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Art Changes

Keynote speech at the conference
The Art of Juvenile Justice:
Innovative Practices for Transforming Youth

by Alice Lovelace
Louisville, Kentucky

Alice Lovelace.
Alice Lovelace.

The following keynote speech was delivered by Alice Lovelace at the Coalition for Juvenile Justice’s 2003 Southern Region Training Conference, The Art of Juvenile Justice: Innovative Practices for Transforming Youth, September 18 – 21, 2003 at the Seelbach Hilton in Louisville, Kentucky.

My first awareness of youth and crime came when I was only eight years old. A teenage friend of my older sisters was the perpetrator turned victim of a crime in our neighborhood. I remember the sadness I experienced as I watched my sisters and their friends gather in our kitchen some softly weeping, some wailing because this boy, 16 years-old was dead. Shot in the back for breaking into a store a stealing a few dollars and a few cans of food.

It was a moment in time that marked me -- I began to pay closer attention to stories of crime in the newspapers and on the television news. This was before the time when our nation was obsessed with crime and our attitudes about crime and youth was very different.

In college, I studied criminal justice. I was idealistic. Certain that I would be able to have a positive influence in the criminal justice system and create change. One of my professors pulled me aside one day and asked if I had ever been in a prison. I had not, so he took me to work with him in a minimum-security facility -- but even here there were those doors that shut with a cold clink, the steel bars, and the eyes always on you. The next day, I returned to school and changed my major to Liberal Arts.

I still wanted to make social change. Nevertheless, I accepted as a fact that in 1973 I could not make social change within the system. Therefore, I studied literature and creative writing with the idea that these would be my tools, my weapon to make change. As a result, I have taught poetry and creative writing in a women’s jail, spent 18 weeks working with women in a pre-release center, worked in a halfway house, in youth detention centers, and youth-at-risk facilities.

I have carried with me one message and that is that ART CHANGES. This has been the reality of my life.

I HAVE SEEN ART CHANGE Art can change the individual, change someone’s mind, or change the way a society thinks about itself and others. Art can change one's understanding of self or another, changes with the times, and is changed according to who rules. I have witnessed art change as it moves from one place to another only to be changed by place. Art changes. Art can expand any environment, only to create its own space. I know that art changes with reality and that art can change reality.

For me, art is sacred. Art is my church. It is my gospel. It is my salvation.

I came to art through the good graces of the Wearing Community Recreation Center in St. Louis, Missouri. A solid program, diverse and intense, staffed by people who wanted to be there and could not give us kids enough of their time and attention.

Young people today who get into trouble are victims of behavior they develop to address personal and social conflicts. That behavior ranges from criminal acts, indulgent and unsafe sex, drug use, to runaways. The reasons they develop this behavior range from being victims of abuse, to issues of mental health, to unemployment and unrealistic social expectations.

The reasons run the gambit of issues and touches on their sense of security as individuals and encompass their desire to feel secure within their group; however, they define that group. Issues of identity and recognition are at the root of the social and personal conflict that entrap our youth and cause them to become part of the juvenile justice system.

They come to us with collective grievances of racism, sexism, unemployment, child abuse, lack of or inferior education, drug use, and issues of physical and mental health.

Too many of us adults look at the youth as deficient and sum their conditions up saying:

They get into trouble because they are too aggressive.
They get into trouble because they are over sexed.
They just don’t care about anything but themselves.

Too many of us do not want to know these young people. We are excessively busy being afraid of them. Some of us want to know, but cannot penetrate their exterior shield of pride and defiance.

What my experiences have taught me is that the arts allow us to know and see these young people as individuals. The arts allow these same young people to exercise some control over their situation by giving them a process to speak about their experiences, to re-order and shape the world they are forced to live in, while exploring their views of the rest of the world and their place in it. Because creating a work of art is such a personal experience, juveniles must draw upon and develop their inner resources to generate ideas and connections. This requires them to invest their whole person in the project. Because there is no right or wrong answer in art -- young People are able to invest more of their thinking, hopes, and aspirations, ideas without fear of failure or ridicule.

