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Art Workshop Gives Troubled Youth New Outlook On Criminal Justice System

Alexandra Hill


Nearly 40 troubled youth from Newark and the surrounding areas recently took part in the National Day of Empathy, an initiative devoted to creating empathy for those affected by incarceration. One particular workshop allowed them to express their feelings about their experiences within the juvenile justice system through art. It's all part of a partnership with The New Jersey Insitute for Social Justice, Youthbuild Newark, My Brother's Keeper, and Yendor Productions. 

“I had no job experiences no education, I dropped out in the ninth grade so, that's the only way I knew how to get money was to take it.”

Opting to remain anonymous, this 23 year old is opening up about his life growing up on the streets of Trenton and becoming incarcerated for the first time at the age of 17. He says he hopes participating in this project will change peoples perceptions of your black men who often fall victim to the criminal justice system

“Not everybody is a criminal not everybody wants to do harm to people some people are just misunderstood and they really want to be understood but they don't know how to express their feelings.”

The goal of this workshop is to provide the youth with that very opportunity…. the opportunity to express themselves. Ryan P. Haygood is President and CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.

“We really want to channel what really has been a lost emotion among many in our communities, and that is empathy. We know that this nation has really experienced a crisis in the mass incarceration phenomenon and what we think is that we need is more seasonable ways to respond. Black people, young people, are 75 percent of those incarcerated, and that is a reflection, we think, of discriminatory policy decisions that are being made that can be changed to really reform the youth incarceration system in New Jersey to be more rehabilitative, be more restorative, and be less discriminatory and more fair."

Rodney Gilbert, Executive Director of Yendor Arts and Yendor Productions, developed the workshop. Gilbert says many of the students have experienced trauma in their lives adding that creating any kind art whether it’s a mural, a poem, or a theater piece, can be the first step in the healing process.

“All people dream to have great lives. I never met a student who wanted to walk into class and get an F. Ive never met anybody who really wanted to be in jail, or not have enough money to feed their families, so we talked about that, so we need to continue it and help put those resources in place, talk about how those resources, what do we need to have the lives that the kids dream of .”

And dream they do, like 18 year old Herburn Charles, who describes his first encounter with the criminal justice system.

“I was only 13 they called me an accomplice, but I didn't know what was going on.”

Charles says being apart of Youthbuild Newark, an organization that provides services for disenfranchised youth and a partner in the day of empathy workshop, has changed his life adding that he hopes the art he creates will help change someone else’s.

I'm just not this dude angry face walking around trying to rob somebody or trying to do anything, you know I actually have a heart, and I'm just going to put that all on paper.

Alexandra Hill began her work with WBGO in June of 2012 in the news department. A graduate of the Rutgers Newark journalism program, Alexandra was also a student of WBGO News Director Doug Doyle. Alexandra has since become the lead general assignment reporter, afternoon news anchor, and producer of the award winning live call in show Newark Today. Since working for WBGO Alexandra has covered politics in and around Newark including the 2014 mayoral campaign of Mayor Ras Baraka as well as the senate campaigns of former Newark Mayor and now U.S. Senator Cory Booker in both 2013 and 2014. Alexandra also covers a host of human-interest stories, and has been recognized by the New York Association Of Black Journalists for her piece entitled Sheltering Newark’s Homeless.