With the pilot year of Creative Justice—4Culture’s arts-based alternative to youth incarceration in King County—almost complete, we are reflecting on lessons learned and looking towards the future. We asked Session 3 Mentor Artist, Daemond Arrindell to provide some insight into his experience working with participants and helping to shape this ground-breaking new program. The call is open for 2016 Mentor Artists—apply now!
Last month saw the culmination of eight weeks of work for the participants of Creative Justice Session 3. The members of the group who took the stage at a celebratory closing presentation expressed pride, gratitude, and seemed to have enjoyed themselves afterwards. But, when I say “work,” I mean just that—they worked hard to get to a place where they could celebrate, and it was far from easy.
This group was at a disadvantage compared to the other Creative Justice session participants—their session took place during the summer. They had less time to get to know one another, build trust, take risks, and try on new versions of themselves. Summer is code for “break”—and it takes a great deal to compel anyone, much less a teenager, to give up part of their summer break to enter a classroom. Some of the participants knew each other, which in some ways is an asset as they supported each other, but also created cliques. If you were to sit down with any of the participants to engage in conversation, you’d find an individual with intelligence, who is inquisitive and has a mind of their own. But in a group, it’s not so easy to be an individual, especially amongst peers. So there was posturing, bravado, one-upping, and a lot of energy that was difficult to direct.
A big focus for this session was definitions and labels. All of the participants have been labelled—by family and friends, their social groups, society. Adolescence is a time when we really begin to define who are, and those labels can limit our scope, our self-worth and sense of what is possible. Each time that we got together, we began with a meal and a discussion. The topics: strength, beauty, power, respect, second chances, prison reform, self-sabotage. The discussions were rarely easy because these young people don’t typically get asked for their opinions on such matters—but that’s exactly why they should be asked. The objective: to recognize that words and definitions can be reclaimed and re-defined for ourselves, that we have agency.
Participants worked with graphic artist Greg Thornton to create their own t-shirts to visually demonstrate the principles that are important to each of them. Singer/songwriter Naomi Wachira visited them and gave a live, impromptu performance—as she began to strum her guitar and her voice filled the entire building, the participants were enthralled. It was the quietest the group had been the entire summer. They also watched a documentary called “Rubble Kings,” about the gang warfare that took place in the Bronx during the late 1960s, and how those kids transformed that violent energy into something positive—Hip-Hop.
Their final presentation followed the same format as their weekly gatherings. We began with a meal, but this time, the participants got to ask the questions. They went around to the tables of our guests and led conversations on the topic of their choosing. Some focused on second chances, others on the prison system. To close it all out they performed their script, which though edited by me was written completely by the participants. It provided an opportunity for them to share how the topics we had just discussed affect their lives personally.
It’s honestly hard to believe that it’s over—spending a little more than four hours with this group of young people each week doesn’t seem like that much, and very little of it came easy, but then they say nothing worth having ever does. All in all, that’s the deeper message, I think—to keep going, in spite of the work and challenge, so that we can become better people on the other side. That we, and the work, are worth it. Each young person walked into the sessions with a past filled with choices they made for themselves, and some choices that were made for them. The results? They still remain to be seen, but the process of trying to “Turn the Page,” which takes heart, patience, forgiveness, and courage, has begun.
– Daemond Arrindell