‘I Want More From Life Now’: NYC Arts Program Helps Justice-Involved Youth

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"Young New Yorkers" celebrate graduating from an art diversion program at Brooklyn's federal courthouse. Photo by Mansura Khanam

One evening last week, a courtroom at the federal courthouse in Brooklyn, N.Y., was transformed from its usual drab colors into a festive green.

Visitors walked on a green carpet to enter the room, where they found green banners hanging from the ceiling, people wearing green crowns, and multi-colored balloons floating towards the ceiling.

The redecoration wasn’t casual. It was meant to highlight the “Springtime Splendor”  exhibition of artwork created by justice-involved youth who participated in an eight-week program that aims to help them avoid a jail term.

The evening was both a celebration and a graduation ceremony.

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A federal courtroom in Brooklyn was transformed for the “Springtime Splendor” exhibition. Photo by Mansura Khanam

Participants in the “Young New Yorkers” Restorative Arts Diversion Program showcased their art work to an audience of judges, attorneys, prosecutors, and family members—in a venue that traditionally is devoted to judgment, and punishment.

One of the graduates of an earlier class, a 20-year-old named Cherlyn (organizers asked that last names be withheld), put it succinctly.

“Young New Yorkers gave me more options,” she said, speaking from the place where a judge usually sits. “It gave me more opportunities.”

Cherlyn, who was mandated to the program two years ago, has returned often to the “graduation” ceremonies because, she said, “I want to do for everyone what Young New Yorkers did for me.”

“I want more from life now,” she told the crowd.

For a lot of the participants, the program offers a way to process the trauma inflicted on them by the criminal justice system.

Destiny, 22, described attending the class as her “peace.”

“It’s a nice little escape,” she said. “I don’t have to worry about standing up at work for nine hours, or watching my niece cry. It was a good vibe, then back to the real world.”

Before her time at Young New Yorkers, Destiny spent 14 days in New York’s notorious Rikers Island detention facility—she did not disclose why she was arrested—in what she described as a nightmare experience.

She recalled not wanting to eat anything in jail because the food was “so disgusting” and not being given enough water.

“I cried every day,” she said. “It’s disrespectful to be put in a cell with seven other people and no one takes time to get you water.

“Once you’re in jail, you’re (treated like) an animal or a criminal.”

Playing with Hierarchy

Started in 2012 by Rachel Barnard, a former architect, Young New Yorkers holds about four celebrations each year, and they’re meant to bring all members of the justice system together.

Rachel Barnard

Rachel Barnard, founder of Young New Yorkers. Photo by Mansura Khanam

Barnard wanted to play with the hierarchy in the room, so she decided that program participants, who were once defendants, should sit where judges usually sit, and showcase their work to the people who had the option to put them behind bars.

“(When) young people speak to people involved in their sentencing, it’s extremely powerful for them to say ’I take responsibility for my actions and I think the legal system needs to be reformed,’ ” she said in an interview.

“They create a vision through their art about how the criminal legal system could be, and it’s good for judges and prosecutors to experience that. They see the people they prosecute as talented and courageous and wise.”

The program is funded through the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, with additional help from private donors and foundation partnerships.

Along with an eight-week class, participants are offered a one-day art diversion program for young people who have incurred a Desk Appearance Ticket (DAT). There are also voluntary community programs and programs for returning graduates of the program.

Saffana, 20, completed the one- day art program in December after being arrested for shoplifting. She still comes to the events to show support and continue learning.

She said they talk about “different things” at each class.

For example, at one class they discussed taking care of yourself.

“One boy at the table said he was always the one to look after himself,” she said.

“Every time I come to the meeting I meet people with different stories.”

She also noted the program offers a lot to people who have been arrested, and shows judges, attorneys and prosecutors the potential of a young person whom they might otherwise have seen as just a number in the docket.

Lyasia, who just graduated, believes she accomplished something great.

“It’s something that I didn’t think I would complete and I did,” she said in an interview later.

“It’s going to bring good things into my life.”

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Two graduates celebrate the Restorative Arts Diversion course. Photo by Mansura Khanam

About 320 young people go through the Young New Yorkers program each year. Since it was established, about 1,000 people have completed the program and avoided jail time.

Judge Joseph Gubbay, of the Brooklyn Treatment Court, who was an audience member and the first judge to sign off on the art initiative, describes it as an “irresistible program.”

“We gave it a shot, and it was a tremendous success,” he said.

Gubbay, who attended one of the classes, recalls watching the participants create art collages after being assigned the theme of “how do you see yourself?”

He remembered seeing images of fierce animals, like lions and eagles.

“I think it’s a way of separating yourself from all of the anxiety and drama and trauma you’re experiencing,” he said. “By separating your personal involvement in it, and projecting it into an object, it gives you some control and I think some self-insight.”

Barnard agreed.

“Any program that utilizes art to access conversations we need to have (that are difficult to have), but also gets ideas about how the criminal justice system should be reformed from the perspective of a young person, is a very good idea,” she said.

Hectavious, a graduate of the all-male program who was arrested for fighting, said the classes helped him a lot.

He noted that now, he thinks clearly and doesn’t feel as mad all the time.

“I’m not even worried about that stuff any more,” he said. “It’s not worth it. There are so many more things to look forward to.”

Megan Hadley is a staff writer for The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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