Mesh signs decorated the basement of the Richmond Public Library Friday night.
Standing approximately five feet tall and three feet wide, the posters portrayed black and white photos of teenagers’ hands, reading powerful statements such as “Educate our youth,” “Give us opportunities before you give us a cell” and “Don’t separate us from our community.”
They were made by incarcerated youth.
On Aug. 26, Richmond police officers, teachers, students and members of the community gathered for a public forum on understanding and ending the school-to-prison pipeline. The event was organized by Art 180 and Performing Statistics, Richmond-based nonprofits that sponsor art education for incarcerated youth throughout the city.
“We’re working to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline with hopes to build stronger relationships between the community and law enforcement,” said Trey Hartt, Resource Development Manager at Art 180.
This summer, incarcerated youth from the Richmond Detention Center teamed with Performing Statistics and Art 180 for an eight-week program to create a series of art, short films and instruction manuals based on the questions “What would keep youth free?”
The youths worked with local filmmakers and NPR to create short films and radio PSAs which tell their personal stories. In one film, a youth told his story about not being able to find a job in order to help support his family; another teenage boy described the need for positive role models.
“They wrote, shot and edited these in two days,” said Project Director for Performing Statistics Mark Strandquist, who showed the films to the 100 attendees at the start of Friday’s event.
The moderator of the evening was Michael Rohd, executive director of the Center for Performance and Civic Practice, a national organization that works with artists and communities to build civic health, equity and capacity.
“The conversations at the tables tonight are using scenarios to ask police and youth together to brainstorm what we would do in this situation to reduce the possibility of a young person going into the system,” Rohd said.
The directions were simple: at each table sat a Richmond police officer, a youth and a youth advocate. As part of the “inner circle,” each trio would receive a real-life scenario that concludes with a juvenile arrest. The inner circle would discuss the scenario, explain how each of them would handle it and then welcome those sitting around them in the “outer circle” to chime in.
Scenarios included a convenience store owner calling the police due to loitering and suspicion of larceny; another had a school police officer harassing an African American student for being late while letting the other tardy students walk past unnoticed.
Among the police officers present was Officer Farrhard El-Amin of the Community Care Unit. According to El-Amin, the most important thing to consider with youth is the “approach.”
“I find that the best way to approach someone is to approach them how I want to be approached,” El-Amin said. “My approach is not to arrest.”
Once the outer circle voiced their opinions on the scenario, the inner circle reconvened to write six lines – or the first 15 seconds – of dialogue that could happen between the police officer and youth. Once the dialogues were complete, the officer and youth from each group stood and shared it with the group.
Open High School senior Chris Bolling said he did not expect to be so emotional at Friday night’s forum.
“The real effects will come if police officers actually do act on what they said tonight,” Bolling said. “Then things will change.”
As a continuation of Friday night’s event, Art 180 hosted another event at the library for Virginia educators on Saturday afternoon. The second event focused on tools to teach students about the school-to-prison pipeline in the classroom.
In many scenarios, Strandquist explained police officers and teachers’ “hands are tied” due to code of conduct issues within their schools.
According to the Performing Statistic website, Virginia locks up 10,000 youth a year.
Teachers from Richmond Public Schools explained they have seen children harshly punished in the public schools they work at. Many teachers could recalled “good kids” being suspended for long periods of time for minor offenses.
This summer was the second summer that Performing Statistics worked with incarcerated youth. In addition to working with local artists, the youths were able to work with legal experts and formerly incarcerated adults for mentorship.
Online Editor, Maura Mazurowski
Maura is a senior cinema and journalism student. She’s interested in combining investigative journalism with filmmaking, and is a contributing writer for the online publications Elite Daily and Literally Darling. Before transferring to VCU, Maura was an editor for the student newspaper at Virginia Tech, the Collegiate Times. // Twitter | Facebook | LinkedIn | Portfolio