I had the opportunity to hear a panel from Arts for Incarcerated Youth Network (AIYN), the only arts collaborative for incarcerated youth in the State of California, at the National Guild for Community Arts Education conference held in San Francisco in November. AIYN’s core belief is simple: culturally responsive arts engagement is transformative to young people who are incarcerated or on probation. The arts – perhaps more than any other intervention – has the power to heal as well as provide personal expression that can lead to systemic change promoting community and group social cohesion, and in the process, promote a more just society.
For the past two years, CAC has had the opportunity to collaborate with Café Momentum, Dallas’ restaurant and culinary training program, in which we have provided creative programming to many of the young people in its 12-month paid post-release internship program through such programs as Feasts of Clay & Glass and Camp MetalHead. The pride and sense of empowerment the young people receive by designing and creating serveware for the restaurant or a personal art piece is amazing to watch.
CAC is not the only organization doing this work in Texas. Big Thought’s Creative Solutions program in collaboration the Dallas County Juvenile Department and SMU is working to re-ignite the imaginations of these high-potential youth through the performing and visual arts and is credited with lowering recidivism rates. Children’s Prison Arts Project in Harris County is exposing incarcerated youth to creative writing, theater and visual arts where they can express their thoughts and visions in constructive ways, presenting their art to their peers and the community at large.
But nowhere in the country is actual policy around creative engagement and cultural responsiveness more developed than in California. The nine member organizations in AIYN are guided by the belief that arts engagement addresses the trauma in these kid’s lives, including the trauma of incarceration, so they can reflect, restore, learn and develop into creative and fulfilled community members and leaders. It was very powerful to hear the story of Fabian Debora, a former juvenile offender who is now a teaching artist with AIYN: “Incarceration happens instead of looking deeper at the causes. There are reasons why things happen and everyone has a story. Think about it, how does incarceration help anything?”