A Day of Hope: a report from the Alabama Art for Justice Forum

by Leasa Brock

The day began with a cool breeze and overcast sky that let us know fall had arrived at Auburn University. Upon entering the elegant Jule Collins Museum of Fine Art, staff members of the Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project welcomed everyone to the Alabama Art for Justice Forum. It was warm and inviting. We were here to discuss challenges and opportunities of improving participation and access to arts and education. Representatives from higher education, corrections, advocates, policy makers and interested members from the community came from Alabama, California, New York, Tennessee, Florida and elsewhere.

I was honored to be here by invitation from Kyes Stevens, founder and director of the Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project. I came to know her when I was incarcerated at Julia Tutwiler prison in Wetumpka, Ala. Her group APAEP came into the prison with classes for prisoners. I was lucky enough to get a spot in the class and it was an amazing experience. It combined writing and some movement exercises. It brought me closer to my classmates. We developed trust and friendship – something not found in prison. I have since gotten out of there and continue to correspond and follow her and the program through social media. I came to the forum to listen and maybe get involved with her work.

I was excited to be here and felt a little out of place with these notable people.

The APAEP hosted the forum with partners such as the Art for Justice Fund, Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, The Hancock Fund, and the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art and the Auburn College of Architecture, Design and Construction. It was also made possible by California Lawyers for the Arts through their groundbreaking national project funded by the Arts for Justice Fund, which is administered by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations.

Opening remarks by Stevens acknowledged the diverse and talented group in attendance and she thanked her staff and others for bringing the forum together. She encouraged forum attendees to listen, feel free to ask questions and give personal comments after each session. Taffye Benson Clayton, inaugural Vice President and Associate Provost for Inclusion and Diversity at Auburn, welcomed everyone to the campus and made clear that Auburn University supports and will continue to be at the center of efforts for arts for justice in Alabama.

Moderator Mark Wilson, Coordinator of Community and Civic Engagement in the College of Liberal Arts at Auburn, began the first session by introducing Barb Bondy, a visual artist and Professor of Art in the Art & Art History department at Auburn University and the artist Sonia Turley-Landers of Panama City, Florida.

Bondy has taught 12 classes for APAEP. She told of her experiences in prison classrooms and the changes and transformations she witnesses as students gain the ability to express their own ideas. She said that there is a spark of confidence to learn and create that carries over into her own experiences as a teacher.

Sonia Turley-Landers, a former APAEP student at Tutwiler said the program is a ‘light’ in the darkness. It helped her gain confidence and positivity. She thinks art, poetry, and English classes in prison change and build trust among prisoners. She said the opportunity to take these classes affected her day to day behavior for the better because she didn’t want to jeopardize her chance to go to class. Reciting a poem she wrote in a class, she said she believes that education is a great equalizer. She is now a sought-after artist in Panama City, Florida.

A Q &A was then moderated by Wilson. The audience asked about the non-grading aspect of the classes in prisons and the possibility of a community art show.

Th next session was moderated by Joan R. Harrell, a lecturer and the Diversity Coordinator for the College of Liberal Arts School at Auburn University. She introduced Carol Potok, Director of Aid to Inmate Mothers, and Al Head, director of the Alabama State Council on the Arts. Potok has been with Aid to Inmate Mothers for 21 of the 31 years it has existed. She discussed her program and said she has seen a healing effect that the ADAEP classes have on students. She believes the classes help mothers connect with each other.

Al Head said arts and education for inmates is an investment for the future. He said he has learned a lot through years of working with Kyes Stevens at APAEP and with programs for youthful offenders. He said the programs help make our communities safer in the long run. We all agree. He referenced Birmingham’s “Studio by the Tracks.” and recommended partnerships with any and all groups to help reach out.

Next, successful Tennessee artist Omari Booker talked about his experience with art education programs in Tennessee. He gave his story and journey through slides of his artwork. The presentation was lovely – murals, mixed media and paintings that addressed his belief in art in justice. The Q & A moderated by Harrell included discussion of college courses in prison and opening doors for ex-offenders in transition.

An introduction to the round table luncheon discussions was made by Alma Robinson, executive director for the California Lawyers for the Arts, a co-sponsor of the Forum. It was a pleasure and honor to meet Ms. Robinson. She is a dynamic person who believes deeply in arts and education in justice. She was so welcoming and warm as she encouraged attendees to sit at the table with topics they needed to know more about.

