For minority youth caught up in the Polk County system, a chance to #knowjustice

ArtForceIowa participants practice spray-painting, summer 2015. — photo by John Mark Feilmeyer

“It’s so difficult to understand these things not ever having been in that situation. … The odds are so stacked against you. … Regardless of whether you did it, just take the deal.”

If you listened to season one of the hit podcast Serial, you might recognize that advice from Adnan Syed. Now 35, Syed was accused and convicted as a teenager in the 1999 killing of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, a fellow senior at Baltimore, Maryland’s Woodlawn High School.

Syed may well have been guilty of the crime — he was tried and convicted, after all, and that ought to mean something, right? — but a shocking lack of physical evidence, along with several other confounding details, left listeners reeling in doubts that, to many, felt pretty reasonable. His advice to “take the deal, regardless of whether you did it” strikes a heartbreaking chord amid a national conversation about unequal outcomes for blacks and minorities in the United States. In Iowa we have some of the nation’s most disproportionate, including a worst-in-the-nation 14-to-1 ratio of black-to-white incarceration. As we listen to Syed (whose case showed much evidence of anti-Muslim bias) we are reminded that among our imprisoned populations, there are almost certainly some that the system has failed.

The cards are stacked against the more than 75% minority youth in the Polk County Detention Center, and it isn’t unreasonable to harbor some doubts that in our court systems they are consistently being given an equal chance to know justice firsthand.

John Mark Feilmeyer, executive director of Des Moines nonprofit ArtForceIowa, mixed media artist Jordan Weber and curator Saulaman Schiegel are confronting this issue alongside court-involved youth with a series of art and activism workshops called the #KnowJustice Project.

According to its Iowa Arts Council grant application, #KnowJustice is not setting out to solve every level of this highly sytemic problem of racial disproportionality, but to provide youth with “the tools and opportunity to learn about their personal rights, to contemplate their own participation in the justice system and to respond creatively through art.”

The project will culminate in an exhibition of artwork by minority, court-involved youth that will “engage the public in a discourse around system disproportionality and social injustices these youth face.”

John Mark Feilmeyer answered some questions about how he sees the project playing out:

Little Village: The #KnowJustice workshops are for “court-involved” youth. How will participants gain access to the program?

John Mark Feilmeyer: The program is for a specific group of youth who are currently incarcerated/being detained by Polk County after either charges being pressed against them or after a violation of probation. We don’t know who they will be, because we don’t know who will be in trouble at that time. This workshop is intended for minority males, who easily make up about 3/4+ of the average 35 young people in Polk County Juvenile Detention Center at any given time. We go into detention to do workshops about two times a month already, so many youth are aware of us and excited to participate. Ultimately, the workers in Detention will ask youth if they want to participate, and they will be able to participate if they so desire. Over a period of several weeks, we will probably work with about 20-30 youth.

In the project description, you say that “Everyone, even juvenile court involved youth, have rights.” And, “If youth are made aware of their rights, they can own and internalize them as a powerful tool of action and social development.” Obviously this program and other rights education initiatives contribute something positive, but if I were an incarcerated youth, I’d want to know how knowing my rights was going to protect me from injustices like racial bias and, often, police brutality. How do you answer that question? Is it the burden of youth or the public to learn how to deal with law enforcement and the justice system productively?

Consent 2 Create
Participants in Consent 2 Create , an ArtForceIowa endeavor, perform with AFI Executive Director John Mark Feilmeyer at the piano. — photo by Skyler Prenosil

It is our collective burden as a society to know our rights, I think.

We’re looking at two different questions. The first, and most important, is “How can we ignite social change that will make these problems go away?” The second is this: “What do we tell our kids in the meantime?”

Often when we go to court hearings for the youth we mentor, we hear, “If the youth had just…” I’ve worked with youth who have spent months in juvenile court placement because they did the wrong thing in a bad situation involving the police. This might be something as simple as permitting a search to something more complicated, like fleeing the scene. Knowing how to react in the moment, responsibly and maturely, will empower these youth to protect themselves in the future. That’s not only a benefit to the youth, but also a huge cost savings to our community, if ultimately we help to keep youth out of court supervision.

In the long term, I hope that #KnowJustice can at least contribute to the ongoing dialogue and social movement, by giving our youth a forum to tell their stories.

Compared to increased emphasis on punishment in the adult courts, the juvenile justice system is largely centered around rehabilitation. A youth’s success there is heavily measured by their compliance. How would you describe the nuances of your position of advocating for speech and self-determination in that environment? How will #KnowJustice ensure that the participants feel comfortable expressing themselves given that the rest of the juvenile system is emphasizing conformity? How will other aspects of the justice system support your effort? Will the juvenile attorney agree, for example, that it is in the youth’s best interest to focus on expressing their sense of injustice?

