Creative Expression Aids Court-Involved Kids and Struggling Immigrant Youth

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"Systemopoly" An artwork displayed at ArtForceIowa's annual KNOWJUSTICE exhibit; a completely redesigned Monopoly game that reflects the reality of a youth in the foster care system.

Photos by ArtForceIowa

"Systemopoly" An artwork displayed at ArtForceIowa's annual KNOWJUSTICE exhibit; a completely redesigned Monopoly game that reflects the reality of a youth in the foster care system.

Last year, an 18-year-old boy stood in the studio at ArtForceIowa in Des Moines, having covered three large canvases with broad brushstrokes of paint, creating intense and angry faces.

“That day I was angry,” he told a Des Moines Register reporter. “Just rage came through. Something in me just got a hold of me, and I had to release it.”

The boy is one of the court-involved young people referred to ArtForceIowa, which offers them workshops in visual arts, music, dancing and other creative pursuits.

“Art is a way to have a conversation” — a safe way to support someone, said Yvette Hermann, a founder and program director of the nonprofit organization.

Local judges like Juvenile Court Judge Colin Witt recommend the organization to kids and parents who appear in his courtroom.

Last fiscal year, ArtForceIowa worked with 66 court-involved youth. They were 17 percent less likely to get into trouble with the law again, according to the organization. And 87.5 percent went on to graduate from high school, according to ArtForceIowa’s annual report.

Youth artists explore abstract poetry at ArtForce workshop

Youth artists explore abstract poetry at ArtForce workshop

Because of this success, the organization developed a new program to serve refugee and immigrant youth who have experienced trauma.

“A lot of immigrant and refugee youth are struggling with language barriers,” Hermann said. “Art is a great way to have a language in common.”

[Related: Festival Highlights Value of After-school Program in Baldwin County]

ArtForceIowa hires artist-mentors to work with the kids. Rather than give formal lessons, the artist-mentors work collaboratively with three or four young people interested in painting, filmmaking, playing guitar or other artistic endeavors.

In summer 2014, the group hired a filmmaker and two other digital communication experts to offer weeklong workshops with 25 teenagers from 10 countries. The youth learned how to plan, produce and edit video. They created videos about immigrant adults in Des Moines who were heroes to them.

The new full-fledged program for immigrant and refugee youth is called DSM Heros. It will serve youth ages 13 through 18.

ArtForceIowa weaves life and work skills into its programming, for example, having kids enact a job interview in a theater arts workshop, and teaching resume writing in a digital media workshop.

Since many court-involved young people find it a challenge to get and keep jobs, ArtForceIowa developed a social enterprise called StreetCred Studios, selling screen-printing and digital media services. The program trains young adults ages 16 to 24, who also learn about sales and marketing.

StreetCred Studios brought in 10 percent of ArtForceIowa’s overall 2015 revenue of $213,000.

Hermann said young people who have gotten into trouble often lose access to creative activities as a punishment. But art can offer them a much-needed means of expression.

The program has impact. Just 27 percent of the court-involved youth served by ArtForceIowa had another run-in with the law, compared with 36 percent in Polk County.

ArtForceIowa also uses art to develop relationships.

“If you lead with art, that’s our common ground.” Hermann said. “We don’t have to moralize or impose punishments.”

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