Bring That Beat Back: The Power of Arts to Heal Youth in the Justice System

Within the freshly painted walls of Los Angeles County’s newest juvenile detention camp, Khalil Cummings is re-kindling a conversation that stretches back more than a millennium.

Cradling a djembe drum, Cummings’ adept hands tease out the insistent beats of the soli rhythm, one of several hundred unique rhythms used to mark all kinds of life events from the Malinke tradition of West Africa.

Khalil Cummings of Rhythm Arts Alliance leads a drumming class. Photo credit: Maira Rios

The low, undulating drum beats that traditionally marked initiation ceremonies for young men in West Africa finds a new currency among the adolescents and teens incarcerated at Campus Kilpatrick, L.A. County’s shiny new $52 million juvenile detention center set amongst craggy sandstone peaks in the Santa Monica Mountains.

Today, Cummings leads a circle of drummers that include a handful of young men who are incarcerated for offenses like stealing a car, petty theft, substance abuse and delinquency.

“I want them to know who they are, to find their identity,” Cummings said. “Music is a healing weapon.”

Cummings is a teaching artist with the Rhythm Arts Alliance, a group that works with incarcerated youth in camps overseen by the Los Angeles County Probation Department.

Last week, Cummings’ group and other arts organizations that make up the Arts for Incarcerated Youth Network visited Kilpatrick’s young wards along with youth justice advocates from across the country. The goal of the unlikely summit: explore how the arts can be harnessed to transform the youth justice system.

The day at Campus Kilpatrick is part of Create Justice, a year-long, bi-coastal initiative to integrate the arts into juvenile justice reform and programming.

Formed as a result of a collaboration between the L.A.-based Arts for Incarcerated Youth Network and Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute (WMI) in New York City, the Create Justice initiative gathered about 120 advocates, artists and representatives of youth-serving agencies last week in Los Angeles to think about the role of arts in juvenile justice system.

photo credit: Jeremy Loudenback

One day was held at Kilpatrick, alongside the youth locked up there. The two-day forum also included a pop-up art event held the Pasadena-based Armory Center for the Arts and lots of discussions about justice reform at the intersection of the arts and policy. Ideas spanned programming ideas to the ways the arts can help youth re-enter society after incarceration.

Create Justice kicked off with a gathering of advocates at Carnegie Hall earlier this year, and the group will gather again in New York next March to decide how to best support youth-driven creative practices in the justice system.

The nearly two-year-old arts network in L.A. offers one example of how arts can be deployed to engage and support youth. The network—which includes local arts organizations like The Actors Gang Youth Project, Armory Center for the Arts, ArtWorxLA, Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles, Jail Guitar Doors, Rhythm Arts Alliance, Street Poets Inc., Unusual Suspects Theatre Company and Write Girl/Bold Ink Writers—just received $1 million to fund its partners’ work with Probation-supervised youth at the county’s juvenile detention centers, including Campus Kilpatrick.

Thanks to the new grant from L.A. County and the Probation Department, the umbrella group of arts organizations will take their expertise in working with incarcerated young people to the county’s three juvenile halls and 12 juvenile camps.

That investment is an important opportunity to rethink how arts could function within the justice system, according to Kaile Shilling, executive director of the Arts for Incarcerated Youth Network.

“What’s exciting in L.A. and with Carnegie Hall is that we’re seeing public safety dollars allocated to art,” Shilling said. “Arts can be embedded as a partner to these systems and that means the system can see this as part of the work they do to rehabilitate young people.”

The Get Lit poets perform at the Armory as part of the Create Justice forum. Photo credit: Maira Rios

Working with youth who come in contact with the justice system can have lots of benefits, such as helping them heal with significant trauma. But perhaps even more is the opportunity for them to share a perspective that is often missing in debates about the juvenile justice system.

“[Art] helps to articulate the priorities of young people and the way they see the world in a way that is accessible to others,” Shilling said.

Through the Create Justice forum, Shilling and WMI Director Sarah Johnson are hoping to find ways to create more successful partnerships with probation agencies like the arts network in L.A. County and the WMI’s work with the New York City Department of Probation NeON Arts initiative, which fund funds local arts projects in seven parts of the city.

J.T. Taylor has seen the difference that arts can make in the lives of youth who have experienced incarceration.

A teaching artist with Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program, Taylor shows youth locked up at the city’s juvenile hall the possibilities of self expression through painting.

Once students are discharged from the system, Taylor links them to opportunities like assisting with mural projects. But even if all youth are not artists, the program provides them with resume help and job opportunities at companies like Foot Locker, Shop Rite and Walmart.

“The whole goal is once they return back into society,” Taylor said. “You have to immediately engage them so that they won’t fall into the same position that got them into trouble into the first place. That’s the potential that art has. It’s a powerful tool of engagement.”

Taylor said that he relishes watching youth open up during the creative process.

“They come in there stone-cold hard and they don’t trust you at all,” Taylor said. “But the minute they’re surrounded by that creative energy, they just magically open up. Once they try [art], some of them can’t stop doing it. ‘I never knew I could do it,’ they say. That’s where I get most of my satisfaction from: watching them go from one point to another and then they’re back into society.”

At Kilpatrick, that process is just starting, one rhythm at a time.

Cummings ends the session with a simple song, and the class is finally beginning to master the interlocking rhythms.

As the lesson comes to an end, the teacher reminds his students why the exercise is about more music.

“When you know who you are, where you come from, you know where you’re going,” Cummings said.

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Legislative leaders in California have produced an initial plan to achieve Gov. Gavin Newsom's call for the closure of the state's Department of #JuvenileJustice, which once housed more than 10,000 youth and young adults and now holds fewer than 1,000.