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Who are you?

“Who are you?
Please, tell me anything you would like to.”


This narrative is the story of an encounter. It is her narrative, it is mine, it is ours, it is the present. How could we represent it?

            “Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created.” (Morrison, 1993)

How do I connect with someone at a first encounter? What is the meaning of our experiences? How could the narrative be voiced without being manipulated by the producer?

  “Perceiving something from two different angles creates a split in awareness” (Anzaldua, 2003, p.549).

The process of making this video was the whole purpose. The final production simply engages the audience to listen, listen, and listen again.

What narrative(s) are you hearing? Are you certain? At which moment, do you connect with the voice? What does listening means? What does understanding means? How do multimodal artistic pieces impact your life? How do you build from it?

If a space for possibilities is created, youth will take the opportunity.

“We have the power because we are together in speech and action, and because possibility spreads before us, and because there are boundaries to break through.” (Maxine Greene, 1982, p.9)

Now, plug your headphone, click on the link, and listen.


Anzaldua, G.A. (2003). now let us shift. This bridge we call home.  (p. 540-579).
Greene, M. (1982). Public Education and the Public space. In Educational Researcher.
Morisson, T. (1993). The Nobel Prize in Literature 1993. Retrieved from: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1993/morrison-lecture.html

YMEJ Exhibition: Inquiry into Educational Justice (May 12th – June 2nd)

If you’re in NYC, come and visit our exhibition, “Inquiry into Educational Justice,” featuring multimodal publications produced by this year’s cohort of YMEJ Seminar graduate students. In these publications, the YMEJ students explore a variety of issues and topics related to educational justice and draw on a variety of media and multimodal resources to bring their yearlong inquiries to life for a broader audience.

The exhibition is part of YMEJ’s commitment to public pedagogy and was made possible by the material and technical resources and support of EdLab at Teachers College, who helped us bring our aesthetic visions into reality.


Where: M. W. Offit Family Gallery, 3rd Floor, Teachers College (525 W. 120th St., 10027)
When: Monday, May 12th through Monday, June 2nd

Learn more about the exhibition here; and please let us know what you think if you do visit.

Note: We are also sponsoring a clothing drive as another element of public pedagogy and social action in conjunction with this exhibit. Click to learn more.

(photos from our opening reception soon to come!)

From Wait Time to Creative Time

In September 2013, the New York Probation Office published “Free Verse,” the first issue of a poetry journal that emerged from the thoughts of those waiting in the probation office at the Bronx Neighborhood Opportunity Network (NeON), a collaborative of community organizations, government agencies, local businesses, and community residents focused on connecting probation clients who live in the neighborhood with opportunities, resources and services.

As described in its opening pages,

Free Verse is a journal of poetry, prose, and song that promotes turning waiting time into creative time. Headquartered in the heart of the waiting room of the new South Bronx NeOn – where probation clients check-in with their probation officers – FreeVerse solicits new writing created while people wait.

As described in Gwen McClure’s article on the Juvenile Justice Exchange, “Free Verse” was the brainchild of Loni Tanner, Chief Change Officer for the NYC Department of Design and Construction and Executive Director of See ChangeNYC, as well as Dave Johnson, the Poet-in-Residence at South Bronx NeOn. Tanner informally named the program, in its existence since April 2013, “Not School”—an acknowledgment that learning for young people does not need to only be confined within classroom walls. Instead, learning opportunities exist in the most unexpected places.  For Johnson, the program was a movement with a larger purpose than literacy and learning. As he explains,

This is a lot more than poetry; this is an opportunity to be welcomed back into society.

Thankfully, this innovative program has continued, recently releasing its Winter 2014 edition . Below are a few of my favorites from the collection:

I believe

in justice for all,

though no one opens a door.

in opportunity,

though the best ones don’t reach me.

in freedom, in equality,

but mostly I believe

in me.



