Art and Education, Not Jails

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Cover of Die Jim Crow E.P. Book (2018), featuring a profile portrait of musician B.L. Shirelle. Cover design by Fury Young.

Prisons, jails, and detention centers may seem like the least likely venues for art-centered learning, however, these sites, which account for nearly 1% of the U.S. population, are in dire need of social, emotional, and creative reform. Serious prison reform includes: pardoning prisoners with long sentences for non-violent crimes (i.e. drug use and personal possession charges); releasing prisoners who are serving life sentences, but have shown that they are empathetic, responsible, and able to contribute positively to society; strengthening community based treatment programs for those with mental illness; and developing educational curricula within prisons and restorative justice initiatives in communities and schools across the country. The overarching goal for our society should be abolishing mass incarceration, and life sentences, in favor of finding alternative justice related practices. It is ironic that prison agencies are called “Department of Corrections,” while there is too little restorative and compassionate rectification that actually goes on within prisons.

The arts and education can play a role in making this solution more attainable. Artist and activist, Benny Andrews, understood this. In 1971 he began teaching an arts education program inside of The Manhattan Detention Complex, which is infamously known as The Tombs. The “Prison Art Program” was further developed by the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC), which Andrews co-founded to advocate for the rights of African Americans within the cultural sector. Reflecting on the need to bring serious attention to arts and humanities programs in prisons Andrews said: “along with losing many of their basic human rights, it seems that prison artists have also lost their right to be considered fine artists, regardless of their artistic accomplishment.” (Bernstein 2010). BECC’s model for prison art education eventually grew to 37 programs in 14 states.

Die Jim Crow and Humanize the Numbers are two current projects that incorporate art and education to address the epidemic of mass incarceration and systematic racism in America. Humanize the Numbers uses interdisciplinary creative practices to connect Michigan state prisoners with college students, activists, and artists. Through the medium of photography, incarcerated individuals are able to reclaim their individuality by symbolically presenting their stories to the general public.

The benefits of photography workshops held within prisons are twofold. First, the incarcerated individuals learn photography skills and the artful ways they can express themselves visually through the camera’s lens. They are given a powerful tool to relate their personal narrative to their intended audience. While they may be held back physically behind concrete walls, their artwork transcends the confines of the prison into society at large. This has enormous transformative benefits because it humanizes these individuals while instilling in them a sense of self-efficacy for creating such powerful work in the face of adversity. Second, the college students and other outside collaborators assume the role of allies, actively listening to the prisoners who are sharing their personal experiences. After time, due to the collaborative aspects of the project, inmates and students form a sense of trust and understanding for one another. Bonds are made between two sets of people that wouldn’t likely have had the chance to share these experiences in the community outside of prison.

Die Jim Crow, shifts the power dynamic back to those affected by the criminal justice system by utilizing the strength of song. Die Jim Crow is an ongoing conceptual art project (full length album will be released in 2020) featuring current and formally incarcerated individuals who write, perform, and record songs and poetry about the criminal justice system and their personal experiences dealing with the harsh realities of life in jail and on the streets.

Much of the pain and suffering described in the songs is a result of sociocultural inequality and systematic racism within American culture. Songs address the inhumanity of the prison system, as well as the distressing realities of the streets, where people of color are disproportionately affected by violence and institutionalized discrimination. In the song Headed To The Streets, songwriter and co-vocalist B.L. Shirelle, who was released from prison in 2015, expresses her concerns regarding the lack of resources, empathy, and basic civil rights for formally incarcerated individuals:

“Tell me what this liberty means / Now that I’m out can I live and be free? / Can I work for a company that pays more than minimally? / Will I give up before I see what’s in it for me? / This ain’t about material it’s about looking in the mirror seeing inferior” 

For many of us outside of the criminal justice system, we learn about prison via sensationalized media stories, television dramas, and statistics, however, we miss the most important element, which is the actual accounts of the people within the system. We generally only see prisoners in relation to their mugshots or other negative images spread across media outlets. Sharing their unique personalities through moving works of art is an important and essential step in restoring the civic participation of individuals who have had their voices silenced by the criminal justice system. It is also essential in ending the systemic injustice and destructive stigma that contributes to vast differences in power and privilege.

The personal experiences of artists in Die Jim Crow, as well as Humanize the Numbers, enlighten those of us outside of the criminal justice system about pre-prison –the sociocultural, economic, patriarchal (to name a few)– conditions that oppress individuals; the lack of actual corrections and behavior modification that happens inside of prisons (i.e. basic rights including steady and sufficient access to education, physical, and mental health care); and the societal prejudice against formerly incarcerated individuals (which leads to heightened rates of recidivism).