Lunch table topics were:
Art and College Education
What Policies Can Shift for Reform
Juvenile Justice
Re-entry for the Incarcerated
Arts on the Inside
Restorative Justice
Program Evaluation
Art as Pathway for Change for Alabama
Need vs. Public Perception for arts/education for incarcerated people.
Facilitators were Shaelyn Smith, Frank Knaack, Kate Owens-Murphy, Jeremy Sherer, Connie Kohler, Frankie Lanaan, Donna Russell, and Kyes Stevens.
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After a beautifully catered luncheon and lots of good conversation, the next session was concerned with ‘National Perspectives on Making Change’ and was moderated by Donna Russell, Executive Director of the Alabama Alliance for Arts Education. Included was Terrell Blount, Program Associate at the Vera Institute of Justice in New York City. Blount discussed the national push to provide ‘Second Chance’ Pell grants for prisoners. He emphasized expanding education in prison through Pell grants. His presentation was very factua1 and showed the number of colleges across the nation that already have classes for the incarcerated to be around 65. He said Vera Institute seeks to increase those numbers through APEAP and others groups. Ending his talk, he said he hoped the day inspired the audience to create new solutions, and remain active in helping our nation, state and communities.

Alma Robinson then discussed the outreach way to set up programs for the incarcerated through state and national resources. She was very passionate about the subject. She told the audience to seek out partnerships as well. She encouraged everyone to communicate with their state representatives and make them aware of the programs for the incarcerated. She encouraged all to “make a pitch” and highlighted some of her work through the forum. It was very inspiring.

Dena Dickerson spoke next. She is the director of Offender Alumni Association in Birmingham, Al. She said the APAEP classes helped empower her and others to change and help others. She now works to engage ex-offenders to contribute to their community much the way she did. She is a great inspiration.

At closing remarks, Kyes Stevens encouraged everyone and expressed hopefulness that the day inspired the audience to consider and create new solutions.

I’m so glad to have been part of it!

About the guest contributor:

I am an ex-inmate of Tutwiler Prison. I had a psychotic break with reality and did some illegal things that landed me there. I will never forget my friend Jaimie, who was the first person I could talk, really talk to. She encouraged me to sign up for one of Kyes Stevens’s classes. Thank goodness I was chosen out of so many to take the class. She and her teacher filled us in on what we were going to cover during the class. Some writing and some acting movements. Everyone was given good writing utensils. It was great to have all that clean paper. I wrote a lot during that time. It was an amazing experience.

My son, Noah, and I live in a small home in Cullman, Alabama. He is a computer genius and recently graduated from Wallace State Community College in Computer Science. I write a lot. I’m a care-giver for some elderly people that I’ve come to love. I also volunteer at a local food bank. I like to help people sort of behind the scenes. I’m a little bit Agoraphobic. It is hard to be an ex-offender in a small town. The Forum gave me hope and courage to help others in a more productive way.

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.

The last forum in the series 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.

It’s a start, but we’ve got a ways to go, still

by Kenneth E. Hartman

As I sit in the audience of assembled artists and corrections officials, writers and performers, along with a smattering of fellow returned citizens, I reflect on the magical nature of my own journey to this meeting, provoked to reverie by a tale of emotional torture and abuse told by a gentle, kind artist who once walked the same yards and felt the same arid winds of isolation I experienced for 38 years.

The story of a prisoner locked inside a cell, alone with his thoughts and fears, is a trope that defines prison narrative in fiction and movies. There is something both heartrending and heartwarming to consider in these tales of solitary “definement” – this act of finding oneself within the confines of the steel and concrete of a prison cell. While I listened to him recount his own harrowing experience of this, I became lost in nightmarish memories of other places and times. I could hear the clanking sound of heavy brass keys in the far distance. I felt the weight of those decades leaning on me.
But it’s October 16, 2018, on the vast, tree-lined campus of Sacramento State University in a large, windowed room in the Alumni Center. This is the California Art for Justice Forum; this is the place for “Addressing Mass Incarceration and Criminal Justice Reform Through the Arts.” Along one side of the room, tables are stacked with breakfast food: bagels and cream cheese, muffins and cut fruit. At the end of the last table, large brown Cambro drink dispensers – the exact size and color of the containers in the chow hall of the last prison I served time in, mere months ago. The coffee is much better here. Throughout the rest of the day a small army of food service workers keep replacing the offerings with new items. I wonder if it wouldn’t have been wiser to serve the participants a box lunch like what prisoners eat every day.

