For children and teenagers in the juvenile justice system, life is not always picture-perfect.
Whether from the rural outskirts of Mobile County or the urban center of Mobile, residents of the James T. Strickland Youth Center often have a shared background marked by poverty, blighted surroundings and limited opportunities.
While some in the system have committed serious offenses, others are only guilty of missing too much school or being found in the wrong place at the wrong time. That’s one of the troubles with the confidentiality of juvenile cases, according to Circuit Judge Edmond Naman.
Though he agrees the details of juvenile cases should remain sealed to protect their privacy, Naman also believes that confidentiality can cause the public to develop a warped perception of a system that requires the community’s support to function properly and help children in need.
“[People] see the sensational things that come on the news about the kids who’ve hurt somebody or killed somebody, and they lump all the children having trouble into that group,” Naman said. “Yes, there are individuals in the community who will hurt you, and we have to be able to deal with those kids, but the vast majority of our children just don’t have some of the things they need to be successful, and that’s what we’re trying to give them.”
With limited funding, Strickland has endeavored to meet those needs by offering targeted programs through partnerships with local organizations and community members who share the vision of helping troubled children, as opposed to locking them up with no direction.
From Suit Up, which teaches soft skills such as résumé building, interviewing and dressing professionally, to Grow Up, a community garden maintained by the residents at Strickland, programs that keep juveniles moving in a positive direction during their time in the system have become a vital part of what the youth center does.
Most recently, a partnership of the Mobile Arts Council, the Alabama Contemporary Art Center and the Mobile County Commission helped launch two unique creative arts programs.
Brush Up has given young people the skills and tools needed to beautify their own communities through visual arts, while Speak Up has created a rare platform for teenagers in the juvenile justice system to tell their own stories through a documentary they helped film, direct and narrate.
Photographer Devin Ford, who serves as vice president of the Mobile Arts Council’s board of directors, led the Speak Up program, and recently told Lagniappe the council plans to keep using public art and arts education programs to make positive impacts throughout Mobile.
“I believe in the power of public art to drive economic development and social change within a community,” Ford said. “When you look at areas, specifically those that have high crime rates and blight, if we can benefit those areas working with community organizations that are already there, I think we could see a drastic change in the unity of our community but also in the progress of our community.”
While there have been art programs at Strickland before, none have been quite as community-focused as Brush Up. Instead of individual paintings that likely wouldn’t be seen by anyone but the artists and their families, the goal is to use art created by children in the juvenile justice system to improve the underserved areas many of them were raised in.
Local artist Riley Brenes, who also works as a detention officer at Strickland, led the first class last month, which included 15 young men and women ranging from ages 13 to 18, each currently on probation in the juvenile system.
The group spent several days working on murals that will eventually be installed at locations on Michigan Avenue and Costarides Street in Mobile — areas Brenes said are often overlooked in an arts community that tends to focus on downtown and more tourist-friendly sections of Mobile.“I’ve got a long track record of doing things in downtown, but downtown is Broad Street to Water Street, and Mobile is so vast,” he added. “She’s a sprawling county, and there are many areas where there is nothing — no crepe myrtles, no oak trees, no flowers … nothing.”
Brenes said the program’s current goal is to put up 25 murals by October 2018 at various locations throughout Mobile County. However, he said, the program is about more than improving the city’s aesthetics — it’s also about improving the lives of children through the arts.
“To me, Brush Up kind of illustrates what we try to do at Strickland,” Brenes said. “These blighted buildings are similar to those kids in that they’ve been neglected, ignored and condemned in a sense. Yet, we’re bringing new life to them.”
Despite being the first iteration, Riley said turnout for the program has been one of the highest for any offered at Strickland. While participation is voluntary, it also fulfills a juvenile’s court-ordered community service.
What’s more, with arts education becoming less prevalent in many public schools, Detention Officer Andrew Blount said he thinks the opportunity to create and showcase artwork provided an outlet of expression some children are simply never exposed to.
“What I like about the art program is that it opens them up to something different. I gotta say no one has probably ever introduced art to these kids at all,” Blount said. “And art can be used in so many different ways. It’s heart, there’s no outline for it.”
Blount, who assisted with the art program, actually wound up being the subject matter of one of the pieces — a painting of him and his young son. The painting is intended to speak to the importance of fatherhood but also to those whose fathers aren’t part of their lives, which is the reality for many in the juvenile system — as it was for Blount growing up. Speaking of his childhood, Blount said his own father was simply “unknown.”
As participants discovered during its production, only one of the 10 juveniles interviewed in the Speak Up documentary was raised in a two-parent home.
“I feel like having a fatherless home impacts a lot of kids, but, some homes, you can have fathers in them and it still leaves a negative impact,” Blount said. “I was brought up under the pretense that it depends on you, not the situation that you’re in.”
Aside from any changes an improved environment might hold for these young people’s communities, another long-term benefit the organizers of Brush Up are hoping will materialize is art becoming a positive outlet for some.
Ford said one of the first things she noticed when she started leading her class at Strickland was that most of the students “got in trouble because they were bored.”
Riley echoed the same sentiment, adding that while some may say there are plenty of activities for teenagers in Mobile, that’s not always the case for those with limited resources or those in low-income areas.
