The Arts, Youth and Police: Civic Dialogue in Richmond, Virginia

August 27, 2016

by Michael Rohd, Founding Partner / Artist, Center for Performance and Civic Practice

First, some context —

CPCP’s Catalyst Initiative is a program that supports an artist and a community partner working together on a local civic practice project.  We have supported and learned from 13 projects around the nation so far, and we are wrapping up Round Two of the program.   As part of our work with Catalyst, someone from CPCP does a site visit, to be on the ground and witness/stand with each project at some point along their process. On August 26th, I visited Round Two’s Richmond project, a partnership between Art 180 and the Legal Aid Justice Center organized by and around the collaborative community work of artist Mark Strandquist.

The project is called Performing Statistics. It conducts art-making workshops with incarcerated youth and then uses the resulting art as the foundation for a training workshop for and with law enforcement.  The Richmond Police Department, through the direct leadership and participation of Chief Alfred Durham, is a collaborator, arranging and fully partnering on the training for its officers.  The August 26th event was a culmination of this summer’s youth work and this week’s set of police training events, and ended with a well-attended public forum on youth/police relationships in Richmond.  The focus for all this work is to attack the school-to-prison pipeline by reducing the amount of youth arrests, building trust between police, youth and families, and, by encouraging officers and the court to use, recommend and fund diversion programs more robustly, keeping young people out of the culture of incarceration whenever possible.

Morning

I attend the last of the officer trainings of the week.  The workshop includes a mix of School Resource Officers, beat cops, mounted police, Detectives and OIC’s from various precincts/units (Officer in Charge).  Four hours long, the training is conducted by a small team of presenters led by Art 180’s Deputy Director Trey Hartt. The morning covers, among other things, new science on adolescent brain development and neuropsychology intended to help officers understand the influencing factors of biology, trauma and context on the decision-making ability of a young person, especially in a moment of ‘heated cognition’.  The heart of the morning, though, is a gallery walk officers take amidst visual, video, audio and spatial art created by incarcerated youth about their experiences before and amidst life behind bars.  The officers split into small groups and visit different stations at the exhibit; they have a facilitator who guides them through conversations about their responses.  The art is powerful.  Biographical panels with gorgeous images and autobiographical text, call-in phone lines with hushed messages, a built-to-scale jail cell with wooden planks that have poems young people wrote and burned into the wood themselves.

After each group has rotated through every station, the whole group circles up and shares observations.  Officers speak of empathy; they speak of the need for relationship-building.  They speak of the tension between understanding someone’s story while upholding the law with its, at times, seemingly limited latitude for officer discretion and behavior. Officers speak guardedly, but also candidly, growing more animated with each other and the facilitators. They use the art to make points; they use the art to reference their own histories; they use the art as a way to evoke something they can’t quite speak but can allude to through a feeling summoned briefly by an image or sound or voice. They use the art to reflect, to discuss values and behavior…the art makes a space for difficult, complex expression and connection.

Afternoon

With me in Richmond is Pam Korza of Animating Democracy, a program of Americans for the Arts.  CPCP contracted with Pam and Barbara Schaeffer Bacon to lead impact and evaluation efforts on all our Catalyst projects — they do this, not surprisingly, through participatory methods, working to learn what project teams want to accomplish and then helping them design local, flexible approaches.  Pam has been working a bunch with the Performing Statistics team and the Richmond Police department on evaluation strategies that will help them communicate outcomes and create sustainable support and buy-in with funders and community stakeholders.  This afternoon, we spend an hour interviewing the police chief, Alfred Durham. He was a DC Police Officer for nearly 30 years, leaving his post there as Assistant Chief to run Richmond’s Department. He speaks of his commitment to transforming both public perception of law enforcement and the school-to-prison pipeline.  He has been at almost every training this week, asked his command team to be there, and has stated his desire to get as many of his 700 officers as possible through the process. He will be at the public forum tonight.

For a little more context, part of each CPCP visit to a Catalyst project team includes the offer to not just observe, but to act as a resource if the host team thinks we can be useful.  Sometimes we have given community presentations, led workshops, facilitated meetings with local government and funding community leaders…we have even led debrief sessions for large teams at the end of cross sector projects.  As we spoke with the Performing Statistics team about the visit and the Public Forum, Mark asked if I would be willing to help them design it, which led to the idea of me leading it.  That's what led us to the evening of August 26th. 

Evening

5pm

Teenagers, young adult activists and police officers arrive for a pre-meeting before the Public Forum.  I describe for them the process we will go through together — the structure of the event is a set of five table groups comprised of youth, one officer, and one youth advocate who will sit together and work through a sequence I will lead while they are observed by ten people surrounding them.  There’s to be an inner circle and an outer circle at each table — 5 fishbowl dialogues.  But throughout the process, the outer circle will at specific moments be invited into the dialogue with the group they are observing to give them reflections, ask questions and challenge them.  At the end of the process, the result of the table’s work will be read to the room. It's advertised as a public forum to work with young people (including formerly incarcerated young people) on designing training for law enforcement.  Altogether, 5 groups of around 15 folks.   We have tables and chairs set up for 75… but no idea how many people will come.

