Teaching Artist Spotlight: Elia Enid Cadilla

We recently talked with Elia Cadilla, our newest addition to the Teaching Artist Spotlight series. Elia has done research for the FILIUS Institute, part of the School of Medicine of the University of Puerto Rico (among other projects, a study about the effect of theater in the rehabilitation process of female convicts.) Cadilla teaches Acting for Film and TV at the University of Sacred Heart, and directs the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Theater Program since late 2001. Elia speaks on the current effects of pandemic on carceral settings, the role of the arts and radical empathy during this time period, and the ways in which she believes the intersection of creation and justice might help to improve our collective societies.

  JACAs we navigate this unprecedented time across our national landscape, what challenges have emerged in your work with artists, specifically those who are impacted by the criminal justice system?

EC: This is a complex question, with a complex answer. The main negative effect is frustration, both for the ones who are still inmates, as for the ones already free. Ironically enough, the situation – in terms of sheer survival – can be more dire for the ones out of prison than for the ones inside. The ones still incarcerated have food, lodging, medical attention. We’ve had to help out several of the women outside through our non profit, which is NGO, because many didn’t have the necessary tools to handle this situation. Many times they have to accept the most menial jobs, which don’t have benefits such as health insurance, for even though unemployment benefits have been extended for people who don’t usually receive them, some don’t have the tools to navigate the system, or lack a proper ID, and so on and so forth. On the other hand, those inside the prison are experiencing a type of incarceration they had left behind when they joined the theater group, mixed with a new restriction, which is the lack of family visits to prevent contagion. They communicate with their loved ones by phones provided by the Department but lack, of course, physical contact. However, in my communications with members of the group, I find there is a general understanding that this affects the whole population, not just them, and that these restrictions have managed to keep them healthy. They have access to information from outside, and are aware that some prisons in other states and countries have horrific stories going on. That doesn’t detract from their desire to go out and do their work, and see their families, but it makes it less hard to bear. The males of the Correctional Theater reside in a correctional institute that houses programs with certain privileges, and they’re concentrated right now in exercising to stay in acting form, and writing new ideas to work on as soon as we can resume our activities. The females reside in an area of the women’s prison, and are not as well organized as the men. This responds to patterns established in their own communities, and is one of the situations we deal with in the Program, but it’s a work in progress. The net result is that it’s easier for the men to manage their frustration at their inability to perform their job as actors and educators, but in general they are all coping, because they have something to look forward to.

JAC: What action do you feel is necessary to alleviate the safety concerns that incarcerated people face, in light of the Coronavirus crisis?

EC: All prisons should have a robust health system, access to prompt medical care, and a crisis management capacity that has been sadly lacking in many prisons, both stateside and in many countries, from what I infer from the different news leaking out of some facilities, and from what transpired in our zoom meeting this past week. As far as what action is needed, I can refer to our own experience here. The minute the magnitude of the covid threat to health was ascertained, on March 13, the Secretary of the PR Department of Correction and Rehabilitation ordered a lockdown eliminating access to all civilians not indispensable for vital operations, with an organized plan that included checking temperatures of any indispensable personnel before allowing access to the institutions, with observation and testing in place, established correctional officers’ shifts rotation, preventive isolation of any possible source of contagion, such as inmates that had to go to hospital, and upon return were quarantined until proven clean. It hasn’t been easy. A lot of people have had to work remote to ensure safe conditions for the inmates, but it has worked. All our inmates are covid-free. The 2 that pop up in statistics are two juveniles who came in already contaminated, were isolated at once and treated. If you have that kind of preventive crisis protocols, all concerns will not go away, of course; families will still want to see their loved ones and send them things, etc., but the bottom line here is we have to protect the lives of incarcerated people and stop the virus spread. A good management plan, such as instituted here in Puerto Rico, will accomplish that. Of course, nothing in the world is foolproof and we might have some cases in the future, but the situation has been managed successfully, so far.

JAC: As you know, the JAC is focused on ways in which art can connect those in the prison system with those on the outside. How has this relationship been jeopardized by COVID-19? How have you been keeping connections active during this time?

