Reflections: Creativity in the Courts

JJ square editedPosted on behalf of Jean Johnstone, Executive Director, Teaching Artists Guild.  In August, Jean was part of a innovative program called “Creativity at the Core,” a state-wide program involving County Offices of Education paired with arts education organizations to create innovative, replicable models using the arts to serve our communities. TAG, together with the Alameda County Office of Education were generously funded by the California Arts Council and CCSESA to launch “Creativity in the Courts and Community Schools.”  Here, Jean shares her reflections from this powerful work.

I am writing from the Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center, where a group of teaching artists convened by TAG and the Alameda Office of Ed have been working intensively in the units with the students this week. They are painters, sculptors, music makers, theater artists, dancers, and multi-disciplinary visionaries. Watching them work with these students, who come out of their cells and into a windowless classroom to dance, write, create, has been a moving and powerful experience. For those of you who weren’t aware (and a year ago I was one of them), “juvie” is jail. Jail for kids. You don’t have the same rights as an adult, either. You are kept locked up until your trial, which has no jury. The time you spend waiting for your case to be heard, which can be months, is called “dead time”, because that is what it is. It doesn’t count towards your sentence. You can’t go home. Assuming you have one.

Tuesday I sat in on an art class with a keen and experienced 75 year old teaching artist. She had asked the students to choose and draw power words, and they were decorating them intricately. They had drawn words like, “Peace”, “Fierce”, “Free”, and simply “I love you, mama”.
I tried explaining to my 5 year old son the work we were doing here. His eyes were as round as I’ve ever seen them, taking in that there was in fact this thing, a jail for kids. I tried to assure him that it was only for big kids. Pretty hollow. I also tried to explain that you couldn’t go there just for not picking up your toys. It had to be something really bad. Also very hollow. Anyway, we stumbled through that much and I told him we were coming in and doing art projects with all the students. That it was important for them to be able to do some painting or dancing because it could make them feel better to express their feelings and move their bodies. In the most amazing way, to my admittedly very simplified explanation, he didn’t understand it at all. His thought process, leaping and bounding across his furrowed face: Wait, they are in JAIL and you are going to help them with THIS? If you want to help them, why can’t you get them out??
I wish, with my magic wand and my fingers crossed, that I could not only get them out, but wave into dissipation the poverty, strife, confusion and inherited racism, and relieve us of the burden of this system, and its heavy toll. “The elephant is the room” as one of our poets wrote me in an email after his sessions at the Hall.  It is my belief that we are not responsible for that over which we have no power. We can only choose how we react and respond. And because we are human, we can learn.
What I can do is to continue to learn, especially about that which I can personally affect, and for what I can take responsibility and have power over even in some small way. I can make my art, which is part of my process of understanding the world around me. And I can teach. I can teach how to learn, keys into how to see oneself, how to process the world and let it back out, in water color, in poetry, transmogrified, and my soul changed too. This unlocking and allowance allows me to learn, engage in “subject matter”, be ready socially and emotionally to hear what others have to say. To apply myself towards a greater, further, or robust goal of my conscious choice.
This is how teaching, and teaching via the arts, can be a revolutionary act. I don’t hold the literal key to these many cells, but I hold a few metaphorical ones. Maybe.
I challenge each of you to connect with your community and look closely at those around you. Acknowledge them. When I come to visit a place such as this, the thing that strikes me the most is this: each of us was a babe in arms, the most precious of imaginable things. And by the grace of the universe, we can return again and again to a state of love, and of learning. From this place I practice my art, and my work with TAG.
Please join me.
For more discussion about the role of artists in the struggle for social justice, be sure to tune in to our next Teaching Artists Hangout: Episode 2: Being the Change>>>
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