The arts reach students not reached by other programs and methods. Research has shown that young people who are disengaged are at the greatest risk of failure. Researchers have found that the arts provide a reason, and sometimes the only reason, for these youth to be engaged. Arts programs are credited with reducing absenteeism and lessening dropout rates. The arts can be the key that finally unlocks their potential to develop skills and learning they can tap into long after their lessons are over.

Arts programs have traditionally had great success with students who might have otherwise slipped through the cracks. Programs from inner city youth that used an arts-based model have shown an 80% college attendance rate. Arts programs for incarcerated youth have shown that students overcame behavioral problems by 75% and were 50% less likely to commit another crime. These changes are attributed to the fact that involvement in the arts has shown that young people grow in self- confidence. They learn techniques of self-control. They clarify and strengthen their self-identity and learn alternative ways of settling disputes. They learn to empathize with others. They learn valuable collaboration skills and are more open to accept people who are not like them.

We know that learning in and through the arts can help level the playing field for young people and especially those from disadvantaged circumstances. The arts provide young people with authentic learning experiences that engage their minds, hearts, and bodies. The learning experiences are real and meaningful for them.

Why? Because the arts engage multiple skills and abilities. When young people participate in the arts, whether it is visual arts, dance, music, theatre, creative writing, drama, fabric arts, photography or other disciplines, they develop cognitive, social, and personal competencies.

Thanks to the research of people like Howard Gardner who got his start at Harvard University as part of Project Zero, the ongoing research into how creativity enhances intelligence, we know that people learn in different ways. Gardner has identified eight ways we learn. Some people relay heavily on one of these forms of intelligences, but we all tend to have several. Gardner hoped that his research would allow teachers and those who work with young people to reach them more effectively and help them to identity their strongest intelligence while building and strengthening the others.

Gardner named them the multiple intelligences -- multiple ways of learning and knowing about the world and us: linguistic, mathematical, intrapersonal, interpersonal, spatial, kinesthetic and naturalistic.

We know that some young people have to be actively involved to learn. They are bodily kinesthetic learners. Author Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D., explains it as being body smart.

According to Dr. Armstrong,

People with this gift are often good at sports, and like working with their hands and being outdoors. Their best ideas tend to come to them when doing something physical. They are also inwardly body smart, using instincts and getting gut feelings about things. Unfortunately, for kids who are Body Smart, they also have trouble sitting still, and prefer to learn about things by touching them. When you translate this movement into an environment (such as the classroom) where quieter activities are expected, it becomes a problem.

In some children, bodily kinesthetic intelligence is ignored as a learning gift, and misdiagnosed as a learning disorder or medical problem, according to Armstrong. Sometimes these kids are diagnosed as having ADHD and placed on medication.

Then you have young people who are what Gardner calls spatially gifted. A spatially gifted person sees both the real world and the pictures in his/her mind with more clarity than others, and can often reproduce them as works of art, models, or even buildings. They have what Ellen Winner, another Harvard Project Zero research calls, "The ability to graphically represent the world, to take the three-dimensional world and put it on a two-dimensional piece of paper."

On the other hand, they might be like the young boys I encountered when visiting Badagry, Nigeria. At age ten they leave home, take their small boats out across the ocean to fish, and with no maps or instruments, they manage to sail to their destinations and back home again. They carry in their heads a spatial map of the ocean and the land that allows them to do what many of us could not do with proper instruments and technology.

According to Gardner, musical intelligence can emerge at an early age allowing young children to make music part of almost everything they do. These are the young people who would much rather listen to music, are always making music, whether it is with their hands or by drumming on the desk. Even when involved in other task, they hum, sing to themselves or have a song playing in their heads.

The child that has logical/mathematical intelligence is very much like my youngest daughter who constantly played with fire as a child and nothing I said would stop her from this bad habit. Until one day, I pretended not to notice as she headed once again for the stove, turned on the flame and held her hand over it. After a few seconds, she moved her hand, turned off the stove and walked over to me to declare “Mama, fire burns.” From that day on, she never touched fire again. She had to experience cause and effect.

They might be like my three-year-old grandson, Zion who can pitch a baseball, toss a football, and dribble a basketball, something he began doing at age two. Children who relay on this type of intelligence learn through cause and effect. Just as Zion learned, he had to hold a baseball a certain way to pitch it to the batter and that this was different from the way he had to hold a football to toss it. Researcher says that Zion, like his aunt, will be very good at learning the concrete operations of math because for them the world is grounded in cause and effect. According to Gardner, higher Logical/Mathematical thought begins when the child can abandon objects and perform operations with numbers and symbols.

