“If you’re in an arts program, it keeps your mind occupied and keeps you on a positive train of thought.”

Our last testimony came from Claire Schwadron, Director of Project Youth ArtReach of Class Acts Arts. Here’s what she said about Project Youth ArtReach’s work with incarcerated youth:

Good Evening.  My name is Claire Schwadron, and I am an arts administrator, art teacher and 23-year resident of Montgomery County.  I am director of Project Youth ArtReach of Class Acts Arts. I am here to thank the council for its on-going support for the arts, and in particular, for the council’s funding support of the Arts and Humanities Council.

Many of us know the power of art to touch lives, but art also has the power to change lives, especially the lives of people on the margins of society: adults with disabilities, senior citizens, homeless children, and teens at high-risk for academic failure or gang violence.

Funding for the Arts and Humanities Council supports the work I do to deliver positive intervention programs to incarcerated young people, a group of youth who are predominantly of color, poor, suffer from learning disabilities and mental health issues, live with substance abuse and violence, and feel disconnected to the greater community.

At the Alfred D. Noyes Children’s Center in Rockville and the Montgomery County jail in Boyds, young offenders – both male and female – can participate in poetry, theatre, drumming, drawing and painting workshops through Project Youth ArtReach.

Our skills-based arts programs are taught by master artists who offer youth a chance to learn new skills, to work as team, to take “healthy risks,” to share ideas and concerns, to experience positive thoughts about themselves and others and thereby raise their self esteem. By focusing on the strengths and assets of teen-agers, rather than their deficits and problems, youth have a chance to increase their cognitive, linguistic, social and civic development.

Research shows that the arts are a positive and cost-effective means of intervention in correctional settings. Inmates enrolled in arts programs “demonstrate reduced infractions, reduced racism, increased cooperation and reduced rates of recidivism.”[1]

After designing and painting a mural, it is then donated back into our community — like the one in your conference room, or the one at Northwood High School, or Wheaton Ice Arena. Through our mural projects, these youth are connected to their community, and can experience a sense of altruism – often for the first time.

I want to quote from two letters from young men at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility:

“In jail, you’re around people that were doing things they shouldn’t have been doing.  You feed each other negative ideas.  But if you’re in an arts program it keeps your mind occupied and keeps you on a positive train of thought.”

“I have been incarcerated for 17 months and during that time I have participated in both of the mural painting programs . . .  I have found that these programs have provided a wonderful means by which to express myself in a highly constructive and creative manner . . . it is a great relief for both the mind and the soul.”

Arts programs are efficient, cost-effective and can have a great impact on the lives of traumatized and estranged young people.  Most incarcerated teens will return to their communities, and to the streets. Arts programs improve their chances for success in life.

I urge you to maintain the level of funding for the Arts & Humanities Council as recommended for the FY12 budget.

Thank you.

[1] Susan Hill, “This is for Anthony Beard,” in Teaching the Arts Behind Bars, ed. Rachel Marie-Crain Williams (Boston: Northeastern University Press, University Press of New England, 2003).

After this testimony, Council President Valerie Ervin spoke very positively about the mural in the Council conference room. “Whenever we have the opportunity to use the room with that amazing mural, which is so powerful, every time I see it I just cannot tell you how proud we are to have that here…We are reminded of what it is that you do for the youth and how powerful that is…we’re here talking about schools, but the forgotten youth in our community are what you all uplift, and we really appreciate that.” Go Claire!

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