In the opening panel, as the Chief of Rehabilitation in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation bats back requests for more programs, more art, more of anything, California Arts Council Deputy Director Ayanna Kiburi points out that eight million dollars a year is being allocated toward arts in the California prisons by her organization. I whip out my smart phone and do the math. It works out to about 7/1000ths of a percent of the twelve billion dollars pouring into the prisons for all the rest they accomplish for society. Obviously, art isn’t valued that highly.

During the first breakout sessions, I walk around the room, listening when I can, standing back when I can’t, and what I see and hear leaves me with that kind of déjà vu that feels heavy. It strikes me that many people with obviously big hearts and real commitment are having an argument with the past. How do we measure this? How do we get the system on board? I think it’s different now, right? We shouldn’t ask for too much! When I came to prison back in 1980, it was at the tail end of the last rehabilitation surge. In those days, at Old Folsom, no less, whole sections of Five Building were dedicated to painters and sculptors. Art Alley it was called. It vanished into the maw of the “get tough” era that followed.

When keynote speaker Luis Rodriguez, former Poet Laureate of Los Angeles and both personal hero and close friend of mine, takes to the dais to address the crowd he’s vibrating with righteous energy. He compares the current moment to the “birth of a new era,” and I pray right there that he’s right. His poet’s voice rises and falls, emphasizing and exhorting, calling to action all assembled. In what holds personal significance for me, he makes the point that his own troubled youth was rescued by one adult who “cared him straight.” Like most of us who fall off the rails and land on the other side of the law and society, he needed to be seen and heard, to be cared for and nurtured. Instead, the system of mass incarceration had steel and concrete, isolation and suffering in abundance, ready to break us down and destroy our spirits. I discovered a vocation for writing, and I found a way to write my way back to humanity. That my spirit wasn’t destroyed is a testament to the power of the arts, but I am a lucky exception to the rule. A few millions buy a few programs; many billions buy lots of concrete and steel cages.

The second plenary session addresses the convergence of arts education and criminal justice reform. Two of the five panelists are fellow returned citizens. The wise and measured jazz musician, Wesley Haye, and the fiery, impassioned Shakespearean actor Dameion Brown, both provide the kind of experiential knowledge that only those of us who have lived inside the lethal, electrified fences can impart. Dr. Larry Brewster, a giant in the field of arts education in prison, spends a considerable amount of time explaining to the room the Gordian knot of proving to the uninterested that arts matter for the unloved. He is valiant in his commitment and radiates charm.

Breakout sessions again continue the debate from the morning and discuss the various systems and obstacles that hamper the provision of substantial and meaningful arts education within the jails and prisons. The well-meaning and the hopeful confronting the hard end of current reality is on display.

At the closing remarks, the voices of Alma Robinson, Executive Director of California Lawyers for the Arts, and Laurie Brooks, executive director of the William James Association, eloquently express appreciation for what change has happened inside the prisons and jails and the fervent, desperate desire for still more that has been evident all day.

My mind drifts back to Henry Frank, fellow returned citizen, and his gripping recounting of being able to draw on a used lunch bag while being held in solitary confinement. I could feel him slip back inside the terrifying isolation of a cell, alone, unsure how long he would be held out of touch, out of the healing rays of the sun. That he could call on his training as an artist is a wonderful thing, to be sure. That he was placed in a situation where all he could do to maintain his sanity was draw on the inside of a crumpled bag is a damning indictment of the system of mass incarceration.

This state, all of this country, still has miles to go to achieve something like a system that values human beings more than the infliction of pain. We must not ever forget that sad truth.

About the guest contributor: Kenneth E. Hartman served 38 years in the California prison system. He is the author of the award-winning memoir “Mother California: A Story of Redemption Behind Bars. “His other books are “Christmas in Prison,” and “Too Cruel, Not Unusual Enough.” He lives and works in the Los Angeles area as a writer. Ken can be contacted at: kennethehartman@hotmail.com

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.

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.