The Good Fight

One day I will not have to fight you,

the partner I was given in this lottery of life

that looked so promising until the drawing

as each number was pulled, it was clear, it was not a winner,

just another one to go with the other ones

in a pile of must forget yesterdays.

One day I will not have to fight the voices in my head

of people’s words placed wrongly in my spirit,

the words that should have rolled off my back,

but somehow, were deposited in my future.

One day I will not have to fight the urge to write about the sorrows

that have been my tomorrows, before tomorrow has even gotten here.

One day I will fight the good fight of keeping

the roaring laughter from my belly, fighting to make it out like a raging lion.

One day I will fight to open the cocoon, to let the butterflies I protected, go free.

You’ll never know the pressure I endured, to be cut, into the diamond you see.




I’m a life.

I’m not just passing by.


Our top 10 posts of 2013

We started blogging late this summer and over the course of the past several months, the YMEJ Project Team has been joined by some members of the current cohort of YMEJ graduate students in contributing to this blog. They are:

  • Emily Bailin
  • Nicole Blandford
  • Emeline Brylinski
  • Katie Newhouse
  • Laura Vernikoff
  • Kelly Gavin Zuckerman

Click on their avatars (to the right, over there…) to read additional posts by them and stay tuned for more from us in 2014.

Collectively, we are educators, researchers, community members, adults in the lives of youth, and committed to the wellbeing of young people across multiple institutions; what has brought us together through the YMEJ Seminar, in particular, is our shared interest in better understanding the various contours and nuances of the lives, institutional navigations, challenges, possibilities, educational trajectories, dreams, and desires of young people involved with the foster care and/or juvenile justice system.

Below is a list of posts that seemed to catch your attention over the past several months. Check them out, pass them on, and feel free to suggest additional topics and resources for us to learn and blog about.

  • Engaging Youth as Active Participants In/For Social Change: a teaser for YMEJ Member Tara Conley’s presentation for the Racial Literacy Roundtable Series at Teachers College, Columbia University on the creative and socially engaged approach to participatory design in justice-focused work with youth.
  • Youth speaking about Stop and Frisk — Views from the reluctant experts: 2013 saw significant attention being given to the NYPD’s policy of “stop and frisk,” intended as a public safety measure but having serious consequences for the mostly Black and Latino male inhabitants of NYC who were disproportionately the focus of this practice. In a related post, Emeline depicts similar challenges that are ongoing in her native France surrounding racial profiling.
  • The treatment of children is the focus of this next post, titled Pondering Child Homelessness in the Wake of Dasani, that builds from Andrea Elliot’s widely read 5-part series in the New York Times last month and presents a series of additional resources and connections. We — meaning the YMEJ team — are continuing to ponder this narrative and all the author was able to reveal about child welfare, city policies, and the persistent challenges of poverty through her in-depth profile of this young, 11-year-old girl. We hope to have more to say in the coming weeks and months.
  • Another view of our nation’s treatment of children was profiled in the post focusing on child hunger: “Hunger hurts everyone” – A Place at the Table. We include information about the recent cuts to SNAP, links to a PBS special about child hunger and a related documentary, and highlight a university-community partnership headed by Mariana Chilton in an effort to interrupt the effects of poverty and hunger while also aiming to provide research that may catalyze changes to the policies that govern funding decisions at the local, state, and federal levels.
  • In addition to Dasani, our imaginations were captured by two young men who were in the news: Avonte Oquendo and Davion Navar Henry Only. In their respective posts, Katie and Nicole raise important questions about how we see and understand the stories of youth enmeshed into large, impersonal bureaucratic systems, and about the ways in which their lives are represented and mediated. Of Avonte, we continued to hear that he was an autistic child who had gone missing and about Davion, we continued to read about the public plea he made in search of a family. Check out both of these posts to learn more about the young men and the institutional structures their situations call into question:
  • We were grateful for a collaboration that sprung out of a twitter connection with @PrisonCulture, who, back in August, tweeted a series of youth-led change-making efforts going on nationwide. We compiled these resources into a handy list, and received additional recommendations via the blog and twitter that were also added: Youth Making Change Across the Country. This is just a drop in the bucket, and in 2014 we plan to profile several more organizations and groups who are working tirelessly to “be the change [they] wish to see in the world.”
  • In addition to the above list of youth-led efforts, we also learned of institutional and community-based efforts to strengthen the lives of youth across settings, in the form of mentoring, higher education, and arts-infused activism. Learn more about these efforts in these posts:
  • Finally, our attention was captivated by a book released earlier this year by author Cris Beam, who details the experiences of children and families ensnared in the child welfare and foster care system in her book “To the End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care.” Reading her book took our own inquiries about care, family, home, and institutions to a variety of places and resources, which we have gathered in our post: Neverending “June” — Or: The burden of care