I wouldn’t say that rehabilitation is measured by compliance. In the ideal situation, it’s measured by positive growth and change. There are boxes that have to be checked — you have to go to treatment, you have to go to sanctions. But ultimate success isn’t a box checked. It’s when a youth is ready for or at least contemplating change.

I don’t think we’re in a precarious place as we promote speech and self-determination. Our programs have always had the full support of the justice community. People I work with in the justice system are well aware of the problems. Most believe it should be changed. I hope that these folks will be grateful for the dialogue created by #KnowJustice.

By nature, schools and other court facilities feel that they need to censor or hold back speech, art and expression. If anything, ArtForceIowa can give youth a positive space to express themselves in the truest and most authentic forms. I hope that if something edgy, or maybe even a bit offensive comes out of that, they won’t hold it against us.

How will they feel comfortable expressing themselves: They trust us because we’re family. We build mutually respectful, caring relationships with our youth, even the ones in detention. We only work with the artists that are capable of that — like (Jordan) Weber, or the #KnowJustice Curator Saulaman Schlegel. Recently, I interviewed youth for a video I did, I asked them, “What gift does ArtForceIowa give you.” A “family” was the most common response.

With juvenile records being sealed and not open to the public. When it comes to the rights of the artists, is anonymity a concern? How do they certify their willingness to participate? Do parents have to sign off on their participation?

Participants freely consent to participating. This is a part of regular detention programming, that youth can opt in or out of. All the youth in #KnowJustice will exhibit anonymously to protect their identity and bright futures in the workplace.

The #KnowJustice exhibition will take place at the Polk County Heritage Museum, in the administrative offices for the very court house where many of these youths first became “court-involved.” When you close your eyes and imagine the exhibit, who do you see there? What impact do you envision?

I see a big empty space. I don’t want to foresee or predict or imagine what youth exhibitors will invent. I don’t want Weber to either. I want the exhibit to be a real meeting of the minds, wherein Jordan and these young adults in Detention contemplate, conceive and construct something incredible together.

The impact? Pride and Confidence. Every time we offer youth the opportunity to exhibit, they grow a little bit prouder, and a little bit better as artists. In a society that is often pushing them down, this is an opportunity to fly.

Dialogue. We need to talk more about this, and the youth who are going through the justice system deserve a voice.

Change. The more we look into each other’s eyes, or into each other’s souls, the closer we become. We hope this glimpse of our young people’s souls will help exhibit-goers to rethink and to reframe the problems they face.



#KnowJustice workshop facilitator

Little Village: What will happen in your workshops?

Jordan Weber: We are still writing and conceptualizing programs and lesson plans so it’s kind of hard to speak on exactly what will be happening at the workshops in detail. I can say that I will be exposing the youth to a variety of alternative materials from across the U.S., such as earth from Ferguson, for example.

What excites you most about the #KnowJustice project?

I’m extremely excited to work with incarcerated youth at the detention center. I know what it’s like to be locked in a space without being able to express frustration, rage that comes from being in these spaces. The energy will be a lot more raw which will hopefully lead to more engagement in the workshops.

Artist and #KnowJustice workshop leader Jordan Weber poses with Des Moines-based Children & Family Urban Movement (CFUM) participants. — photo courtesy of Jordan Weber

What scares you?

My biggest fear is always the possibility of disappointing or boring the youth to a point of disinterest which is why I think using charged material will be really effective.

Even though this project got some funding, I’m sure you won’t be walking away with much of it, if any. Why are you doing it?

Money is never the focus but I’ll be alright! These kids are our people our culture and our future, we as a society are struggling to put it mildly! We have to take care and educate each other when put in tough situations. These kids often feel like no one has their back and it’s important for me to be involved with programs that will literally take the shirt off their back for our future Kings and Queens.

How did your personal art/studio practice lead you to this collaboration with ArtForceIowa?

My art practice isn’t just studio focused by any means. The works are interlinked with community outreach programs like ArtForceIowa. The totality of my practice is empowerment/enlightenment through multiple disciplines. ArtForce is a natural fit for both parties involved.

What is your previous experience with workshops/art education?

I’ve been educating, running and working with nonprofit youth organizations for about 10 years now. It’s something I’ve been around my whole life honestly. My parents both worked in the same field growing up in Des Moines and organically exposed me to the cause at an extremely early age. I’ve worked/collaborated with Boys and Girls Club, CFUM, Homes of Oakridge, Oakland Unity Council (Oakland, Cal), Des Moines Public Schools, Movement 515. Hope I’m not leaving anyone out because these are really effective as well as progressive programs!

If your students can take away one thing from the experience, what would you like that to be?

Environmental consciousness — both our social surroundings and the biosphere — hopefully igniting positive sustainable action when they come back to our community

Matthew Steele is publisher of Little Village. He is currently pursuing a master of fine arts in Media, Social Practice and Design at The University of Iowa. This article was originally published in Little Village 190.

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