There is no doubt we are in uncharted territory. By now, you have likely received many responses about COVID-19 from your favorite organizations and campaigns.
As a cultural organizing project working with arts and youth organizing partners across the country to end youth incarceration we felt obligated to add our voice to the mix and let you know how we are responding.
Photo: Artwork created in the summer advocacy intensive, led by Mark Strandquist, 2017. Image used with permission from ART 180.
In partnership with the Youth First Initiative and their #FreeOurYouth campaign, we created free posters to share alongside your advocacy. Click the individual posters above to access a downloadable PDF to be used digitally or printed.
During this unprecedented public health crisis, the #FreeOurYouth campaign calls on governors to immediately release as many of the roughly 43,000 incarcerated children across the country as possible and to halt new admissions to protect young people from the continued spread of COVID-19.
More information found at www.freeouryouth.org.
Artwork from youth participants in the Performing Statistics direct service program, used with permission by ART 180. Quotes about the crisis gathered by Youth First Initiative from young people and families. Posters designed by Mark Strandquist and Kate DeCiccio.
Thoughts on our current situation
We support demands from across the country for each state to establish emergency guidelines that prioritize the health, safety and equity of people who are incarcerated, their families, and the staff that work in our country's youth and adult criminal justice systems. A list compiled below identifies the leading voices in this current climate.
In times of great stress such as this, where both our physical health and safety as well as our economic security is on thin ice, marginalized populations disproportionately bear the weight. This includes young people who are currently or previously were incarcerated, and their families. Crisis magnifies the real issues our young people and their families face.
We also recognize that while we must swiftly respond in real-time to the growing crisis at hand, this moment underscores the ongoing urgency to shift our resources away from prisons and into the hands of communities who are most impacted by our current justice system. Urgent action is needed at all levels of government to ensure the resources to address our basic needs--food, housing, social stability--are funneled into communities who are most vulnerable. This is true now, in the face of this unprecedented global urgency, and it is true once we are able to contain the coronavirus. When the magnifying glass goes away, the problems will still remain.
Our work at Performing Statistics is about using arts and culture to connect young people most impacted by the juvenile justice system to policymakers whose decisions greatly affect them. There’s a clear link between the issues that affect our young people to the issues related to our nation’s coronavirus response:
Social isolation and separation - In an instant, our society was forced to isolate itself from one another, and immediately we considered strategies to maintain a connection in spite of our restrictions in order to maintain our mental health. We agree, and we know that young people impacted by the justice system deal with this daily, during and after their incarceration. Social connection is a basic human need, a human right, not a privilege.
Access to resources and human rights - When asked what would keep them free, young people in our workshops talk about jobs, access to quality health care, a better education system, adequate places to spend their time after school, credible messenger mentors who look like them and share their same experiences, and a chance for the world to see them as kids. These are the issues we ignore when we invest in incarceration over community support. And now many more of us are impacted by the inadequate distribution of resources in response to the coronavirus. How can we learn these lessons and apply them to the mass incarceration crisis facing our nation everyday?
False narratives perpetuated by the media - We reject racism, xenophobia, ableism and other intersecting forms of injustice we see amplified during this crisis that are undercurrents of our society. Media, culture, and the way narrative is shaped in the public’s eye play a major role in the way young people view themselves and are viewed by others. Sensationalized media and content creators who pander to a narrow audience, are driven by profit, or are helping drive anxiety, resource-hoarding, and other toxic responses to this current crisis must be held accountable.
Impact on staffing and operations
There is a national obligation and an individual obligation to help stop the spread of coronavirus. We are making decisions that are in our control to the best of our ability, with the knowledge we have access to, and as quickly as possible while maintaining our organizational values surrounding transparency and equity.
In that spirit, we are taking the following steps to ensure the safety and well-being of our staff, of the young people we work with, and of our communities at-large, particularly communities who are impacted by incarceration.
We have staff who live in Oakland, Philadelphia, New York City, and Richmond. Luckily, for us, we are used to working remotely, but we are cancelling all travel plans for the foreseeable future until it is safe to do so.
We will continue to work remotely ensuring that there is as minimal an impact to our current strategic plan as possible.