Fury Young, the founder and producer of Die Jim Crow, reflects upon why artistic endeavors around prison reform are essential:

“I hope this project creates constructive dialogue and action. Confronting and dismantling the broken American incarceration machine will take a mountain of work, of which Die Jim Crow is an exciting part. I hope the music makes you feel something real, something deep, something both disempowering and empowering, and puts you in the shoes of the artists who created it.”

Additionally, about Die Jim Crow, Civil-Rights activist Michelle Alexander (see: Alexander, 2010) writes: “The beauty of this project is that people behind bars are making music to educate and liberate.”

In our schools, harsh responses to discipline related issues are problematic in many instances and may contribute to the school to prison pipeline. The process of suspending or expelling students as the first form of recourse (see: zero tolerance policy), without any thoughts of rehabilitation, is damaging on the student. Just like with inmates in the prison system who are made to sit alone in a cell for 23 hours, handing down strict punishments to students without mediation and reflection benefits no one. Not focusing on the larger issue of why the student is acting out and how they can modify their behavior more positively, can ultimately lead to future run-ins with the law for the student.

Restorative justice is a good approach to positive behavior modification because it allows for the accused and the accuser to come together in a safe environment in order to discuss their issues and reconcile their differences. The offender takes accountability for their actions and through engaging in discourse with the victim and other members of the community, finds common ground to make amends for their transgressions. In other words, everyone finds justice being served because the systematic barriers of inequity have been removed and the issue is addressed in a communal and fair manner.

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Meme explaining different ideologies for basic human rights. Courtesy of Marieke Altena (@KikiAltena) on Twitter.

It is important to understand the definitions for equality, equity, and justice. Each of these ideologies seek to solve complex issues of social, cultural, and economic differences in order to give everyone the same inalienable human rights. In schools, equal learning opportunities means making sure everyone has the same resources such as free nutritious meals, textbooks, supplies, and materials. Equitable learning means that all students get individualized, student centered supports that they need to learn. A justice centered education goes even further in addressing the systematic issues and barriers that limit our human rights by taking on the roots of inequality and inequity. Restorative justice is the key to finding a just solution for the glaring inequality, inequity, and injustice, that exists in our schools, prisons, and marginalized communities.

Theater of the Oppressed is one particular example of art-centered restorative justice. This method of theater enables actors and audience members to be equal and active participants in the theatrical process. Participants become what Augusto Boal, Theater of the Oppressed’s founder, called ‘spect-actors,’ a dual role where actors and audience members take simultaneous control of a dramatic narrative that focuses on social and political transformation. As a result of spect-actor-ship, the hierarchy between the people on stage and those who are seated in the audience is shattered. Through the arts, the strive for justice is expressed in a poignant and evocative manner, which humanizes individuals’ social and emotional experiences and gives all voices a platform to be heard and understood. This humanization acknowledges the traumatic situations that affect us and activates creative and effective ways to cope with these traumatic experiences (Levosky 2017).

This is precisely the type of positive reinforcement that keeps students engaged in school and builds much needed trust throughout the school community. There is much work to be done with breaking down oppressive institutional systems in order to end the street of school to prison pipeline. However, the aforementioned art projects and pedagogical models, indicate that restorative justice is working and should continue to be expanded.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Alexander, Michelle, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010)

Bernstein, Lee. 2010. America Is the Prison: Arts and Politics in Prison in the 1970s. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

Gee, Mike. 2010. “Restorative Justice and Participatory Action!” Theater of the Oppressed NYChttps://www.tonyc.nyc/mikeandpar

Gonzalez, Jennifer. 2018. “Restorative Justice in School: An Overview.” Cult of Pedagogy. https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/restorative-justice-overview/

Levosky, Alison. 2017. “Restorative Justice through Arts Programs.” Education Studieshttp://debsedstudies.org/restorative-justice-through-arts-programs/ 
Young, Fury (Ed.). 2018. Die Jim Crow E.P. Book. New York: Die Jim Crow.
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Artful Assessment: Depicting the Problem, Visualizing the Solutions

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Duneska Suannette, How Was School?, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.

