New York City’s probation department and Carnegie Hall are touting a new report describing their arts initiative for youth as a “highly transformative,” model program. Over 2,300 young people from underserved city neighborhoods, about half of them on probation, have participated in filmmaking, painting, magazine production, and spoken word, music, or dance performance projects through the program, called NeON Arts, which launched in 2013.
“This is about helping people find a potential passion, find expression of self through something new,” said Ana Bermúdez, commissioner of the city’s Department of Probation, which is one of the largest in the nation. “We know from these findings that it’s got all the elements highlighted in criminal justice research as essential for helping someone to desist from crime.”
Through NeON Arts, youth in their late teens through early 20s have been working on three- or four-month projects with nonprofits in each borough, either out of probation offices or other community spaces. Stakeholder groups comprised mostly of probation officers, as well as local parents or business owners, review project applications from nonprofits and professional artists, then help oversee — and often participate — in their work with youth.
The program had an annual budget around $550,000 this year. More than $3.2 million has been invested to date, including $1.9 million in grants for dozens of local artists and arts organizations and their projects, according to Carnegie Hall, which manages the program, and the Department of Probation, which provided around half of the program’s staffing or budget needs overall. A spokesperson for probation said via e-mail that NeON Arts “is inherently scalable to whatever level of funding is available.”
The consulting companies Westat and Metis Associates have spent nearly two years conducting visits, surveys and in-person interviews on NeON Arts programs to evaluate the program’s efficacy. The researchers reported last week “positive effects on participants’ engagement levels, the strength of their relationships, and their development as individuals.” The study also highlighted recent support for arts interventions in general: A 2016 Department of Justice review of studies on outcomes for justice-involved youth found that similar programs help them “find alternative ways of processing difficult feelings and impulses” (while also noting much of this research is marred by weak study designs).
Above: A NeON Arts animation project, via The Animation Project, Inc.
“The art is important, but what’s really important is the consistency,” says Electra Weston, Founder and Executive Director of the International Child Program, Inc, which offers NeON Arts-funded music and dance production programming in the Bronx. “To be in a safe place, where you’re protected and doing positive things and getting a meal in a warm environment — That alone is an empowering part of the NeON Arts program, even for [youth participants] who don’t want to become professional artists.”
Westat and Metis highlighted that attendance has been an issue for many of the NeON Arts programs. Youth only attended 31 percent of all the sessions offered overall, and only three of the dozens of projects reported attendance over 50 percent. The two programs with the highest attendance were Cobra Marching Band, which offers drumming and dancing lessons, and Free Verse in the South Bronx, which recruits youth from Department of Probation waiting rooms for writing workshops, open mics and magazine-making projects.
Nevertheless, those who participated reported significant increases in self-confidence. The study also found that probation officers’ “active involvement was highly supportive of the program’s goals of…reducing stigma surrounding justice-involved youth.”
“[The Westat and Metis evaluation] supports what we already know—that young people thrive when given the opportunity to be creative, explore their talents, and develop skill sets that can help them find jobs that lead to careers and contribute to their neighborhoods,” said Clive Gillinson, Carnegie Hall’s Executive and Artistic Director, in remarks on the steps of City Hall last Tuesday with a gathering of city council members and the Bronx Renaissance Youth Center’s choir.
Above: The Bronx’s Renaissance Youth Center’s choir performs at City Hall in Manhattan on Tuesday during a press conference celebrating the release of a NeON Arts program evaluation. Credit: Chronicle of Social Change
The program is part of the Department of Probation’s decade-long effort to reorient itself towards more robust, interconnected services for people who have been offered probation instead of incarceration. Starting in 2011, the department’s so-called Neighborhood Opportunity Network (NeON) strategy convened community organizations, local businesses, and residents around five new offices in neighborhoods with a high number of people involved in the justice system. The offices were relatively colorful and welcoming, aesthetically speaking, and staff began to refer to those on probation as “clients” instead of “offenders.” It marked a big departure for a system that had mostly lived in staid, central courthouses requiring long commutes for many on probation.
Designed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s former probation commissioner Vincent Schiraldi, the NeON strategy has been widely acclaimed, with other big-city departments from around the country now seeking to replicate it.
NeOn Arts, which is characteristic of the Network approach, is funded by the Young Men’s Initiative, Mayor Bill De Blasio’s Mayor’s Fund for the Advancement of New York City, and private philanthropies like the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. City Council Members Vanessa Gibson and Alicka Ampry-Samuel also both supported NeON Arts in 2019 with small grants.