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.

Time Spent – Making Art in Prison

by Rebecca Kelly

People can start with what seems like an ever-renewable supply anger and despair. This emotional energy is sometimes the initial fuel for the creative act. But that energy may also prove kindling for a different kind of renewable energy, a positive drive. Something fresh and wonderful can be created from the dark place of rumination and frustration, giving back release to that individual and sending forward something positive into the world.

  • Art is restorative, an outlet, transformative
  • The act of creativity leads one on an engrossing adventure for the soul, the mind, the body
  • Esteem building – creating something that can be admired by peers and family and the outer world
  • Connections with the outside – valuable in forging a future
  • Validation of self worth, of productivity, of use of time
  • Gives value to time spent, creates a sense of productivity, value to a product, an understanding of sharing, a way of processing and telling oneself one’s story, a way of integrating and transforming  the personal story, a way to give
  • Passes time innocently and that brings a release
  • A new understanding of self emerges as creative output provides inspiration, self worth  even joy
  • Creativity brings to the mind solace, peace, intention, healing, and helps to organize time
  • Art is the re-creation of yesterday, inhabiting today and the making of tomorrows

Families who have a loved one in prison experience a thankfulness and an amazement by the growth of the “artist in prison.”

At first, it may be the pencil sketches on the backs of forms or random pieces of paper that come home. Then, the sheer inventiveness becomes apparent in the ideas, the way the individual creates paint and brushes – from juice, jam, from coffee, using toothbrushes. He creates when he can be in his cell alone – when others are at chow, or at night, or whenever he can find privacy. In the beginning it was intensely private. He only shared his work through the mail in letters home. But it is constant.

At first, the individual doesn’t know where to GO in prison – no place seems safe. Everyone seems to want to know about your business, and to rank you according to your past, where you are from, what you did, who you think you are now.

So there is the chapel, a community room, the sports option. There is administrative segregation (solitary).  But none of these feel safe for different reasons. How do you overcome the constant need for vigilance and the fear of being singled out or physically hurt?

There are long waiting lists for prison jobs. If one is fortunate to get a job, the daily routine keeps one relatively focused and safe for a period of many months. There are scant prison education programs. But with luck and persistence one might enroll in a 10-week group course in business, or cognitive behavior therapy workshop, and actually benefit. To note accomplishments in education or sports, the individual receives an achievement document, a citation. Congratulations, you passed the time and you did this! Families hungrily collect the awards and citations.

I began to search for a way to share his artwork with others – beyond the family. I looked for online galleries, made inquiries, visited prison art exhibits, in an attempt to make connections, to share his work with directors of these art organizations. I made an online slide show so his works could be seen more readily by friends and family. The effort itself was fascinating, encouraging, supportive. There are wonderful people on the outside engaged in projects – keeping track, looking in, drawing out, understanding…

Maybe he wasn’t ready to define himself as a person interested in art. Maybe he didn’t value or recognize his creative output. But his family DID. His extraordinary art efforts were already playing a healing role in the family, a relief from the despair and shock of what had happened. We were happy to share his work with friends. It is a beautiful, unique way to show his development in a wholly positive light, and to bring pride into our communications.

Only a year ago, he wrote in September, “I do like art, but I don’t really think it defines who I am.  I understand that everyone out there on the street only sees that part of me, but I mainly commit so much to art because that is the only constructive thing to do here that keeps me busy. To tell you the truth, painting, at times, has been pretty painful. I am not comfortable with being known as the inmate artist who suffers from a mental disability. How cliche.

And then, right after that – he discovered the art room. Who goes there?

It was his 5th year in prison, and it had been a particularly rough year of unfortunate events far beyond his control. He marveled that he hadn’t known about the art room earlier. Perhaps he couldn’t imagine in prison – that there would even exist such a “free” place as the art room. Yet, in his prison, there are actually two art rooms.

He has had to learn to respect and accept his own “drive,” and his ability. Many artists in many fields, whether it is theater, dance, music or art, struggle with that. He has always been pragmatic about his creative output. When he speaks of it, he focuses more on the technical explorations and achievements, than on the “meaning” or the effect on the viewer, or even his own creative intention. But outside feedback has played a vital role in validation, and has contributed to his development and persistence.

Now, his work can be seen in wonderful online galleries (Prison Arts Coalition PAC, and The Confined Arts, Isaac’s Quarterly) and in an online slide show of recent works. His watercolors have been used “on the street” by Solitary Watch (national), and as a menu cover design for Edwins Restaurant, (Cincinnati, OH). It continues to be a fascinating journey to observe how he expresses repeating themes in his works over the years (eg. a tree), and how he diligently teaches himself new techniques in watercolor, charcoal, multi-media. His knowledge and tools have come a long way from the lemonade and coffee painted flowers.

