Creative Justice

Creative Justice is 4Culture’s new arts-based alternative to incarceration for young people in King County. Through collaboration with mentor artists, participants consider the root causes of incarceration (as they intersect with racism, classism and other oppressions) and focus on the positive role youth voice can have in building a more just and equitable society.

Research shows that incarcerating youth has little-to-no relationship with reductions in crime in the community. Instead, it increases recidivism, pulls youth deeper into the system, causes additional harm to youth who have special needs or are experiencing mental illness, and greatly reduces youth success in the labor market [1]. King County is actively working to reduce reliance on incarceration in favor of community-based alternatives: the total youth population in secure detention decreased 63% between 1998 and 2014 [2]. However, as the number of incarcerated youth has declined, racial disproportionality has increased: black youth are nine times more likely to be imprisoned than white youth. Community groups continue to press for alternatives to incarceration that work to eliminate systemic racism and its destructive impacts on youth and families of color.

We have envisioned Creative Justice to advance the goal of continuing to reduce the use of incarceration while simultaneously eliminating racial disparities. Supported by 1% for Art funds and the National Endowment for the Arts, the pilot year of programming is engaging 48 youth and families involved with King County Juvenile Court.

Mentor artist, Shontina Vernon. Creative Justice 2015: Session 1. Timothy Aguero Photography.
Mentor artist, Shontina Vernon. Creative Justice 2015: Session 1. Timothy Aguero Photography.

During quarterly project sessions at partner sites throughout the county, participants meet with experienced mentor artists twice a week, for two hours, to dialogue, create and share a meal. Sessions include: artistic skill building in a variety of disciplines; discussion and learning rooted in principles of anti-racism and social justice; individual and collaborative creative work; and opportunities to give and receive feedback. Family members are engaged in the projects in various ways, including participation in hands-on activities. At the end of each session, youth lead and produce community-based actions and events in which they share their creativity, vision, and new abilities.

The Prosecuting Attorney’s Office is considering involvement in Creative Justice as mitigation in any case and incentive for terminating probation early. As well, youth receive community service credit and stipends that encourage participation while helping to pay court fines and other expenses.

Creative Justice 2015: Session 1. Timothy Aguero Photography.
Creative Justice 2015: Session 1. Timothy Aguero Photography.

The first 2015 project session is being hosted at 2312 Gallery in Belltown. Twelve young people are working with mentor artist Shontina Vernon to explore the power of personal narrative storytelling as they consider themes of social justice, community, authenticity, and the freedom of choice. Guest artists Tariqa Waters, Amy O’Neal, Nicole Brown, Anthony Tackett, Evan Flory-Barnes, and Hollis Wong-Wear are scheduled to make special appearances.

Otieno Terry, Daemond Arrindell, and Nikkita Oliver will lead future project sessions, all with an emphasis on social engagement, and collaborate with Shontina to make supplementary Saturday drop-in classes available to a larger court-involved population. A full schedule and session descriptions can be found at

Creative Justice 2015: Session 1. Timothy Aguero Photography.
Creative Justice 2015: Session 1. Timothy Aguero Photography.

Lead Engagement Artist and Program Coordinator, Aaron Counts shares his thinking about Creative Justice:

Art can be transformative. I owe my entire writing career to this idea, so it is a belief I hold close. I’ve written poetry and prose with prisoners, school dropouts, gang members and college professors and national book award winners alike, and the common thread among all of them is the desire to be seen and heard, for each of us to have a platform to tell our stories.

For court-involved young people, who are often the most marginalized of voices, that opportunity to be heard usually comes framed as anti-social action. When youth strike out against rules and norms, their negative behaviors become the story. But in Creative Justice, we know they have much more to say, and art can be the conduit that brings those ideas into the center of the conversation.

To stand and say in a beautiful and creative way, “This is the way I see the world. Any questions?” is a powerful experience. It allows us to commune with one another and really begin to hear what each of us is going through, individually and collectively. That sharing of stories is a great place to build empathy and compassion, to forge stronger connections and transform communities.

As an artist and activist, I relish the task of working in a program that focuses on making my community a more equitable place. With Creative Justice, we’re recognizing the power to create in those we’ve often vilified for their ability to destroy. How exciting is that?


[1] Justice Policy Institute, 2006
[2] King County, 2014