Education is intrinsically an art form in practice. There is no single way to instruct, teach, or learn. As discussed in the previous post, one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to the way students learn and the way educators should teach and instruct in the classroom. Traditionally, schools have focused on quantitative analysis of the student body to structure curriculums and plan lessons that will ensure students meet the educational requirements determined by a governing authority such as the state or federal government. This highly impersonal method of assessment relies on standardized tests, which treats students more like research subjects than actual human beings. “Teaching to the test” limits students’ autonomy to ask big questions and explore a wide range of relevant topics. Instead, students are subjected to repetition of pre-determined information and isolated skills, which limits their ability to think outside of the box and develop creative problem solving abilities. In short, the amount of student choice and personal relevance within the subject matter being taught is far more important than the amount of students who can pass a uniform test.

Measurable data such as the number of students from a particular socio-cultural or background is important in determining what resources might be needed in the classroom and school in order to provide an equal and equitable learning environment. For example, the number of black students living in New York City that are enrolled in Pre-K (which is free) is negatively disproportionate to the amount of Caucasian students. Another alarming quantitative statistic is that beginning in pre-school, black and hispanic students are far more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students (almost three times more likely…). This is true even when the punishable infraction is the same. These aforementioned quantitative statistics are certainly helpful for encouraging educational activists to resolve the blatant equality and equity gap in schools and ensure that all students have the right to schools with excellent facilities and are treated the same regardless of their ethnic, racial, and economic background. However, when it comes to learning, teaching, and classroom management, it is the qualitative factors such as creativity and mindfulness that should take precedence throughout the educational environment.

Learning is most successful when it is practiced and assessed on a personal level, focused on differentiated instruction, in order for students to develop holistically and for everyone in the classroom (students AND teachers) to be passionate about learning. Of course, this qualitative form of assessment alludes the neat, cookie-cutter evaluations that standardize tests provide. However, just because something is harder to account for statistically doesn’t mean that it isn’t a better method of measuring and assessing students’ learning. When creativity and personalization are key components of teaching, students are better prepared to take on the world at large. Art-centered education provides enormous opportunities to measure students’ personal development and their ability to connect experience and education in a way that promotes life-long learning. The arts teach us to frame the world in the context of our personal and collective experiences. The arts promote empathy, positivity, diversity, and mindfulness among other progressive things. Education isn’t meant to be contained and compartmentalized just as what is considered art is entirely open ended. Creativity teaches us to embrace ambiguity and that is an essential mindset for students to carry with them throughout their lives.

An example of an artwork that combines both quantitative and qualitative assessment in a powerful, thought provoking manner, is How Was School? (2018) by Duneska Suannette. In this installation (currently on view at the JCC in Harlem in an exhibition on American education organized by Art in Flux) of an imagined elementary school classroom, we are initially confronted with the expression “tread lightly” on the door. Upon entering the classroom, the symbolism of this phrase is blatant. Suannette has constructed a both a real and surreal classroom environment for the viewer to carefully explore and engage. The word carefully is not to be taken lightly because the artist has installed bungie “trip wires” in a weblike construct several inches above the floor. This obstacle course, while reminiscent of the laser maze in Mission Impossible or Oceans Twelveis a poignant metaphor for the trials and tribulations that marginalized students (primarily students of color) experience in public schools. The installation features wallpaper made from colorful letter jumbles overlaid with black letters, which spell out stark statistics about the lack of equality and equity for students of color in the education system. While viewers are navigating through the classroom, a looped video is projected onto a wall featuring news stories and behind the scenes school board meetings discussing and debating the uneven treatment of lower-income students in schools.

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Duneska Suannette, How Was School?, 2018.

While I was taking in the poignant messages, I was greeted by the Suannette, who asked me how my day was. We engaged in a conversation about equal and equitable education and what it means to give all students a safe, positive, and creative learning environment. I then focused my attention on the many empowering elements within the installation. For example, the classroom was made up of stations such as a reading area containing a treasure trove of children’s books about intersectionality of identity and multiculturalism, a play area with black dolls, and other uplifting objects and materials that are more inclusive of a diverse student body. It is important for all students to feel represented in their schools, and examples of literature, toys, and art works that express diversity are great ways to inspire empathy, mindfulness, and positive interactions within a heterogeneous educational setting.

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Suannette also set up an interactive activity where participants are asked to fill out a response on a star relating to what they associate Empathy, Being Positive, Mindfulness, and Implicit Bias to mean. This is a powerful form of assessment that prompts our recognition of the problems marginalized students face in schools and the artful and holistic actions we might employ to raise awareness and explore creative solutions for equity and equality in our schools.


You can participate in How Was School? and view other works that relate to educational issues in the exhibition Summer Break at the JCC Harlem (318 West 118th St, between Frederick Douglass Blvd & Manhattan Avenue) through December 2018.