People who have the ability to cooperate and easily relate to others have interpersonal intelligence. In his book “Frames of Mind” (Basic Books, 1993) Howard Gardner says, "The core capacity here is the ability to notice and make distinctions among other individuals and, in particular, among their moods, temperaments, motivations, and intentions."

Those who have the ability to accurately access their own strengths and weaknesses, them devise a way to get through life drawing on this inner knowledge are said to have intrapersonal intelligence. They have no time for self-delusion and are usually very clear about what they can do best and learn early to play to their strengths.

According to Dee Dickinson, author of “Teaching and Learning Through Multiple Intelligences” (Allyn and Bacon, 1996), children who have a high degree of linguistic intelligence are interested in storytelling, rhymes, plays on words, and "things that go beyond normal conversation." The components of this form of intelligence, according to Armstrong, include sensitivity to the sounds, structure and meanings of words, as well as a talent for using language to entertain, persuade, or instruct an audience/reader.

The eighth and latest intelligence to be added to Gardner's list is naturalist intelligence, which represents the ability to understand, identify, and work with plants, animals and other natural objects. This is the intelligence of the farmer or horticulturist, the veterinarian, the botanist, the environmentalist and the marine biologist. According to Gardner, "this ability was clearly of value in our evolutionary past as hunters, gatherers, and farmers; it continues to be central in such roles as botanist or chef. I also speculate that much of our consumer society exploits the natural intelligences, which can be mobilized in the discrimination among cars, sneakers, kinds of makeup, and the like."

Most of us have several ways of expressing our intelligence. The arts encourage and build on what is present and builds confidence in lesser-used forms of expressing intelligence.

Thanks to a barge of recent research like the 2002 publication Critical Links: Learning in the Arts and Student Academic and Social Development, we know there are many benefits to adding the arts to any program designed to educate and better the lives of young people. Critical Links outlines the following strategies for when and why to use the arts as part of your program:

  • We learn that arts instruction can enhance and complement basic reading instruction by helping youth unlock written language by associating letters, words, and phrases with sounds, sentences, and meaning. We learn that reading comprehension, speaking and writing skills are also improved.
  • We learn that certain music instruction develops spatial skills that are fundamental to our ability to understand and use mathematical ideas and concepts.
  • We learn that the young person who “acts out” can be the most successful when learning includes the arts learning. We learn that this success in the arts can became a bridge to learning and eventual success in other areas of learning.
  • We learn that long-term engagement and hands-on arts experiences will help young people to engage and strengthen spatial reasoning, problem solving, and creative thinking.
  • We know that for young people who are not engaged, the arts can help to motivate them, can actively engage them, can demand of them disciplined and sustained attention, persistence, encourages creative risk-taking, and increase their attendance and aspiration to learn more.

The arts help to create the kind of environment that fosters innovation and a positive culture.

What is important about this for incarcerated youth and those who work for and with them -- is that if the institution is open to the arts experience, the arts can provide juveniles with the opportunity to learn, and for the adults in charge to join in. By joining with the youth in art experiences, the adults around them become relevant to the lives of the young people they are trying to help. By participating in art programs alongside the young people, these adults get to learn something about art -- because studies have shown that a majority of adults in American have few hands-on experiences with the arts and are rarely given the opportunity to deepen their learning in and through the arts.

Therefore, now instead of being thought of only as the outsider, the jailer, the other -- the dynamics between staff and the young people in their charge is changed -- for the better. You are transformed into a role model for life-long learning and you are now seen by the young people as someone who is helping to facilitate their learning and growth

When the arts become central to the juvenile justice practice -- facilities become places of discovery.

You have to be prepared for a shift in the institutional culture. You must be willing to deconstruct some of the walls that the system places between you and the young people you want to help. For in helping them, you will help yourself and your institution and all will be changed in the process.