“Kids will do what is available to them, and for a lot of kids in Mobile, that’s often: have sex, smoke spice and sell guns,” he said. “What if, instead, they could go to Strickland, get some plywood and a template, put up a mural, bring in before and after photos, and that counts toward their community service.”
Naman said he believes the arts can be “uplifting and transformative to a child,” especially those who can otherwise be difficult to reach. He said there were some students who looked like having to attend the class was “a pain” the first day, but it wasn’t long before they were “captivated” and “having a ball.” If only for a few, he hopes that enthusiasm can continue.
“It’s so important that we fill these hours with productive activities, and with the arts, not only do we fill that time, we get to bring out in them a sense of awareness to what they’re truly capable of,” he said. “I always say that a kid can walk away from trouble, if they have somewhere to walk to and someone to walk with … and they need both. That’s the solution here, and that’s probably the biggest problem — they need opportunities and someone to share that journey with.”
Designed to be filmed in tandem with the arts program, Speak Up is a first-of-its-kind program offering a rare glimpse into the lives and mindsets of children in the juvenile court system.
Though their identities aren’t revealed, the documentary features children — some as young as 14 — discussing in their own words the situation in their homes, their views on Mobile and the circumstances that led them to Strickland.
Teenagers interviewed faced charges ranging anywhere from truancy to carrying a pistol without a permit, and while some have only been placed on probation, others claim to have seen the inside of Strickland as many as 10 times.
Regardless of race or geographic location, one similarity some of the juveniles shared was an incarcerated parent. One of them — a 15-year-old from Saraland on probation for a domestic violence charge — said his mother went to prison when he was 13 years old. That’s around the time he says he started getting in trouble.
“Well, my first time [at Strickland] I was scared,” he said in the documentary. “My grandfather had always said I would end up like my mom, and I remember getting back into my cell and thinking, ‘I’m turning out just like you said I would. Just like my mom.’”
Though she was raised by her mother, a 14-year-old described her biological father as “the biggest drug dealer, like, around,” and told her interviewers he was repeatedly “locked up” when she was a child.
She was expelled from her middle school and put on probation after a fight when she was in the seventh grade, and while she claimed being “spoiled” likely contributed to the fights she used to get into, she also said, “Maybe I was angry.”
“He got locked up, like, and he’d come home and promise he’d never go back. Get locked up again, and I just felt betrayed,” she said on film. “That’s the first man that broke my heart because I looked up to my dad, like a role model. I wasn’t a mama’s child — I loved my daddy.”
Ford said encouraging teenagers to talk about those types of personal issues with a total stranger while being recorded wasn’t easy at first.
While the group did have some meetings with a licensed therapist initially, Ford said it was taking ownership of the film and its direction that pushed some them to share more.
“Once they realized, ‘this is your voice, this is your story,’ they started to get excited because they do have something to say, they just didn’t think anyone was listening,” Ford said. “They drove the direction of the movie we’re making, from the people they wanted to be interviewed to the shots they wanted to include.”
While the subject matter of those interviews was emotional at times, it wasn’t entirely negative, either. As the organizers suggested, a lack of things to do in Mobile was one of the most common things the children hoped to see changed.
Some of those interviewed took a conciliatory tone when discussing their criminal charges, though others took issue with charges such as missing school or fighting being enough to get them in trouble with the juvenile system.
Each also discussed his or her personal motivations and plans for the future, which for some included becoming a therapist or joining the military. The goals for some of the younger children were simpler: staying out of trouble and taking stress off of their families. Setting a better example was another big motivation, especially for those teenagers who said their younger siblings were already starting to find their own trouble.
“My mom was … I didn’t like the way my mom reacted [when I was sent to Strickland]. She was really upset and she thought that I was going to be in here for a while because of my charges,” a 16-year-old from Toulminville said. “It showed me not to come back because I don’t like the way that she felt. Me being locked up had her locked up, too.”
Exhibition and screening
One of the most unique things about both of these programs is that the young people who participated will get the chance to showcase their work at this month’s LoDa Artwalk on Friday, Sept. 8, in downtown Mobile.
According to Brenes, the murals created by the Brush Up class will be on display at the Mobile Arts Council that evening and for an extended period in September. The film created by and starring the voices of children in the Speak Up program will be shown the same evening in Cathedral Square and in the Mobile Arts Council building.
Like any good artists, the children will also be on hand to present their work to the world.
“I really wanted to let the kids get the feeling of an art exhibition, because there’s something exhilarating about people seeing your work and talking about it,” Ford said. “It really does feel good, and I think a lot of them have never felt anything like that before.”
If the city of Mobile is having a “renaissance,” Naman said, it’s because of the artists who live here — the kind of people he believes have the capacity to understand the “struggles” faced by some of the children and families involved in the juvenile justice system.
Naman has championed community involvement in the youth programs offered at Strickland in a number of capacities, such as the volunteer NEST Program, which stands for Nurture children, Equip parents, Strengthen families and Transform communities.
Naman said Artwalk offered not only a perfect venue for the children in the Brush Up and Speak Up programs to show off their work, but also for Strickland to show what children there are capable of.
“This place sits in a valley and so many times — too many times — no light gets out,” Naman said. “One of the things we have needed to do is bring the community in and let them see where we’re failing, where we’re succeeding and let them be a part of the process, because this is our community — and our success or failure is going to directly affect everyone in this community at some point or another.”