legislators on behalf of youth experiencing education or juvenile justice issues. I met with state legislators who would say all sorts of things about children in the confines of their comfortable and decorated offices. “The bad kids … the violent kids … the kids that don’t deserve an education.” If only they could meet Da’Quon and the many youth I met and represented. If only I could take them with me.

Three years later, I would take Da’Quon with me, and I would introduce him to a state senator as my colleague working on a state-wide campaign called RISE for Youth to close juvenile prisons and expand community-based services. He remains my colleague today.

Jeree Thomas and Da’Quon Beaver. (Photo by Mark Strandquist courtesy of the author.)

While law and policy are absolutely necessary components of systemic change in our country, the law is completely and embarrassingly insufficient to reaching the ends of justice. The law turns youth and young adults like Da’Quon into numbers and offenses. When law makers can’t see or hear from youth, they run the risk of dehumanizing them.

When artist-activists Mark Strandquist and Trey Hartt contacted me about partnering on a project to make people see, through art, that youth are more than their crimes and more than statistics, I felt both completely out of my depth and finally understood. This was something I wanted to do for years, but I didn’t have the partners, the talent, the language, or the framework to make it happen. I knew instinctively that if decision-makers could see, feel, and hear the experiences of youth, they would empathize with them, and that could open up new possibilities.

The Aesthetic Perspectives framework provides a real opportunity to inform partnerships between artists, activists, lawyers, policy groups, and community members about how art works in service of justice. Many nonprofits and legal service agencies have limited experience and resource capacity to work with artists, and therefore struggle to implement or understand the practical impact of creative work that falls outside of direct representation of the individuals they serve. The framework provides questions that can translate to clear metrics for considering and integrating art and activism into strategic policy change work.

Art created by the teens and Kate Deciccio, summer 2016.  (Photo by Mark Strandquist courtesy of the author.)For example, when I partnered with Mark and Trey on the Performing Statistics Project, our vision was to bring with us these incredibly talented, bright, funny, and deep young people who were incarcerated to traditionally adult-dominated policy spaces through their portraits, their screen printing, their recorded PSAs, and in person upon release. We developed metrics for success along the way, but it was a learning process for me. In the legal field, we often measure success by the number of favorable court or administrative decisions or by legislation passed during a General Assembly session. The legal outcomes and metrics, while seemly concrete, are rarely sufficient to ensure that the hearts and minds of individuals change, which is ultimately the most important outcome. Without a real cultural shift in how individuals view youth, they will still treat them the same in practice. Some individuals and agencies will simply risk a lawsuit for violating the rights of youth, because so few incarcerated youth have access to legal representation.

On the other hand, the metrics for measuring the success of the art we were creating in the project was difficult for me to explain. At the time, I did not have the language to fully relay to my legal colleagues the potential impact of the project. The Aesthetic Perspectives framework would have been helpful in “arguing my case” for integrating arts into our policy advocacy strategy. Now that it is available, the aesthetic attributes will undoubtedly be helpful in the future to explain to policy advocates that art helps create communal meaning that builds support among the constituents of decision-makers and even decision-makers themselves. It disrupts the traditional process by imagining a new way of doing things—in our case, literally thinking outside of the prison cell. Art can also create an emotional or sensory experience that no data sheet or policy brief could ever convey.

My experience working on the Performing Statistics Project was life changing, and has shaped not only how I view my work, but the change I believe is possible even within difficult and often intractable systems. In June of this year, Beaumont Juvenile Prison closed, in part due to the advocacy of the RISE for Youth Coalition, and youth and young adult coalition leaders like Da’Quon who stood up for themselves and expressed their opinions, emotions, and experiences through art.

I am currently the Policy Director with the Campaign for Youth Justice (CFYJ), a national initiative dedicated to removing youth from the adult criminal justice system. As a part of that work, I partner with state legal advocates and families across the country pushing for youth justice reforms. CFYJ is now emphasizing and uplifting arts and advocacy in all of the work that we do. The theme of National Youth Justice Action Month in October this year is Arts, Activism, and Advocacy. We hope that youth justice advocates across the country will sign up to take action in October to lift up how arts and advocacy can disrupt and transform the youth justice system. The Aesthetic Perspectives framework will be a tool we share with our partners to help them integrate arts and frame measurable metrics for its impact far beyond Youth Justice Action Month. 

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