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A youth participant of the Performing Statistics program working on art on the last day of the summer program. (Photo by Mark Strandquist)
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The young men in Performing Statistics learn how to use art to express themselves to the world. (Photo by Mark Strandquist)
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Another Performing Statistics youth creating art. (Photo by Mark Strandquist)
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On the last day of their summer program, the Performing Statistics youth created protest chants with local musicians. (Photo by Mark Strandquist)
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(Photo by Mark Strandquist)
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The youth making silkscreened T-shirts with powerful messages. (Photo courtesy: Performing Statistics)
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(Photo courtesy: Performing Statistics)
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A self portrait by one of the young men. (Photo courtesy: Performing Statistics)
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Photo courtesy: Mark Strandquist
T. McClain is an exacting young man. He wears a pale yellow polo shirt buttoned to his Adam’s apple. In that habit he mirrors Marcus Tucker, who does the same with his gray polo shirt. In another context, they might be mistaken for son and father or maybe student and teacher. They are instead ward and supervisor. McClain is currently an occupant of the Richmond Juvenile Detention Center and Tucker is the center’s senior services coordinator, and, therefore, McClain’s gatekeeper to the outside world.
Earlier that morning, McClain and eight other teens, all occupants of the detention center, all determined to be seen as more than occupants of the detention center, climb into a white van with Tucker and head downtown to Art 180, where they are working on their upcoming exhibition.
Seven weeks in, the teens are not sure how they feel about telling their stories through art. First of all, they are pretty sure that no one really cares about their stories and, more to the point, that nothing they have to say will change minds or lives or anything else.
“I thought we were just going to do art,” McClain says. “It ain’t what I expected it to be, you feel me?”
But it’s grown on him, this idea that the equation by which he is judged -- young plus black plus male equals “up to no good” -- could be rewritten.
It’s on that flicker of hope that project director Mark Strandquist is building the Performing Statistics movement. It begins with a single question: “How would criminal justice reform differ if it were led by incarcerated teens?”
“It costs about $9,000, $10,000 a year to educate a young person in Richmond and about $150,000 a year to lock someone up in a state juvenile correctional facility,” Strandquist says. “How can we cut that pie differently and reinvest in youth rather than in the structures that don’t support them in any way and in many ways, set them up for failure?”
According the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, Virginia has the nation’s highest rates of school-based arrests and referrals to court. Those referrals, just like out-of-school suspensions and expulsions, are disproportionately high among African-American students.
Over the last couple years, Strandquist has pulled together a community of artists, designers, educators, public policy advocates and others, including 1708 Gallery, Art 180 and the Legal Aid Justice Center, to create Performing Statistics. The young men are part of its first summer program. The aim is to change public policies that funnel youth to jail.
“It’s impossible to talk about incarceration without talking about poverty without talking about schools without talking about trauma without talking about parenting and a million other things,” Strandquist says. “People are responsible for their choices, but there are also larger institutional issues that need to be critiqued and reformed.”
McClain and the other young men come out of an alternative-sentencing program that seeks to keep them out of the state juvenile justice system. “In four to six months, if they do what they are supposed to do, they go home,” Richmond Juvenile Detention Center superintendent Rodney Baskerville says.
This was the first time Art 180 worked directly with incarcerated youth and program director Taekia Glass says it also was a rare circumstance in which ”we were asking directly, ‘What issues are you facing? How can we help you with that?’ And yes, they are very skeptical that what we are trying to do is going to accomplish anything, so we were constantly trying to reinforce the belief that they can make an impact. Their words can make a difference.”
So, the young men write: “If you were me, you would know I hate it when people make excuses.” “If you were me, you would know that I’m scared of watching my people destroy themselves.” “If you were me, you would know that I want to be a computer artist.”
And M. Jefferson tells me: “Being in detention makes me want to go crazy. You can be thinking about your mom and you don’t know what’s going on with her and you can’t get to her. You can’t get out.”
And L. McDonald says: “I didn’t care about anything because I felt like nobody cared about me and I’m just starting to see the world doesn’t revolve around me and I gotta man up and do what’s right.”
“I just want people to know that I am a good person,” McClain says.
They record PSAs and have their portraits taken and silkscreen T-shirts printed with their words and designs. They write protest chants: “Stop arresting us. You should invest in us.”
They are building a cell, a cell like you’ve never seen, with wishes for walls and pleas for floors. Their exhibition will open at Art 180, 114 W. Marshall St., on Sept. 4. On Oct. 2, Performing Statistics will organize a march from the state capitol to Art 180.
On the last day of their summer program, the young men burned some of their words onto the 2x4s that will become the floor of the cell. McClain decides that printing will not do. “I am going to write in cursive, even though I don’t really know how.”
He writes first in pencil, bent over the board, intent and deliberate as a child. T-h-i-n-k. He steps back. Assesses. And then keeps writing.