Bringing Art and Opportunities to Baltimore Youth in Detention

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Image courtesy Baltimore Youth Arts.
Image courtesy Baltimore Youth Arts.

Before Gianna Rodriguez moved to Baltimore a little over a year ago, she did some research on youth arts programs in the city. For years, Rodriguez had worked with AS220 Youth — a group in Providence, R.I., that provides arts programming, mentoring, and professional opportunities to young people in the juvenile justice system. Finding nothing quite like it here, she founded Baltimore Youth Arts to fill the gap.

Since BYA’s inception in February, Rodriguez has brought a weekly schedule of arts classes and mentoring to youth at Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center, Thomas J.S. Waxter Children’s Center, Lillian Jones Recreation Center, and Gilmore Homes. (At the last two locations, she partners with the American Friends Service Committee.) Along the way, the organization picked up fiscal sponsorship from Fusion Partnerships and funding support from Baltimore Family League and the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation.

So far, all of this has been accomplished working out of Rodriguez’s car. To increase BYA’s impact, she is currently raising funds to establish a physical home for the group in the form of the BYA Community Studio. I asked Rodriguez a few questions about BYA, the fundraiser, and the importance of working with youth in detention.

BFB: What kind of a response have you seen from the young people you serve? What about their parents?

Gianna Rodriguez: Fortunately, most youth that have participated in BYA have had a positive response!  The best moments are when young people act like art class is the most uncool thing to do ever, and then, after some joking around, get super amped to make something they are excited about.

Three sites do not enable me to interact with parents — yet. The Baltimore Juvenile Justice Center and the Thomas J.S. Waxter Children’s Center are lock-down facilities for detained youth. Young people at the Lillian S. Jones Recreation Center are dropped off before I arrive or take a bus to the center. As the program grows, we will offer showcases and exhibitions for young people to present their work; hopefully these events will allow BYA staff to develop relationships with parents and guardians.

I have been able to meet the parents and other family members of young people at Gilmor Homes. They have even taken part in our weekly class, and I have only received positive feedback from them.

How big is Baltimore Youth Arts team right now? What have you accomplished so far?

Currently, due to funding I am the only official staff of BYA. I teach 6-7 classes each week, work on program development, manage the website and all communications, reach out to any interested volunteers, among other things.

I have also been collaborating with Dave Eassa, a local teaching artist, to create an organization joining our individual programs. He is building Free Space, a program that works with incarcerated men in the Maryland Correctional Institution Jessup. We are still solidifying what this collaboration will look like as our programs grow and want to get more artists and organizations involved.  In the fall Dave and I are going to team up to start an art program at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup.

There have also been a few volunteers who have worked on prepping art for exhibitions, and assisting with classes at Gilmor Homes and the Lillian S. Jones Rec Center. BYA recently received funding from the Baltimore Family League, which will allow us to hire more instructors! We will soon put out a call for more instructors and volunteers.

So far, we have developed pretty solid relationships with staff at the BCJJC, Waxter Children’s Center, and Lillian Jones, as well as community members at Gilmor. Department of Juvenile Services staff have expressed its interest in BYA continuing and expanding. Most importantly, young people ask if classes are going to continue and classes often go overtime, which hopefully means they are not bored! BYA engages 30-46 youth each week.

How will the community studio help you accomplish more?

The program was developed based on the following:

·   A majority of youth involved with the juvenile justice system have been diagnosed with mental health or behavioral issues;

·   Youth exiting the Juvenile Justice System lack consistent access to social services;

·   Youth involved in the justice system benefit from co-mingling with peers who are not;

·   The relationships between incarcerated and/or exiting youth and adults are often limited and transitory;

·   Long-term supportive relationships are beneficial to young people, particularly those re-entering their communities; and

·   Youth transitioning back into their communities have difficulty seeking and securing employment.

The BYA Community Studio will allow us to connect with youth participants from the BCJJC and Waxter Children’s Center after they exit those facilities.  The main goal of BYA is to create relationships that span a young person’s adolescence into early adulthood. The Community Studio will allow us to connect with young people who want to make art once returning to the community. In the future, I hope to raise the  funds to provide employment to youth while engaging them in job skills training such as: resume writing, the steps in applying for a job, professional behavior, and project development.

How do the professional opportunities and job-skills training dovetail with the arts programming? What kinds of opportunities and training will be offered?

BYA participants will be employed to take part in creative projects. This may include painting murals and other public art projects, designing and making T-shirts, designing posters, etc. As the program grows, youth will take part in skills-based classes and creative and collaborative projects. Aside from job-skills training, like resume writing and applying for jobs, youth will gain both hard and soft skills just through participation in arts projects.

Collaborative art making presents myriad teaching moments. For example, when students are charged with developing an art project together, they learn how to work as part of a team. When working on a collaborative project, youth are responsible for synthesizing their ideas so that each person is represented. Once the design has been agreed upon, the students must choose what roles they are comfortable with in the painting process. It also involves building trust to enable a young person to share their idea with peers.

I have witnessed young people, of their own volition, work together to settle aesthetic disagreements, and it is amazing! These skills are transferable and young people who have exposure to opportunities that cultivate such interactions may find it easier when working in a future job — whether or not it is in the arts.

Visual art students learn skills and techniques such as line, form, tone, proportion, color theory and shading and are then encouraged to use what they learn to explore their imaginations. In the arts — whether it be visual, literary or performance —  youth are encouraged to explore the aesthetic and conceptual possibilities within their work. They are able to create imaginary worlds and play with reality — there is never one right answer! Art not only allows questioning and inquiry, but also celebrates it.

Curiosity, experimentation, teamwork and critical thinking are just some of the skills gains youth will make by taking part in arts programming or arts employment. These skills can also benefit someone in personal, educational, or employment situations!

You talked about the need for continuity. How do young people typically end up at these justice centers?

There are many reasons why youth get caught up in the juvenile justice system. The answer is so complex that this question is difficult to answer. It would be easy for me to say, well, they are often charged with possession and intent to sell, or that some young people are charged with more serious crimes such as attempted homicide or violent assault… but that doesn’t get at the core of the problem.

Some data! In 2013, 3,726 young people were arrested in Baltimore, Md. In 2012, 33% of children and 35% of young adults were living in poverty (KidsCount, 2012). In 2012, 12% of youth, age 16-19, were not attending school and were not working. The unemployment rate in Baltimore in 2014 was 9.9% compared to a 6.1% rate for the state of Maryland.

There are long-standing systemic issues that many Baltimore youth are faced with daily. For some, who live in highly policed neighborhoods and who have little access to supportive programs and services, the result is often interaction with the juvenile justice system.

Structural racism is real, and it affects everything: the justice system, police tactics, the educational system, health care system. For example, statistically youth of color are put in special education more so than white students, are suspended more frequently, are charged within their schools more often, are arrested more, and receive harsher sentences [for similar charges]. This all affects the opportunities that low-income and youth of color have access to and is only one chunk of the answers to this question!

Learn more about Baltimore Youth Arts here.

Contribute to the BYA Community Studio fundraiser here.

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