Arts for Justice

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Arts for Justice by Kayla Kemp

Our world is the canvas and we are the architects, the thinkers, the movers, the inventors, the painters, and the artists. Our children, while being the most vulnerable, are also our inspiration. They are the reason for a better tomorrow. How do we create that image? How do we create such a masterpiece where children are able to explore, adapt, change, experience, and grow safely, particularly when many of our young people are placed in unsafe situations. Each day, more than 43,000 young people who disproportionately identify as people of color and are predominantly male, are held in residential placement facilities as a result of involvement with the juvenile justice system.1 Intentionally incorporating art practices in youth educational practices, can and will decrease this number.

Based on data collected from a national survey2 more than 70 percent of youth who are detained desire to continue their education, and half want to pursue post-secondary education. Despite these aspirations, youth involved in the justice system often encounter a litany of obstacles before entering, including educational barriers: nearly one-third are diagnosed with a learning disability, nearly half demonstrate academic proficiency below their grade level and close to a quarter are not enrolled in school. Implementing arts education at an early age can have positive long-term effects by supporting development from early childhood into adulthood. The arts give youth opportunities to build self-efficacy and achieve personal goals by helping them to develop ownership of their learning, determine individual criteria for success, and track personal progress. Research shows that these effects strongly benefit youth who have limited access to opportunities, a marginalized standard of living, and those who encounter personal/social issues as a result of trauma.3 The same research and report suggest that arts participation reduces the likelihood of youth encountering the justice system and supports civic outcomes, including political engagement and volunteering, subsequently contributing to human capital.

Intervene Before The Problem

We hear the stories all the time. The young boy or girl who grew up with little to nothing, but fell in love with dance or poetry. Many people describe dance as their outlet, their escape, how they expressed themselves, and ultimately how they began to create a path to success. We all know that when art is involved, “the possibilities become limitless.” The question now becomes what next steps should we take to incorporate artistic programming into educational systems, spaces, and policies. The arts can help young people navigate through elementary, middle, and high schools in three different ways:

• Arts as Curriculum;
• Arts-Enhanced Curriculum; and • Arts-Integrated Curriculum.

If a student is engaged in classes such as musical theatre, dance, voice, music, or drama, their school is most likely using arts as a curriculum. Students are developing skills and knowledge in a particular art form/subject area. This broadens students' career/opportunity and perspective as well as allows students to explore other modes of communication. Data analysis conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) suggests that arts-based practices aid in justice prevention and intervention.4 The same study found, that among youth, from socially and economically disadvantaged communities, those engaged in high levels of arts showed more positive outcomes on indicators such as school grades, test scores, and high-school graduation rates, compared with youths with low levels of arts engagement. Overall, developing a child's ability to learn, comprehend, and apply skills they learn in the classroom to real life.

An arts-enhanced curriculum is when educators use art fundamentals to engage and better a student's learning experience. For example, we all learned some form of an ABC song, that even after 30 years we will not forget the tune, melody, and most importantly the alphabet. This form of learning is a great way to make students feel excited about coming to school. It allows students who may have a learning disability to have the opportunity to digest information in a new and fun way.

The last way to incorporate art into educational spaces is through arts-integrated curriculums. Arts integrated curriculums are seen where students learn to accomplish multiple learning objectives for a specific subject area through the arts. For example, students may be learning about the moon. To help students visually learn the different phases of the moon, the teacher can bring in a visual artist to lead a paint class in painting the moon. By doing this, students are developing a better understanding of the material as well as enhance their artistic capabilities.

What's Happening Now

Currently, in the U.S., the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) includes arts and music in the definition of a well-rounded education and is responsible for5 the funding of arts programming in public schools. However, within detention centers, there’s a disconnect in overall education for youth. Like in public schools, increased federal investment in the arts as part of juvenile justice prevention and intervention programs will:

●  Support state and local efforts to invest in public-private partnerships between community-based arts organizations, law enforcement, and probation and parole offices.

●  Establish national benchmarks and metrics for the evaluation of local and state juvenile justice systems utilizing the arts.

●  Build an evidentiary base of promising and effective art-based and art therapy practices and model programs.

What’s Next ?

For the Fiscal Year 2022, Congress has given direct instruction to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) to “establish an Arts in Juvenile Justice demonstration program to provide competitive grants to partnerships between arts organizations and juvenile justice systems, programs, and nonprofit organizations, to pilot promising and effective art-based and art therapy models for youth-at-risk of, or engaged with the juvenile justice systems.” Government officials urge OJJDP to build relations and request funding through the National Endowment of the Arts and arts stakeholders who currently fund over $33 million in Arts Projects and agendas nationwide, including but not limited to youth programming.

Substantial amounts of research and practice have proven arts-based programming to be beneficial in rehabilitation, art therapy, and changing the trajectory of a young person's life.6 We as an organization are currently working to prioritize the needs of arts-based practices in youth detention facilities. Here are a few ways you can help support this initiative:

-  Go to the source by contacting your local representative and inquiring about increased funding/implementation of artistic programming in youth detention centers.

-  Intervene before the problem by enrolling your child in local community artistic programming such as the Boys and Girls Club or Free Arts NYC.

-  Show your care and commitment to a better tomorrow by volunteering at your local arts organizations.

-  Support local initiatives by making a donation to small local organizations that use the arts to amplify young people's voices.

Moving forward it is imperative that we encourage government officials to fund arts programming in educational and youth spaces. Art spaces give communities identity, power, and purpose. Artistic classes and workshops, build communities and encourage individuality. Through the expression that art permits, youth are able to learn about themselves and the world around them, build social skills, and learn their strengths and weaknesses. Engaging in arts across juvenile justice systems promotes healing, rehabilitation/redemption, and increased awareness of other possibilities. Together we can create a masterpiece for our children to explore. So I ask again, how do we create such a masterpiece where children are able to explore, adapt, change, experience, and grow safely? The first step is through funding for the arts both as a preventative and a restorative outlet that is available for all young people.



1 Sawyer Wendy. “Youth Confinement: The Whole Pie 2019.” Prison Policy Initiative. 2019 Available at: Youth Confinement: The Whole Pie 2019 | Prison Policy Initiative Last accessed on June 16, 2022.
2 Bruce Carol. Andrea J Sedlak. “Survey of Youth in Residential Placement: Youth Characteristics and Background.” U.S. Department of Justice. 2017. Available at: Survey of Youth in Residential Placement: Youth Characteristics and Backgrounds ( Last accessed on June 16, 2022.

3 Whole brain learning: “The fine arts with students at risk.” ArtsEdSearch. 2006. Available at: Whole-brain learning: The fine arts with students at risk | ArtsEdSearch Last accessed on June 16, 2022.

4 “Arts-Based Programs and Arts Therapies for At-Risk, Justice-Involved, and Traumatized Youths.” Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Program. Last Updated 20216. Available at: Arts-Based Programs and Arts Therapies for At-Risk, Justice-Involved, and Traumatized Youths Literature Review ( Last accessed June 16, 2022.

5 “National Endowment for the Arts Announces Over $33 Million in Project Funding to Arts Organizations Nationwide.” National Endowment for the Arts. 2022. Available at: National Endowment for the Arts Announces Over $33 Million in Project Funding to Arts Organizations Nationwide | National Endowment for the Arts Last accessed June 16, 2022.

6 “Arts-Based Programs and Arts Therapies for At-Risk, Justice-Involved, and Traumatized Youths.” Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Program. Last Updated 20216. Available at: Arts-Based Programs and Arts Therapies for At-Risk, Justice-Involved, and Traumatized Youths Literature Review ( Last accessed June 16, 2022.