We’ve Only Just Begun…

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

Creative Justice is 4Culture’s new arts-based alternative to incarceration for King County youth.

Writer, musician, actor, and teaching artist, Shontina Vernon is leading the inaugural project session and working with 12 participants to tell their stories through interdisciplinary performance, new media, and poetic narrative.

One by one they trickle in. Some days joyful and engaged, other days frustrated and scared. But always, they come – the young people of my Creative Justice class. And I try – we try – to meet each other with the best versions of ourselves we can muster. None of us comes perfect, but we all arrive (trust a little shaky, BS meters high) curious to learn something new about the world around us.

When the mixture is just right, it happens. Through art, someone is able to say something they’ve never said before… see themselves in ways maybe they’ve only imagined. S/he is proud and valiant, and eager to take the new knowledge and test it outside. But often, I am met with everything from an orchestra of hems and haws to outright stubborn resistance. I take it as a healthy challenge. This is part and parcel of piloting a program like Creative Justice.

I know that the resistance I meet from youth isn’t personal. It has nothing to do with the list of insecurities that may be running on loop in my own head at any given moment. Their resistance is about a fundamental distrust in a system that has never really given them the space to be, has never acknowledged the ways in which they are human, or how the systems of oppression form bars around their lives before they’ve scarcely even had the chance to experience the world outside.

As a mentor-teaching artist, I am tasked with creating the space where these young people who have been silenced by so much can speak freely about their experiences, and share their stories – adding their ideas to the way that we think about our choices and actions. It is at the heart of my social justice practice, this belief that art shapes our cultural stories, and it matters who is represented among the storytellers. This is especially true in the dismantling of our incarceration system.

Today, in class, our stories will be about loss and grief. We are making “descansos,” and discussing violence, death and healthy ways to grieve. It comes out of a rough week. Some of our students and families have had very recent brushes with loss. We will take a moment to honor those who have gone before us. Loss and violence is a real part of what my youth face in their communities everyday. To pretend otherwise is to deny what is true of their lived experience. And forget that they are children. They are afraid. They, like us, are searching for ways to be free, often with no guides.

Art is built for this. It can handle difficult things. What a gift to be able to give them tools, and then listen as they find their way to their own stories. I try to remind them that “in the telling, you rewrite it.”

Already, I can see just how important the arts will be in the transformation of our culture around incarceration and the juvenile justice system. What they have shared is honest, raw, and only the beginning of true reconciliation.

– Shontina Vernon