Some of the things you will learn are that:

  • Young people are not culturally deprived or empty vessels to be filled. Everyone has a culture. It shapes how we see the world, others, and ourselves. Contrary to popular belief, not all youth share the same culture. People see the world in very different ways. Culture is an expression of what we believe in and value and influences how we behave. Some aspects of culture are visible; others are beneath the surface. Invisible aspects of culture influence and cause the visible ones. To keep from misunderstanding the behavior of others, you have to try to see the world from their point of view, not yours.
  • All children can learn and deserve an opportunity to learn.
  • Rehabilitation in partnership with the arts can help youth make the connections between academic accomplishment and life goals.
  • The helping professionals are key to the success of any program and especially to programs in the arts. Instead of being sideline observers, these helping professionals from caseworkers to guards need to participate in the arts with the youth. The benefits are many and while staff thinks such actions will dilute their power, the opposite actually happens. Their status is raised among the youth who come to know more about the adults who set their daily routine.
  • When the arts are a part of the juvenile justice system, youth learn that self-expression can be non-violent and effective; that learning is a life long pursuit.
  • The arts create a place of joy and wonder where there is no such thing as failure and young people are taught that mistakes are really opportunities. The arts demonstrate the old adage that we learn as much from our failures as we do from our successes.

What we have to do to make our desires and dreams policy:

  • Write legislators and tell them that the arts are an essential tool in rehabilitating incarcerated youth teaching them life skills that will help them stay out of the system.
  • Talk to each other, share your stories -- good and bad -- extend this dialogue throughout your agency until every person on staff, from the janitor to the kitchen staff to the top administrator understands that the arts are a positive influence on youth and should be encouraged.
  • Create a network between believers and support each other. Develop and share a resource list of artists, arts organizations and successful arts based projects.

The Benefits Are Broad:

  • Youth are engaged.
  • They like coming and willingly participate.
  • When the arts are present, there are fewer discipline problems.
  • Young people build confidence and are proud of what they accomplish. They feel validated because someone else (a respected artist) is taking an interest in them.
  • Their attitude shifts from “I can’t do this” to “how can I do this?”
  • Young people develop a passion for learning and build lifelong learning habits.
  • Young people learn new problem-solving skills that allow them to see themselves and their future in a new light.
  • The adults working with incarcerated youth will develop new skills.
  • Arts programs become a model for how staff can structure other parts of the rehabilitation process.
  • We create a community of caring professionals, guards and administrators who think deeply about how the arts can help them as they struggle to help juveniles within the system.

I do not mean to point fingers, but the system must bear some responsibility for failing the youth. We design our systems of corrections and detention in ways that do not address the needs of juveniles as individuals and fail to nurture them as they struggle towards responsible adulthood.

We have to recognize that the system can sometimes be the problem -- more accurately, power dynamics that are rooted in the system can be a problem. The system says this is how we expect you to act and to speak. The expectations of the system are the limitations to its own success with youth.

Power represents potential for change to get what you want. Power is often confused with force, which is linked to domination. I am here to tell you that power is not a dirty work. That in order to become a responsible adult you have to believe you have some power over your life.

Will is a form of power

I am so happy that in 2003 there are artists and individuals inside the criminal justice system who have the will to do what others will not do. Who have the will to bring the power of art, of self-awareness, of power sharing, and community to incarcerated youth.

The system presents many obstacles to successful encounters between young people and the system has the power to change this.

A rich history has evolved from people within the system assisted by artists. There is a history in this country of community-based art that serves and educates; that asks youth to examine their lives, perceptions and beliefs, and to take responsibility for their situation. A history of art that forces these young people to face the contradictions and tension in their lives--stimulating and energizing them--activating them with purpose - -to change -- to exercise free will -- the power to change their lives.

Art allows young people to raise their consciousness, then leads them to clarity and empowers them to expand their sense of self and future possibilities.

It is not about giving these young people what we want them to have, but helping them discover and articulate what they want and ways we can facilitate a social intervention to help them get what they need.

Art for justice rests in creating a process that can move an individual from a way of seeing the world as one act of aggression after another to having the ability to see themselves for who they are and then challenging what they see.

To solve the problem is to answer the question that resonates WITHIN us all of ‘who am I’ and ‘why am I here’.

The arts offer an important juvenile justice strategy for many communities.

Community based strategies are collaborative, interdisciplinary, culturally relevant, quality based, and gender supportive

My friend Gregory Acker from Louisville, KY, says this about his experience working with juveniles in detention or treatment.