There you have it — our top 10 (ok, if you were really counting, I snuck in a few more than 10…) posts from 2013. Thanks for being a great audience and we look forward to sharing more thoughts and dialogue with you in the year to come.

Wishing you a healthy, safe, and inspired 2014!

The YMEJ Team.

Juvenile in Justice Project

Juvenile in Justice is an image-based project aiming to document the placement and treatment of American Juveniles housed by law in facilities that treat, confine, punish, assist and, occasionally, harm them. Richard Ross, a California-based photographer, began the project five years ago and it has been traveling as an art exhibit around the world for the last year.

From the website:

Juvenile in Justice includes images of over 1,000 juveniles and administrators over 200 facilities in 31 states in the U.S, plus extensive information collected from interviews. The hope is that by seeing these images, people will have a better understanding of the conditions that exist. Children’s identities are always protected and faces are never shown.

Juvenile In Justice is a unique source for images of the American juvenile justice system, which are made available to all institutions and non-profits aimed at youth justice system reform– including the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Campaign for Youth Justice, Equal Justice Initiative, Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.

It was difficult to find any information about how Ross gained access into so many facilities and was able to interview so many young people. The only limited explanation of the process that I could find was in a press release for the Ronald Feldman gallery in New York City (one of the hosts for the traveling exhibit). It reads:

Ross gains access to the spaces of incarceration, and those working and living within them, through a complicated process of obtaining permission from all levels of administration, permission that is often at the discretion of individuals working in the system. [He says,] ‘I wanted to give a voice to those with the least amount of authority in any U.S. confinement system.’

It is interesting to consider the relationships among “youth,” “media” and “educational justice” as they intersect and emerge within the Juvenile in Justice project. Ross uses familiar art forms (photographs, video, audio recordings) to tell the stories of young people in the juvenile justice system. His work provides an incredible rarely accessible insight into what detention centers and incarcerated youth look like. While the quality of the footage both still and moving is quite beautiful, the images are chilling yet moving. At the same time, however, it is necessary to offer questions about space, audience, and power as they relate to this project.

By “space” I’m referring to the art galleries around the world that have hosted the traveling exhibition, displaying the project’s artifacts. I wonder about what we tend to associate with an “art gallery,” what assumptions we might make about who has access to these spaces? What kind of conversations are had in these spaces? Are the stark white walls and rather sterilized curation of the photographs meant to ironically mimic the environment of a detention center?

Closely tied to space, I think about how notions of “audience” relate to this project. Who is the target audience of this work? Who are the stakeholders? And which audiences have access to the spaces in which this work is shared?

And finally, “power.” It is always crucial to consider the inherent power dynamics that [tend to] exist between adults and young people, especially when the young people are already involved in a system that has rendered them completely powerless (in this case the juvenile justice system, specifically juvenile detention centers). Ross has documented and exposed this aspect of the juvenile justice system in an incredibly raw and unique way, and it is possible that drawing attention to this topic may result in a greater sense of accountability on the part of the justice system. Yet, we must also think about how Ross’ presence in the detention centers — his photographing, interviewing, etc. — may have been received not only by staff but by the young people. Where do we draw the line between voyeurism and educational justice?