EC: It’s very difficult to balance safety with social connectivity in such a dangerous scenario as covid-19 presents for an incarcerated population; heck, it’s very difficult for the rest, non-captive population, with a great deal of stress and psychological damage taking its toll on a lot of people. The theater’s usual chores have literally, been one alleviating factor that has contributed to helping them cope. They have kept on writing, exercising, inventing alternatives to keep on with their acting through virtual strategies, etc. They recently sent me a proposal to perform by some platform through the sergeant, but it was one I had already presented to the administration. Regardless, I’m sending it also, in support of the already proposed tactic, but I’m conscious that getting it implemented will take some time. We’ve kept in touch through several avenues. One, their families. Even though not all inmates have a supporting, caring family, quite a few more than usual do when it comes to the theater group. This is because we foster family relations in different ways: we try to have relatives assist activities at open venues: theaters, for example, where anyone can attend. Usually the Secretary or the Sub Secretary (both very favorable, through the years, to the Theater Program) attends such an activity, and up to the very last one, they have authorized at the end of the performance relatives getting close to the inmates and congratulating them, hugs and expressions of affection included. The pride in families when they see their previously errant relative standing on a theater stage, applauded for their artistic work and their honesty (for the plays often depict the route that led them behind bars, and their reflection and repentance as well), have many times created a new bond of communication and respect between the inmate and his/her family. I try to keep in touch with those families that respond positively, and also with what are called “counseling friends” – people from all walks of life that decide to sponsor an inmate and give them some of emotional support and even sometimes some financial assistance for their more immediate needs, such as depositing money for their phone calls (which are very expensive, as we all know), and other urgent things. Two, our own team – the correctional officers and the penal case worker who see them during their shifts, let me know how they are coping, and advise them while at the same time letting them know what I’m doing to keep the Program going during this time. Three, I keep in touch with the commander of the institution, who is very favorable to the Theater Program (because they have an excellent behavior in and out of the institution, and help out in anything needed, plus keep their living quarters immaculate – part of their theatrical discipline) and with whom I maintain an open communication.

JAC: The JAC, as it grows, will continue to seek out and implement a vision of how to better support teaching artists. In your view, what does a supportive network need to include?

 EC: Knowledge. Powerful networking. Funding. Not necessarily in that order. Funding is probably of the first order. Regardless of our commitment, our reptilian brain commands us to survive – food, lodging, health needs are fundamental. Most artists have never been the most savvy when it comes to making money a priority (first-hand knowledge speaks). But when the urge to survive slaps you in the face, it’s a must needs that has to be addressed immediately. And there the powerful networking and the knowledge comes in. We have to be able to identify possible sources of funding. People with the knowledge of where to find accessible grants, interested philanthropic or high profile personalities that can attract them, people with knowledge to create platforms that attract a lot of traffic and hence, support through the acquisition of high visibility… I can go on, but they are the same rules I have applied as a producer to my own productions in the past, and these are all very connected. You need one to get the other, and so we reach the egg and hen dilemma. If we all pool our resources together, the goals will move forward faster.

JAC: What has been the most rewarding part of your experience working with incarcerated artists?

EC: No contest there: to see how their lives change completely. Even before they are able to go home free, they change. I’ve seen people who came from being drug dealers, prostitutes, addicts, gunners for the punto (the drug dealing business), thieves, car hijackers, you name it, become actors, artisans, writers, preachers even, for even though I do not participate myself in organized religion I do applaud the ones who look for it in order to deal with their past lives, as sometimes they need to feel God has forgiven them, and so they can forgive themselves and start anew. I keep track of many of my ex students. They send me information about their new lives, jobs, mates, homes, etc., and it’s a source of joy that we all share with each member of the support group and with other inmates that look up to the ones that have made it, and see in them that they can make it, too.

JAC: As our art networks look to the future, how do you hope the Coronavirus pandemic, as well as this period of isolation, alters the public’s understanding of the justice system?

EC: One of the jokes (we use humor a lot in the Program, in order to cope) we have shared within the Program has been: well, now a lot of people know how it feels to be trapped in a cell, to not be able to walk down the street when you feel like it. We’ve discussed how this new awareness can maybe change the way some people view incarcerated people, and perhaps influence lawmaking in some way or other. If you ask my personal opinion, I feel we have a long way ahead. The US has less than 5% of the world population and yet it has  22% of the world’s imprisoned population, far ahead of several totalitarian regimens. There is too much feeling of “otherness” towards imprisoned persons, and I firmly believe that we can change that through the arts, for I have seen it happen here in our system. When I began, almost 19 years ago (and I had already had a close look at the system though volunteer work with imprisoned youth), the officers almost uniformly disliked the Theater Program. What helped me in the beginning was that I was a well-known and respected artist, and so the manifestations tended to be polite in general, but there were also quite a few not-so-polite ones. Now (even though there’s still rejection from some quarters), we have no problem getting officers who want to be part of the Program and it’s actually a coveted position. Very soon some people who were skeptical about theater in prison saw the change in attitudes and behavior and recognized it as a positive movement towards rehabilitation and many became advocates of what the arts could do to change lives.

JAC: How did you become involved in this work? What was your path to where you are today?

EC: It’s funny how you manage to ask a question that sounds simple but its answer is anything but. It’s been a long road. I believe free will and fate coexist happily, thank you very much. Early in my career, my looks (then), would get me TV bimbo and femme fatale roles time and again, but I felt a very strong pull towards social theater and the minute a very respected theater director, Victoria Espinosa, cast me in a one-woman show as an aging, run-down prostitute (I was still very young, and so it was a fantastic characterization for me, which are my favorite roles), and got rave reviews for it, someone asked me to do it in a low-income residential project. From then on, somehow, I would get offered opportunities to work with low-income, high risk populations, both in PR and when I moved to NY. There I lived 8 years, and I found myself splitting time between acting in theater, TV and doing some film work, but giving a lot of my time to social theater. I taught at the Human Solidarity Institute (mostly to immigrants), ASPIRA – to disadvantaged youth, and the New Federal Theater, at the Henry St. Settlement Playhouse, almost always with disadvantaged populations. When we returned to PR for family reasons, after several years in high-profile work in TV stations and theaters, I eventually gravitated once again towards teaching high-risk behavior populations, and when the then Secretary of Correction and Rehabilitation looked for someone to teach at the women’s prison, it was almost by default that my name came up. The first year there were 4 teachers – 3 males actors working with the male population and I with the females. One year later I was the only one left, and wound up directing the whole project.