5:30pm

People start arriving.  Mingling.  Food and beverages.  Looking at the art.  We are in the same space as the police training earlier in the day, and the art surrounds us as we begin the evening together in the basement of this lovely Downtown Public Library.

5:45pm

More people. Lots of people.

6pm

Time to start.  Trey and Chief Durham welcome everyone, and describe goals for the evening — to collectively break down stereotypes, build relationships and strategize how there can be less youth arrests in Richmond.  Mark then talks about the art, and the process of working with local incarcerated youth to create it.  He shows two short videos made in the summer workshop, and closes with an audio track made by a whole group of his young collaborators. He then turns it over to me.

6:15pm

I look out and see over 100 people crowded into the room — one of the most visibly diverse gatherings I have ever seen at a forum like this one.  Art 180 has worked diligently with community organizers and partner organizations to bring a complex audience of participants to this event.  Diverse generationally, racially, in outward appearance on so many levels… they seem both expectant and slightly anxious.  Both light and heavy in spirit.  They are seated in the five working groups — inner circles around a table, outer circle surrounding the inner.  I describe the process we are going to use and I ask for their permission to be in charge — to use time as a boundary, and to interrupt when necessary- I ask for permission to lead for the next 90 minutes. They give it.  (The request is more an invitation than a question, as I stand up front with microphone, but that’s for another writing on facilitation…)  I then give them 90 seconds to introduce themselves to everyone else in their group — inner and outer. When I call them back to attention from the front of the room, we get started.

6:35-7:40pm

Each table gets a one-paragraph scenario describing an incident where a young person ends up getting arrested.  The scenarios are not Richmond-specific, and they are not real events — though they have been researched and feel true in this local and national moment.  The goal of the activity will be for the table to interrogate what happened and rewrite the script so that what results is not an arrest, but an opportunity for all parties involved to move forward with their day and their life rather than enter the judicial system.  Step by step, I walk them through a series of 5 and 7 minute increments during which they have collective assignments including dialogue, reflection, writing lines for their new version of the encounter, and feedback from their own circle, and the other one as well.  They work as 5 teams.

The room is focused, playful, serious — at times a table and its outer circle disagree, even vigorously — but nothing less than civil and collaborative exchange occurs throughout the session.  At one point, Chief Durham, at his table, proposes a solution based on a respectful, casual approach that an officer might take when dealing with the young person in the scenario — adults around his table nod, but a young man smiles and says to him — "Chief, how do you think that’s gonna work?  You think you smile and I’m just gonna trust you, and its all gonna be ok?"  The chief says — "Well, it's just my solution, it will work for me, I can’t say it would work for every officer."  And the young man, still smiling, says — "that wouldn’t work for you, not with me it wouldn’t."  And the conversation continues — no one drops out.  They talk about history and perception and trust… and after just under an hour, each table has a brief script they’ve created.  I call everyone together, and each table has two folks stand and read the script — in most cases, the youth reads the adult role, and the police officer reads the youth role.  These scripted encounters portray a range of hopefulness, seeming fantasy, considered strategies and communication styles.  The room responds after each one.  Lots of different people are offering perspectives. Lots of different people are sharing their experiences, but sticking with the scenarios as a touchstone for their point of view in any given moment.  The art they have made together, the possibilities they have imagined together, these are energizing a dialogue that, as we move towards closing, people speak to with emotion.

7:40pm

We finish with passing two microphones around and inviting people to finish the sentence:

Something I’ll remember from tonight is —

We hear a lot.

Mostly, we hear gratitude for the diversity in the room, respect for the vulnerability youth and police showed in the process, and a charge to commit to change and action.

People seem tired and hopeful.

Many people express their feeling that it was a good night.

For me, it was definitely a good night.

I got to learn and listen… it was a good night.

8pm

The evening wraps up, and, as we watch people linger and talk with new friends, the Art 180 team invites Pam and I back to their amazing space.  Over Cuban food, we debrief the day and talk about their plans for scaling the program up around Virginia, and hopefully beyond.  Like every deeply complex, iterative arts-based community partnership project, it can grow in effectiveness, in tactics.  But in its current form, it is inspiring and important and quite beautiful, from process through artistic output. And in today’s dialogues — the morning with police, the evening with the public— I would argue that process has become artistic output.  Theatre as community discourse, with other artistic mediums as key elements of the performance score.

 

I am so glad CPCP gets to work with this project team, learn with them and help spread the word. As I finish writing this on the plane home, CPCP’s Rebecca Martinez prepares to start a day in Nashville with our Learning Lab Cohort there, a partnership with Metro Arts and the Arts and Business Council.  I am thinking about that cohort of twenty five artists from around Nashville, and our opportunity to help them initiate and imagine projects in their region, alongside my last 24 hours, watching a multi-year project based in deep, collaborative partnership come to fruition. The hundreds of miles between these projects reminds me of the vast geography we share in our lower 48 as well as the networks we are building among like minded arts and community practitioners. It reminds me of the privilege we have at CPCP to meet and aid folks doing such meaningful work in so many places.