A Perspective on the Texas Arts for Justice Forum

By Johnathan Kana

He calls himself “a musician with a message”— and for good reason. A few pithy lines from SaulPaul’s rousing performance at the Texas Art for Justice Forum perfectly encapsulated an entire day’s worth of thought-provoking dialogue:

Ain’t no way around it,

If you’re tired of the same,

And you want to make a difference,

It’s time to BE THE CHANGE.

The award-winning, formerly incarcerated hip-hop musician “free-styled” on audience-selected words like “hope,” “Jesus” and “sex trafficking” during an inspirational midday break for an energetic group of artists, legislators, reform advocates, and system-impacted individuals who assembled in July at the Houston Museum of African American Culture (HMAAC).

These individuals had come from across the state—some from considerably further, including at least one from as far away as Nigeria—for a collegial day of networking, fellowship, and frank conversation about the role of the arts in advancing criminal justice reform.

But if any of us in the room expected merely to be entertained by Saul Paul’s performance, we were in for a surprise.

The song SaulPaul, who went from prison to the University of Texas at Austin to chart-topping musician, taught us was a provocative call-and-response requiring audience participation. Though our part seemed easy enough—we were to sing the words “Be the Change” during the refrain—the music moved quickly, and many of us struggled to keep up. After fumbling several cues, the audience broke into uncomfortable laughter as SaulPaul abruptly halted the music.

“See, this is when we need leaders to step up,” he quipped, paraphrasing something Houston Arts Alliance CEO John Abodeely had said earlier in the day, challenging arts organizations to “really throw down” as change leaders in their communities. When the laughter died down, SaulPaul seized upon a teaching opportunity afforded by this awkward moment, summoning all the musicians in the room to raise their voices and show the rest of us how it’s done.

“If you got this and you know it,” he said, “then now’s the time to be heard.”

The energy in the room shifted as he kicked the beat back to life on his loop pedal. As he began leading us through the refrain again, about half a dozen voices confidently rang out: “Be the Change!” The second time, half a dozen more joined in. By the third chorus, we were all singing so enthusiastically that an outsider would have never guessed that we had only learned the song a few minutes earlier.

Changing perspectives

That’s the power of art in action. SaulPaul’s performance that afternoon was more than just a concert. It was a rallying cry—and a microcosm of the very work that had brought us together that day.

Most of us in that room had been personally touched by the brokenness of our nation’s criminal justice system. All of us shared a sense of legislative urgency regarding the blight of mass incarceration. But none of us had come merely to complain about it. Both as artists and as activists, we had come to discover new ways to unite our voices and leverage our talents toward casting a more restorative vision of what it means to be “tough on crime.”

“A lot of the folks who are incarcerated are risk-takers,” Alma Robinson said during the Forum’s opening remarks. “They were trying to do something creative with their lives, but they didn’t necessarily have a vision or opportunities to explore other venues for their creativity.”

Robinson is Executive Director of California Lawyers for the Arts (CLA), an organization dedicated to supporting artists and arts organizations as “agents of democratic involvement, innovation, and positive social change.” Together with Texas Accountants and Lawyers for the Arts and a grant from the newly formed Art for Justice Fund, CLA convened the Texas Art for Justice Forum as one of six nationwide reform events aiming to stimulate greater participation from local artists and arts organizations in helping to solve the problem of mass incarceration.

“If we had more investment in arts education,” Robinson continued, “perhaps we wouldn’t have so many people to ‘correct.’”

That’s a provocative thought, to say the least—particularly at a time when popular educational philosophy centers so strongly on the value of STEM learning. Could it be that our “need” to imprison more individuals per capita than any other nation in the world stems, in part, from a degenerative cultural insensitivity to the role the arts play in pro-social human development?

Some of the people at the Forum certainly thought so.

“Art is not a commodity,” guitarist and educator Jeremy Osborne emphatically remarked during a theme-setting early panel discussion. “It’s something essential to everyone.”

Osborne teaches guitar to at-risk and system-involved youth in Austin as part of an innovative educational outreach developed by Austin Classical Guitar. Now in its eighth year, the program leverages the accessibility and relative affordability of the guitar to introduce these students to the character-building discipline of music performance while helping them finish school and stay out of the adult justice system. After explaining how various curricula his group has developed are now used as a benchmark for similar programs worldwide, Osborne expressed sincere gratitude for the audience’s willingness to give up their Saturday to gather together and talk about justice reform.

“When you do this kind of work,” he said, “you really feel like you’re on a desert island.”

Sadly, that seemed to be a common theme among the people I talked to throughout the day.

Fortunately, the Forum also demonstrated that voices like Osborne’s  are beginning to reach key influencers in the halls of power.

“[Art] is about the human condition,” Texas Representative Garnet Coleman explained. “This is how we learn. This is how we know about something bigger than who we are.”

Coleman was one of several state legislators who staunchly advocated for the continuation of the Texas Commission on the Arts when it was on the chopping block for budgetary cutbacks several years ago. Another supporter, State Representative James White, was also present for the panel discussion. He spent some time describing how the arts have historically functioned as a “cultural softener,” tempering our more disruptive human tendencies by connecting us to one another at the heart level. Art, he explained, has a way of enlarging our worldview, celebrating a diversity of perspectives while revealing our deficiencies and inspiring us to work together for the common good.

The dismissal of the arts hurts so many people. That’s why many of the artists present at the Forum challenged their peers to begin stepping up their game.  And, like SaulPaul, tell themselves and everyone else “Be the Change.”

 

About the guest contributor: 

Johnathan Kana is a freelance writer, musician, and Christian cultural critic who enjoys probing the intersection of faith, justice, and pop culture. As a restored citizen who once spent 25 months in prison, he believes in the transformative power of a meaningful second chance. He is a volunteer Justice Ambassador for Prison Fellowship and a contributing writer for their quarterly newspaper for prisoners, Inside Journal.

He is also co-author (with Dr. Mary L. Cohen and Iowa prisoner Richard Winemiller) of a forthcoming book chapter about the Oakdale Community Choir and the healing power of community music-making in correctional contexts (to be published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press in a volume provisionally titled Walking the Boundaries, Bridging the Gaps: How Community Music Engages Those in the Margins of Society). 

Johnathan works in manufacturing and lives with his wife and two children in central Texas. He is an avid filmgoer, a passionate armchair theologian, and an aspiring kayaker.

About the Art for Justice Forums:

California Lawyers for the Arts was awarded one of 30 grants from the new Art for Justice Fund to facilitate six Art for Justice Forums in Michigan, Texas, Alabama, Georgia, New York and California during 2018. These one-day forums are designed to engage the arts in justice reform efforts and increase support for arts in corrections programs, as well as delinquency prevention and re-entry services. More than 200 persons, including elected legislators, artists, returned citizens, educators, arts and justice reform organizations, and others participated in the first two forums at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor on April 3 and at the Houston Museum of African American Culture on July 14 . A short video of the Michigan Art for Justice Forum is linked here. Videos of the plenary panel sessions are also available here. The Defender Network.com published photographs from the Texas Art for Justice Forum, while the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition summarized the day’s discussions in a blog report.

Additional forums have taken place at Emory University School of Law in Atlanta on September 28, at Sacramento State University on October 16, at the Jule Collins Smith Museum at Auburn University in Alabama on October 19, and the last forum will be held at Columbia University School of Law in New York on November 16 (register here). For more information, please send an inquiry to aic@calawyersforthearts.org.

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