All contractors whose projects will be put on hold will be notified immediately with a plan to continue the work as soon as a timeline is clear.
We are guided by state and federal guidelines and are in communication with partner organizations to adjust our plans as new guidelines and needs emerge.
Impact on programming
We are committed to staying present and responsive, by listening to the needs of our community and taking the appropriate steps to shift our strategy.
The following programs are impacted by the coronavirus response:
The premiere of #NoKidsinPrison, our national exhibition to end youth incarceration, is postponed. We are currently working with our local planning committee and site hosts to identify a new date, preferably in mid-August.
All scheduled pop-up exhibitions and programming in Houston, Kansas, New York City, and New Jersey are postponed. We are working with local organizers to identify a new timeline.
Our Youth Ambassador Squad (YAS) will continue through virtual means as our YAS members rely on the part-time pay to support their successful transition into adulthood.
We are actively in conversation with our local detention center to support the needs of youth who are currently incarcerated. Our spring and summer direct service programs are scheduled to begin mid-April and early June. Rather than cancel these programs, we will adapt our curricula to meet the current situation.
We are assessing the impact our current economic outlook may have on fundraising. If you are in a position to donate financially, we highly encourage you to continue supporting non-profits and initiatives you care about. Don't hold back! This is a time to give. And if you want to support our work, you can do so by clicking here.
A list of compiled resources, statements, and actions
We are continuously inspired by our friends and comrades in the fight to end mass incarceration. There are a number of policy and advocacy organizations who more eloquently frame the action steps needed to ensure that people who are incarcerated are safe and healthy and that our progress toward ending mass incarceration is not stalled.
We hope you’ll take the time to click their links below.
If you or someone you know is in need of support or relief, please check out this compiled list of efforts from across the country.
Advocacy for the adult criminal justice system
Fair and Justice Prosecution - joint statement from 30 prosecutors
Prison Policy Initiative - the public health case for criminal justice reform
The Justice Collaborative - comprehensive list of essential information, proposed policies, and other resources for activists, public officials, and journalists
EXiT: Executives Transforming Probation & Parole - joint statement by community supervision executives
We Got Us Now - children of incarcerated parents demand action to maintain the health and safety of their parents behind bars
Advocacy for the juvenile justice system
RISE for Youth - Virginia's leading youth justice advocacy; Read their a) policy demands, b) joint letter with eight Commonwealth's Attorneys calling for release, and c) FOIA request asking for the release of data on youth who have or have been impacted by Covid-19.
Youth First Initiative - advocacy materials to support the safety of youth in state custody
Closing Youth Prisons: Lessons from Agency Administrators - Urban Institute report on closing youth prisons
Youth Correctional Leaders for Justice - recommendations for youth justice systems from 30 current and former youth correctional administrators
Arts-related advocacy and resources
US Department of Arts and Culture - a creative roadmap for community care (also check out how you can contribute to the USDAC’s People’s State of the Union in partnership with the Poor People’s Campaign)
Studio Two Three - a list of resources for artists from our Richmond-based partners
Additional resources and advocacy
Race Forward - a statement on the coronavirus emergency’s impact on communities of color
Legal Aid Justice Center - Virginia-based advocacy on a variety of issues: Housing and Homelessness, Public Benefits, Health Care Institutions, Education and Youth, Taxes and Public Debts, Immigration, Jails/Prisons/Juvenile Detention, Sheriffs/Police Departments/Local Probation/Commonwealth’s Attorneys, Courts, and Migrant Workers
Why we remain optimistic about the future
Artists are resilient. We are adept at staying present in the moment, trusting our gut, and adapting as needed. We call on everyone--our partners, our supporters, our funders--let us keep our eyes on the prize. We recognize the stress this moment is causing all of us, but let us not damage our long-term goals in favor of this short-term crisis.
We are considering a series of online engagements that bring our work to the cyberspace--it may be a webinar about our methodology, an online teach-in about the use of art in the youth justice movement, a mass art activism project, or an Instagram live cypher. Let us know if you’d be interested in an online series, or send us your requests, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Whether it’s online or in person after we emerge from this moment, join us when you can. Because imagining a world where no youth are locked up must continue!