Acting Out in Detention: Using the Arts to Connect Young People

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March 18, 2015; Daily Herald (Provo, UT)

What can be more powerful than the expression of true feeling and life experience in a public setting? This is exactly the mission of the @ct Risk No More theater group in Utah, which creates and performs original works written by children in juvenile detention centers.

Recently, @ct Risk No More performed a production titled “Behind These Walls,” which focuses on the stories of juveniles from the Slate Canyon Youth Center in Provo, Utah, and Salt Lake Valley Detention Center. The performance covers a range of topics including teen pregnancy, abandonment, and violence issues. Once the theater group becomes more established, it will expand to have performances in rehabilitation centers, group homes, and high schools to continue to spread the messages from youth peers on the trials and tribulations of life.

This theater group serves as a resource, outlet, and community service project connecting juveniles inside and outside of detention centers, uniting a typically segregated community.

“I really believe if you’re a rebel, you’re an artist,” said Heidi Mendez Harrison, the nonprofit’s founder and show’s director. “All of these kids [in detention centers] have artistic potential. I started the theater company so when they get out of the system, rehab or foster care they have an artistic place to go.”

Using art for therapeutic or social service reasons is just one of the many impacts of arts and culture on our communities. Over the years, it has been observed that arts and culture not only make us “feel good,” but serve as economic drivers, as educational platforms, and as support systems for social issues. They impact the way regions are developed and shaped through place-making initiatives. A great example of the social impact of art and culture is the way in which the medical profession uses the arts for patients in a myriad of healthcare stages for periods of development, advancement, and transition.

More specifically, the arts have been used in other social programs like detention centers and other community-based institutions. For example, the Americans for the Arts YouthARTS program identified that statistical data was needed at a time when only youth art program “success stories” existed to prove its profound impact. The program’s mission is to continually tell the story (through anecdotal and hard-data) of the impact of arts programming on at-risk youth. Through several years of research, YouthArts found that arts programs can have a real impact on youth. Not only can such programs enhance young peoples’ attitudes about themselves and their futures, but the programs also can increase academic achievement and decrease delinquent behavior. (A follow-up evaluation is being conducted to determine if the programs have a lasting impact on youth participants.)

@ct Risk No More is just one example of how the arts sector in the United States crosses over into the social-community sector for a greater cause. Overall, arts and culture have a profound impact on our values. Not only can the arts be experienced and enjoyed for leisure, but they continue to be tools and resources to make major societal advances in our communities.—Jennifer Swan