My experiences have been very enlightening and somewhat wide-ranging -- from creating shadow puppet/gamelan music shows to dramatic/music pieces to world music workshops. I have worked with mixed populations as well as gender-specific groups, ages 6-18. Understanding the mission of a visiting artist as an opportunity to help build community came to me through two sources -- Alternate ROOTS (and my local mentor Chris Doerflinger), and my first residency sponsor/counterpart at a boy's treatment center/school -- a wise youth counselor named Carl Oerther.

Carl helped me to understand many of the youth in his program as ‘bonding-impaired,’ and encouraged me to find ways to develop healthy trust with participants and among participants. Developing this trust is always the first step for a group artistic process, but Carl shared many examples of how long this might take, and of the consequences of lack of trust. The difficulty in a visiting artist arrangement is that there is a built-in ‘disappearing act’ generally due to lack of funding, or other activities for the artists. This type of work required much more pre-residency contact -- getting to know the participants a little, and observing and interacting in their context -- as well as more follow-up after the residency. Nevertheless, one can at least introduce processes that honor individual creativity, foster group collaboration, and engender respect for all our experiences.

Alternate ROOTS helped me understand how many of the artistic processes I used could be adapted to be more inclusive. How I could involve everyone's ideas in the formation of a group plan of action. To structure activities in ways that built on strengths inherent in the individuals: their own stories, their cultural backgrounds, their feelings for loved ones, their concerns about the world and the times we live in, their dreams, and even their popular-culture affiliations. When our mission as a group was defined as "sending a message to the world about what we think is important" and when that mission was refined through dialogue to target a specific audience (often younger children not in treatment -- younger brothers or sisters), participants really got serious because I took their ideas seriously. I wanted to know their ideas. I allowed students to talk on tape if their writing skills slowed them down, and then transcribed what they said as a stepping-stone to generating dramatic dialogue. Self-editing became a part of most workshops, as students realized their casual (often profanity-laden) talk might not make it in the door of schools or other places where their message might be useful. We even discussed how to talk about their participation in this project as public service, when they dealt with judges or parole officers. Some students working on a shadow show at a juvenile detention facility complained that the only time they got to do activities like this was when they were in jail -- ‘Why don't we get to do things like this on the outside?’ One youth even wanted to delay his release (mid-way through the project) in order to finish the project.

I guess my best understanding of this work is that these youth are ‘gifted and talented,’ but not in the ways, we normally understand those terms. They are talented in diverse ways -- as any young people are. Though often they are not allowed the opportunity to shine because authority figures believe activities like the arts and athletics should be denied to students, whose behavior in regular classroom settings is causing problems for the teacher. We know it really should be the other way -- these students need more, rather than less, arts and activity time. They are ‘gifted’ with difficult experiences that they will have to struggle to overcome. What they need is a way to articulate these experiences, grow from them, bond with others because of them, and then they can make a big difference in the world. Just last week I saw a surprise lily growing out of a hole in a parking lot. It was that much more beautiful because of where it was growing.”

I turn to another friend and fellow ROOTER Chris Doerflinger who used her many years working at the JCYC (a juvenile facility in Louisville, KY) to gather some statistics of her own. Chris tracked incident reports in the gym and reports that the facility experienced a 58% reduction in "incidents" in the gym after youth were involved in community arts activities. In addition, she reports a 70% reduction in fights in the gym during that same period.

You have friends and resources for this work. Alternate Roots ( offers a community/artist partnership grant (C/APP) that encourages community institutions to collaborate with artists to make community change. In addition, many state arts councils have grant programs concerning "youth at risk" and encourage use of the arts in Juvenile Justice Facilities.


Swimming up stream like newborn salmon,
fighting for the right to survive, to migrate
moving roving were they feel called.

Scaling mountains of poverty and adult expectations
armed with Nike and Reebok and in the game
just to see it to the end.

Skimming along like those rocks, we
use to toss across the creek in our youth.

Praise to the youth,
all powerful yet empty handed,
all knowing yet school skipping,
all ways insisting they always got it right.

Praying for justice,
blind and stumbling through the
desert of their lives
delivering time on time with time to spare.

Published in In Motion Magazine January 11, 2003

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