Today he is teaching a 12-week course in watercolor technique. He encourages other artists-mates to send works to online galleries. He has found a group of supportive, like-minded creative individuals who encourage and challenge each other to grow as artists. He has found a path he can travel, and he is bringing others with him along the way.

 

Trees in works by Conor

About this guest contributor:

Rebecca Kelly, daughter of a career diplomat, grew up in London, England, Khartoum, Sudan, and Washington, DC.  She trained at the School of Washington Ballet.  She holds a BA in Oriental Religion from Bryn Mawr College.  She is the Artistic Director and Choreographer for Rebecca Kelly Ballet. She lives with her husband in New York City and in the Adirondack Mountains, and is artist Conor Broderick’s aunt.

 

An Appeal for Art for Justice

by Melnee D. McPherson

In the spring I attended a daylong forum about how the arts could help those men and women who are living in prison and building new lives back in their communities.

Officially the session was called “Michigan Art for Justice,” held in a historic hall on the campus of University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. I was so gratified to see how many people were interested in this critical issue and many were already deep into solutions. Some of them were just explaining their job responsibilities and others were true advocates.

And that’s where I stand. After serving my time in prison, I earned degrees in social work, the majority at the University of Michigan. That work became very personal as I looked around and realized the shortages of help for returning citizens. In addition I saw the burdens the absence of a parent placed on the family. I would call this an epidemic, as the professionals say that 1 of 10 children have a parent in prison.

The person who stepped into this void was most frequently a grandmother. That’s me. Building an organization for other grandmothers who are tackling this challenge is now my mission. I’m in my early 70s and know my peers need support and advice.  We also need to let people know we exist, not just in a brief news report, but in our own 24 hour world.

At the recent forum I was hoping to hear more about this special group of people. Not this time.

Generally, the speakers spoke about the responsibilities of their public and private offices to returning citizens. Specifically, some offered ways the arts can inform discussions on criminal justice.  Exposure to programs such as Shakespeare Behind Bars, the Michigan Prison Creative Arts Project and the Arts in Corrections initiative of the California Lawyers for the Arts has proved extremely helpful. They have awakened or rekindled creativity in those inmates, from producing plays to writing about their lives.

The arts can help before interaction with the prison system begins. Alma Robinson, the Executive Director of the California Lawyers for the Arts, said, “If we had more arts education in schools, we wouldn’t have so many people to correct.” Amen to that!

As positive proof of this impact, the Prison Creative Arts Project organized an exhibition of art by Michigan prisoners. This was the 23rd year. Bravo was all I could think as I walked among the paintings, prints and sculptures of men and women whom I wanted to meet. The evening reached a high point as Hazelette Crosby told her story about her incarceration and sang the songs of hope she wrote in prison.

When she spoke on her panel Crosby emphasized the need to have complete participation among all sides of the prison crisis.

There is a value, she said, to established “communications between those who have had the experience and those on the outside who want to contribute.” Though those in the audience believed in all these efforts she described how hard it is to get hired and work after release. Crosby reminded everyone “we have a lot to bring to the table.”

We all know the system is a mess, and I don’t think we can ignore the language and the actions of the national lawmakers. My view is the politics of the current White House are only making matters worse.  You can’t have this discussion outside the context of what is happening nationally.

There is enough energy to help with fundamentals when someone comes home. Learning the soft skills—how to act on the job—is so important. There is enough interest in human rights issues to tackle abuses, overcrowding and the lack of rehabilitation programs. All the speakers pointed out these horrible conditions, as the oversight and ownership of prisons change to private hands.

Except in a few presentations, I didn’t hear the advocates talk about the impact those years of separation have had on the families. I wanted more from both sides of the story.

About the guest contributor:

 Melnee Dilworth McPherson, PhD, Dr. McPherson earned both her PhD in the Joint Sociology and Social Work Program in 2004 and her MSW in 1996 from the University of Michigan. Her dissertation entitled, “From a feminist perspective: An investigation of the relationship among dual diagnosis, intimate partner violence and parenting stress” formed the unifying theme of her research with a focus on domestic violence, mental illness, and substance misuse.

Dr. McPherson serves on several community initiatives including the Livingston-Washtenaw Substance Abuse Advisory Council and the Washtenaw Prisoner Re-entry Initiative. She is also a board member of The University of Michigan Substance Abuse Research Center. Dr. McPherson has taught courses at the University of Michigan- School Of Social Work and the Washtenaw Community College. She is also a consultant on a national project aimed at developing trauma-informed reentry programming for women. Dr. McPherson, a returned citizen, is also an advocate for supporting the grandmothers who take care of young people whose parent is incarcerated.

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 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 will take 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 at Columbia University School of Law in New York on November 16 (register for the NY event here). For more information, please send an inquiry to aic@calawyersforthearts.org.