When Jia Ireland visits detained teens at the Genesee Valley Regional Center (GVRC) she doesn’t see a bunch of juvenile delinquents. She views them as children who’ve been stereotyped as “bad kids,” but who are actually from broken homes or dysfunctional families.
The teens often raised themselves or ran away to escape abuse or violence. Through the Arts in Detention program, Ireland volunteers to help them express themselves through visual art, music, dance, drama, poetry and spoken word.
“A lot of times, they are put in situations they have no control over,” says Ireland, a University of Michigan-Flint graduate student working on her masters degree in arts and social services. “If you are dealing with abuse at home, and no good alternative, you act out. You skip school, skip class, possibly do drugs and hang out with a bad crowd, because you lack love and support at home.”
Nevertheless, the teens shine through the artwork they produce. Their work, the “Arts in Detention: GVRC Share Art Exhibit,” will be displayed April 14 through May 6 at the Buckham Gallery, 134 ½ West 2nd St. in Flint. The exhibit’s opening reception runs from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. April 14.
Murals and other visual work have become creative and developmental outlets for youth participating in Arts in Detention.
Arts in Detention has served about 1,000 youth since it started in 2011.
“This is a great opportunity for them to have fun,” Ireland says. “They get to dance, listen to music, write poetry and actually have a conversation. It gives us a chance to get to know them, what they like to do, and their goals after they get out of here. We help them build coping skills to help improve relationships so they don’t have to worry about getting caught up again and end up back in the detention center.”
Shelley R. Spivack, a Genesee County Family Court referee, founded the program after being inspired by Randy, a 16-year-old who faced life imprisonment for murdering his best friend’s father. The young man found peace through his art.
“Every time I visited him he wanted to talk about the art projects he was working on,” she says. “That gave him a life line and hope.”
The teens in the GVRC art program are no different, she says.
“It’s a way they can establish bonds and assert their individuality, even though they are behind bars,” she says. “I see many similarities in those kids.”
Spivack says the art they produce is evocative, especially the girls’ poetry, because it expresses the horrendous experiences they have survived.
“It moves me tremendously and it makes me very emotional, reading about their prior abuse, abandonment by their parents, their feelings of disconnectedness.”
Spivack, who’s also a lecturer at the University of Michigan-Flint, says the work is a bright spot for her.
“As a person working in the judicial system, I often see the negative and the bad. I get all the bad reports on the kids,” she says. “This allows me to see the good. This allows me to see that these kids are not lost causes, that they have hope and resiliency. It allows me to see the amazing abilities that they have, both verbally and artistically. It gives me hope; hope is not a ready commodity.”
Spivack recalls a recent African dance session when six frowning girls walked in, slumped over and sullen, wearing frowns on their faces. But their spirits lightened, they smiled and seemed free when the music played. As the instructors danced along, it became a bonding experience.
“They need to know someone cares about them and takes an interest in them. That’s one of the most important parts of the program, the relationships that are built,” Spivack says. “We teach a skill, but we are all genuinely interested in these kids. They know we have their backs and that we are there for them. As a result, they say they never knew they had talent, and that increases their self-confidence, the ability to work with one another, and to work with adults.”
Those skills may help them remain free after their release, she adds. So in September she plans to launch Arts on Probation to let them continue art and personal development classes, to keep them connected and out of detention.
As for Ireland, the program has inspired her to work with non-profits or potentially delve into politics to advocate for women, girls, and marginalized and disenfranchised families.
“On a societal level,” she says, “we need to work better as a community to make sure that people have the love, support and resources they need to thrive.”
Dance, poetry, music and visual art keep youth engaged as part of Arts in Detention, which hosts an exhibit through May 6. Photo by Zackary Canepari