Dismantling mass incarceration is the job of the artist. Or at least that’s what the Red Clay Dance Company envisioned when its leaders created “Making an Artivist,” a movement-based program taught in the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center. In this workshop, art is, by default, a tool of protest. And as an Envisioning Justice grantee, Red Clay helps students realize their agency to generate change using their imaginations.
“The programing that we do is coming from the wants and desires of the students. They’re telling us what they want and we’re working to deliver a program that would provide that using dance and movement,” says Red Clay founder Vershawn Sanders-Ward. “I don’t think we’re empowering the students to do anything. We’re guiding them to find their own power. And we remain a resource when they leave the detention center to support them however we can.”
After Red Clay performed at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center for National Women’s Month in 2013, Sanders-Ward realized many of the detained students wanted to continue the conversation brought up by the performance. They wanted more than just dance or dance classes; they wanted everything from conversations about their rights to access workshops about decision-making and identity.
From that experience she created “Making the Artivist”, a program where Red Clay teaching ‘artivists’ — artists who align their work and mission with activism — explore topics of identity and community in the context of the prison system through movement. In its first iteration the program lasted seven weeks and only scratched the surface of all the issues Sanders-Ward hoped to cover. After receiving a $10,000 Community Grant from Envisioning Justice, she was able to extend the program to 10 weeks and help students dive deeper into understanding where they fit as future artivists.
“The first thing we envision the students taking away is an understanding of their own power. And understanding how to leverage and use that power for personal and collective development,” says Sanders-Ward. “An artivist is someone that uses whatever tool that they have whether it be dance or music to fight against injustice. It’s an artist that has accepted that responsibility personally and wants to lead a group of people into collective responsibility.”
Each pod, or class, has between 6-12 students of similar gender and includes a series of exercises that use movement to discuss the theme of the day. For example, in one exercise the pod is asked to build a community. Each person is assigned both an artistic talent and a challenge often faced by communities, such as violence or poverty. Using their talents, the students have to come together to “solve” each challenge using their given talent.
These simple exercises break down the roles students typically face as inmates in the detention center. Here, they’re given agency to make mistakes and problem solve, whereas in their daily lives they are controlled by the power dynamics within the center. This is why pods sit in circles, and why guards are invited to participate in each exercise. These subtle actions promote equity in the space, placing guard, teaching artist and student on the same level.
We get to a point in our curriculum where we ask how can art be used to better the community,” says Red Clay teaching artist Chaniece Himes. “We’re really taking the mindset from one of tension and trauma and shifting it into a space of community and possibility. By the end, a lot of them have an ‘aha moment.’ It’s about broadening their thought and how they can use art and what they bring to the space to make a difference.”
Over the 10 weeks of the program, Himes and other teaching artists watch as their students embody the lessons taught. Himes sees it in how their body language relaxes over time and becomes more open to participating. They speak up more and lead conversations because, in this space, they internalize the idea that their words and actions matter.
“There is a level of ownership that comes almost immediately from the young people that participated,” says Sara Ziglar, a teaching artist and program manager at Red Clay. “One of the biggest things we hope this gives to them is a true sense of self-efficacy and the ability to have confidence in their own voice so it doesn’t feel like life is happening to them.”
Moving forward Sanders-Ward wants the students that participated in “Making the Artivist” to apply those lessons to their lives outside of the center. She hopes to extend the program to ages 18-24 and conduct workshops outside of the detention center as well so those who are released can continue their artivism.
In general however, each of the teaching artists want their students to embody the notion that their art and their identities are important. For Red Clay, the fight against mass incarceration is a collective one, and addressing it as such is something they hope these students will carry with them.
“Art is important because to make an observation is to have an obligation. Some people might not be comfortable with marching or protesting but maybe they can cook or they can draw, write, sing or dance,” says Himes. “All of these things will be just as impactful in certain spaces to get the message across. As my mother would say, ‘find your place in the fight.’ And I think everyone has a place in this fight.”
Photos by Raymond Jerome Photography