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“Lift Us Up, Don’t Push Us Out!”: An immersive exhibition created by youth at the Richmond Juvenile Detention Center

By Guest Blogger: Annie Green

Lift us up, don't push us out
Lift us up, don’t push us out

From the peaceful setting of The Art League gallery, viewers step into the virtual jail cell of an incarcerated youth. As viewers adjust to the cell, a young man’s voice shares the story of his incarceration and the emotional shock of his experience. The background sounds of alarms and yelling punctuate his monologue.

Virtual Reality Experience
Virtual Reality Experience

The virtual reality experience, Detained 3’x30”, a brief but immersive video is powerful enough to transport the viewer into the daily realities of incarceration. On the gallery walls, works of different media and scale fill the exhibit room. The show is not meant to feel contained to the space it is shown in. The interactive elements invite viewers to “leave” the gallery and step directly into the experiences of incarcerated youth. A short documentary, spoken word pieces, posters, and even police training manuals created by kids affected by youth incarceration policies speak directly to gallery goers.

“I wanna be an astronomer but down here I have to stand on a toilet just to see a few stars” – O, 16 years old

Statistics to know

This exhibit is a direct response to the school-to-prison pipeline crisis that our country is facing today. According to performingstatistics.org:

  •     If current trends continue, one of every three black men will be incarcerated in their lives
  •    Virginia incarcerates more than 10,000 youth each year, nearly half of whom between just 8 and 15 years old
  •    Virginia refers children to the juvenile justice system at a higher rate than ANY state in the country
  •    We spend 15 times more on incarcerating Virginia’s youth than on educating them

The exhibit’s curator and project organizer, Mark Strandquist, was called to action after learning about the school-to-prison pipeline and the disproportionate incarceration rates of minority youth. While Mark had previously created artwork that was political in content/subject, his work had not yet evolved into the greater social effort that is today. Mark believes his role as an artist is to find ways to use art as a tool for positive social change.

This project is a combination of education, creative expression, direct action, and community outreach. Mark has cohesively combined these elements into an ongoing, growing effort to end the school-to-prison pipeline.

The work shown in this exhibit was created by a group of incarcerated youth from the Richmond Juvenile Detention Center’s Post-Dispositional Program. Each summer in Richmond, Virginia these young people work with local artists from the community art space Art180 and lawyers from the Legal Aid Justice Center to produce powerful work addressing their own experiences within the school-to-prison pipeline.

This work is presented to the public as well as to local law enforcement. Dialogues facilitated by Mark Strandquist and others allow for two very different groups within society to meet and share ideas, when they might otherwise have not had to opportunity to.

Outreach and Reform

One of the most powerful projects created during the summer program is the publishing of police training manuals, written by incarcerated youth. These manuals address the need for understanding the systemic flaws that allow the school-to-prison pipeline to continue. They also, most importantly, address the need for law enforcement to have experience working with youth outside of the context of the prison system, to see them as valuable member of society who deserves to be lifted up and encouraged to succeed, not to be held back by circumstances often beyond their control.

The driving belief behind this project is the importance of listening to and learning from incarcerated members of society, to see them as the experts in the conversation surrounding the prison system. They are the most important and relevant voices in answering the question: “How can we keep kids free?”  

With access to the right resources and support system, this project puts forth that every child in society can flourish and reach his/her full potential, regardless of socioeconomic background or personal trauma. Viewers are asked to examine their own understanding of the school-to-prison pipeline, to question whether they truly know the facts. The projects created by these youths include work that illustrates their struggle, as well as their hopes for their future outside of prison.  

Free and open to the public. The exhibit was curated by Mark Strandquist and will be on view in The Art League Gallery January 9-February 3. 

Further reading: Read more about Virginia youth incarceration including stories of incarcerated youth and online videos of their experiences in this recent Atlantic article, published in March 2018. 

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