I pose these questions not necessarily to elicit answers, but rather in attempts to encourage us all to remember, like John Dewey (1980), that “a work of art is not the object itself–the physical painting, sculpture or photograph…but what the work does ‘in and with human experience'” (cited by Hubard, 2013). Our lived experiences, the contexts within and lenses through which people may see and interact with these pieces are different and that is an important reality to keep in mind.

Paint Me Like I Am

Paint Me Like I Am

By Shirkey Warthen


Why don’t you paint me

Like I am?

Paint me light brown caramel

Five foot ten

Paint me with a different brush.

Paint me zooming, going fast

‘Cause I’m in a rush

And my ashy knuckles

Are all worn out

Paint me everlasting.

Paint me the real deal,

Not drawn out.

Paint me in my real authentic self

Somewhere in southwest

Somewhere on 54th Street

With all the fellas, all the chicks

Chillin’ & partying in the streets

Where we need 2 decrease

The violence and increase the peace.

Paint me without my shout out ways.

That were supposed to be left behind

In my shout out days.

Paint me so my Mom notices me

And the haters don’t.

Paint me with nice colors,

But most of all

Paint me Black

Because I love being colored.

If you drive by 5550 Chester Avenue in Southwest Philadelphia, you will see a newly installed mural—a mosaic of colors that frame a black figure. On September 17, 2013, the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program held a dedication for “Paint Me Like I Am,” its most recent mural dedicated to Shirkey Warthen, a passionate and dedicated Youth Advocate at the Juvenile Law Center who was shot and killed on April 17, 2012.

Shirkey joined the Juveniles for Justice Program after spending two years in placement at a youth criminal facility when he was 14. According to the Juvenile Law Center’s executive director Robert Schwartz, “Shirkey saw his juvenile justice system involvement as an opportunity to change not only his life, but the lives of other young people who faced similar circumstances.”

During his time at Juveniles for Justice, Shirkey worked with his peers to create a legislative campaign to ensure staff in detention facilities were not harming youth. He travelled to Washington, D.C to meet with Congressional staffers on Capitol Hill to advocate for this important cause, urging them to pass the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act that was then up for reauthorization. Back at the Justice Law Center, Shirkey recruited new Juveniles for Justice members, led community meetings, and advocated for change to members of the Philadelphia School Board, city government, Philadelphia Police, and Department of Human Services. According to Juvenile Law Center’s Staff Attorney Riya Shah, “He (Shirkey) knew he was speaking on behalf of the thousands of youth in the juvenile justice system and he made sure that his voice was heard.”

Shirkey was a role model for his fellow youth advocates and for those in his community. As Shah explains, “He watched as many people in his life were pulled back into the juvenile or criminal justice system. But he was determined to stay on track and complete his goals.” Prior to his tragic passing, Shirkey had recently completed his GED, gotten engaged to his longtime girlfriend, and found a job at the Logan steel plant. “With each advancement he made, he was always reaching back to pull the next person forward,” offers Shah.

Shirkey’s tragic passing left behind his mother, daughter, fiancée, nine brothers and sisters, and 14 nephews and nieces. Reflecting on his legacy at Shirkey’s memorial service in 2012, Shah poignantly explained,

“His resilience and passion for making a difference influenced not only his peers but also me and the rest of our staff.  In our work, we constantly see young people who are defeated by broken systems. But Shirkey wasn’t defeated. He was inspired by the broken system – inspired to make it better. He didn’t just want to change his own life; he wanted to change the lives of others. He didn’t just want to better himself; he wanted to better his community.”

Perhaps Shirkey’s greatest legacy is captured in the third stanza of his poem “Paint Me Like I Am,” now immortalized in the mural watching over his old neighborhood, “Paint me in my real authentic self/Somewhere in the southwest/Somewhere on 54th Street/With all the fellas, all the chicks/Chillin’ & partying in the streets/Where we need 2 decrease/The violence and increase the peace.”

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