At a time when youth incarceration is a central topic of conversation among the Virginian lawmakers, the RISE for Youth Coalition, a campaign for youth incarceration alternatives, Legal Aid Justice Center, a nonprofit which provides legal aid to low-income citizens and performing arts education nonprofit Art 180 came together to fight for reform of the juvenile justice system.
Performing Statistics is a program developed by these organizations, as well as VCU students wishing to get involved, to give an artistic avenue for those affected by youth incarceration to have their voice be heard. The program intends to talk about the different avenues available to have a conversation about the juvenile justice system.
“Our goal is to create a conversation saying that you don’t have to just be focused in criminal justice to get involved,” said Kiantee White, vice president of VCU’s NAACP chapter. “You can be in the arts, you can be in social work, you can be in business. You can use all of these different avenues to advocate for the youth.”
Performing Statistics presented an art exhibit of works created by youth currently at the Richmond Detention Center to raise awareness for their cause. The exhibit was on display on the lawn in front of VCU’s Harris Hall on April 15. Through the project, Performing Statistics hopes to use these works of art to advocate community-based alternatives to juvenile correction facilities.
“Each piece was voices of actual youth who have been in an actual detention center in Virginia,” White said. “Their experiences, how it has affected them, how it has impacted them, things like that. They all speak directly to what impact youth incarceration has on them.”
A central and focus of the organization is to educate the public and policymakers about the “school-to-prison pipeline.” The American Civil Liberties Union stated that, “The ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ refers to the policies and practices that push our nation’s schoolchildren, especially our most at-risk children, out of classrooms and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. This pipeline reflects the prioritization of incarceration over education.”
Jeree Thomas, an attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center, started her career focusing on the educational needs of incarcerated youth and brought that background to Performing Statistics. Thomas said that a priority of the project is to create an entry point for people to learn about the problems associated with mass incarceration and to eliminate the disconnect between the policymakers and the actual people affected by those policies.
“Many of the lawmakers have no concept of the humanity and the personalities and the dreams of the young people who are incarcerated,” Thomas said. “I think that [the project] was really impactful because it’s just not voices that they usually hear in the General Assembly.”
Those involved in the program are currently working to combat an amendment to the bond bill proposed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe to fund the construction of a new juvenile corrections facility in Chesapeake. A collection of signatures from an online petition and physical postcard distribution will be delivered to the General Assembly on Wednesday, in time for the vote about the funding for the center. Thomas said that the signatures come from those who “disagree with rushing to open a new facility without having an open, transparent conversation about whether or not we need this same model of facility.”
The program plans on continuing their work with the teenagers at the Richmond Detention Center in the coming year. They recently raised half a million dollars to continue the project for at least the next three years, according to Trey Hartt, Deputy Director of Art 180 and a co-organizer of the Performing Statistics project.
Art 180, a youth arts non-profit, contributes as a partner on the project by using arts as an avenue for activism. This idea lead to the art exhibition of the work of the children currently serving time in the Richmond area and using the community as support. Art 180 provides the artistic perspective to strategically and creatively guide the project forward.
“We want to use art as a way to humanize the juvenile justice system and especially the kids that are involved in that system, and then connect it to policy,” Hartt said. “The system is broken and it needs to change.”
Megan Corsano, Contributing Writer