Aiming To Transform Youth Through Art

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Using the arts as a way to heal and transform is the theme of an exhibit at Boston's federal courthouse. The artists are children who have been involved with the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services (DYS), the agency that handles youngsters charged with crimes.

At a recent reception of the artists and DYS officials, 17-year-old Ricky Brown was among the young people proudly describing his work. He helped paint a mural that covers the entire wall of a DYS district office in Springfield. He says it sends a message about kids in the juvenile justice system.

"It brightens up the whole building," Brown said. "It makes sure to say that we're not only there to get locked up. It's there to let people know that we do work together, we do do something positive."

"It keeps me out of trouble. It brightens my mind and it brightens up the world."

Ricky Brown, 17, muralist

The experience has been so positive for Brown that even though his commitment at DYS is ending, he's asking to come back and paint another mural.

"It keeps me out of trouble," Brown said. "It brightens my mind and it brightens up the world."

The group is now beginning work on its third mural in Springfield. Any of the kids can participate, not just those who are artistically inclined. Carla Wojczuk, one of the adult artists who helped supervise, says these projects are about much more than painting.

"It's definitely about the relationships," Wojczuk said. "We do a lot of work to build — in this group in particular because it's all young men — to build a positive sense of masculinity. We actually do training to create a safe space, to talk about what are the things the world says about us, and what are the things we want to say about us."

In fact, one of the murals poses the question: "What makes a man?" Eighteen-year-old Chris Hernandez, who was involved with DYS for four years, says participating in the project helped him answer that question for himself.

"My definition of a man is someone who is successful, strives for whatever they dream of," Hernandez said. "There's a lot of things in my definition; I could keep going on forever. I guess it's somebody I dream to be so I'll just strive to be that person."

That self-reflection is exactly the point of using the arts with DYS-involved youth, says Acting DYS Commissioner Ed Dolan. He hopes that exhibits like this will help show that his agency is not so much about punishing kids, but about helping them learn how to become productive adults, often after not-so-happy childhoods.

"Forty-five percent of our kids have special education backgrounds," Dolan said. "They've had significant trauma throughout their lives. They're not always capable of verbalizing that and the arts allows them to express themselves differently and to see the world in a different way."

The predominant theme of the two dozen or so artworks on display at the federal courthouse is change. There are larger-than-life-size etchings on wood, paintings, Van Gogh imitation drawings, a quilt and photos of some of the murals and performance art. Brown says the artwork helped him — as he's just about to turn 18 — figure out what he wants to do as an adult.

"I want to be a mural artist," Brown said. "That's what I see. I want to be a big painter that everybody knows so that worldwide everybody knows about my paintings."

For a teen who's spent the last two years committed to DYS, that is a big change.

"The Arts and Juvenile Justice" exhibit will be on display at the Harborpark entrance of the John Joseph Moakley U.S. Courthouse in Boston until March 30.

This program aired on March 2, 2012.

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Deborah Becker Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.



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