Incarcerated youth create conversation through art about the justice system

Photo by Becca Schwartz
Photo by Becca Schwartz
Photo by Becca Schwartz
Photo by Becca Schwartz

Richmond-based youth art program Art 180 worked with a group of 12 teens in the city’s juvenile detention system during a two month program that provided participants with the chance to create a wide variety of art, through audio, visual and conceptual mediums.

The resulting exhibition, “I Am Powerful,” runs from Oct. 7 through Nov. 21 at Art 180’s gallery at 114 W. Marshall St. Following its conclusion there, the pieces will travel across the state and the nation for display at different festivals and conferences.

Art 180 Creative Director Mark Strandquist said the themes are developed and explored firsthand by the young artists, with aided from mentors such as artists, advocates and formerly incarcerated adults.

In the exhibition the teens explore the transformation of the juvenile justice system and maintaining the freedom of kids.

“It is important that the teens connect with people with shared experiences who can help mentor them,” Strandquist said. “But, also a multitude of community experts that can help amplify and expand the power of the teens’ artwork.”

Not only was the series intended to provide opportunities for youth in the juvenile detention system —  their art has also been used to educate and spread awareness about issues in the justice system.

“We are using their art to train every active-duty officer in the City of Richmond,” Strandquist said.

Contrary to traditional training methods, the art pieces, and their creators, were part of a session that combined creative expression with the presentation of facts concerning youth imprisonment in the U.S.

According to the World Prison Brief, the U.S. is the global leader in incarceration. Virginia is particularly guilty, at three times the national rate, it is the state with the most youth referred to law enforcement, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

During the week-long training session sponsored by Art 180, youth, speakers and police officers utilized the pieces as starting points to catalyze bigger discussions about their own experiences with various issue.

At the end of the two-month session, a forum at the Richmond Public Library brought together police and youth who had been impacted by the justice system; the conversations were aided by mediators like teachers or lawyers.

“If you invest in youth in small numbers, we believe, and have seen, that the impact and ripple effect can be huge,” Strandquist said.

Georgia Geen, Contributing Writer

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