Elia co-authored an article for an arbitrated publication (IRB approved), about a small-scale (3 subjects sample) research study on how and why theater can be a rehabilitation tool. Below is that article.

CORRECTIONAL THEATER PROGRAM 2020

People can learn more about Elia’s work at:
Facebook: Elia Enid Cadilla
Twitter: @EliaEnidCadilla

 

Actress, producer, director and writer, Elia Enid Cadilla has represented Puerto Rico in film and theater festivals. Cadilla was Chairperson of the first Cultures of the Third World Symposium at the United Nations, and has received honors and awards for her work in several fields of endeavors. She was a member of the Board of Directors of the PR Association of Film and Audiovisual Producers for over a decade and hosted the First Puerto Rican Coproduction Forum for Ibero American Films. 

Cadilla produced and directed the TV film “Cal y Arena”, based on a story she co-wrote. She’s producing and codirecting the documentary “Cicatrices” (“Scars”), about formerly incarcerated females who have used theater as a rehabilitation tool. She also wrote the series “De carne y hueso” (Flesh and blood), inspired in the real-life stories of incarcerated men and women. 

She produced, co-wrote and directed the series “Después del Adiós” (Beyond Goodbyes), lauded by the media as the best production of this genre in Puerto Rico. She’s written, produced and directed short film series for the Office of Women Affairs, and has produced and directed films for TV, musical videos, television specials and public service advertising campaigns. She coproduced and wrote the script for “Múltiples Ellas”, breaking the Performing Arts Center’s attendance record, a statistic that remained unequaled for several years. Cadilla produced, among other projects, seven environmental education festivals (with concerts, multimedia exhibitions, recycling, reforestation and beach cleanup drives and educational conferences), and was awarded and recognized both by government agencies and private environmental organizations. 

Cadilla was a leading figure in soap operas. Her roles include costarring in TV films and the Spanish-Puerto Rican film “Agua con sal”. A recent performance was in “The Vessel”, starring Martin Sheen. She produced and starred in Cyrano de Bergerac, receiving the best actress award of the Drama Critics Circle, which also chose the play as the year’s best.

Teaching Artist Spotlight: Sarah Dahnke and Sarah Pope of Dances for Solidarity

We recently talked with Sarah Dahnke and Sarah Pope, our newest additions to the Teaching Artist Spotlight series. Sarah Dahnke is the Artist Director and Sarah Pope is the Associate Director of Dances for Solidarity (DFS). Dances for Solidarity is a collaborative dance project where Dahnke and Pope, who both possess a professional and creative background in choreography and dance, co-create dances with people who are incarcerated and formerly incarcerated. Through the project, the artists at DFS collaborate and correspond through the mail and written word, initiating conversations by sending a 10-step dance sequence to the incarcerated. All recipients receive the same piece of choreography and are encouraged to perform it with the knowledge that at any time, there could be another person held in solitary confinement performing the same set of movements at the same time. Dahnke and Pope speak on the vital nature of connection to those inside during the ongoing pandemic, the necessity of direct release for those most vulnerable in carceral settings, as well as the expanding role that art networks like JAC can play in remaining connected to incarcerated individuals.

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Sarah Danke and Sarah Pope with a group of their New York dancers. From L to R: Milton Jones, Sarah Pope, Hasson “Dizzy” Harris, Christina Colón, Benji Hake, Sarah Dahnke

 JAC: As we navigate this unprecedented time across our national landscape, what challenges have emerged in your work with artists, specifically those who are impacted by the criminal justice system?

SDBecause Dances for Solidarity already has an established practice of creating and collaborating through the mail, we are very equipped to deal with the distance this pandemic has warranted. However, even the mail is much slower, especially when it comes to receiving communication from inside. It took me about a month to hear from our most frequent collaborator, Dushaan, who is incarcerated in Texas. His letters usually only take about a week to arrive. Knowing how dire things are inside, this slow turnaround has me very nervous. If I don’t hear from someone, are they safe? By the time I receive their letter, they could have fallen ill. We also have our network of formerly incarcerated artists, who Sarah and I check in with regularly via text or phone call. We haven’t been able to create together in this time. Currently, DFS is collaborating with Black and Pink‘s New York chapter to connect people in the free world who want to establish new choreography-based collaborations with people who are inside. This is a slow process, but it is one way we are attempting to keep the core of the project going. And Sarah and I have been brainstorming ways we can act as a conduit for choreography already created behind bars pre-COVID19. The workshop we facilitated with JAC is an example of one way we are doing this work. We are also working on a packet of written materials and a series of videos that can be distributed through organizations that have direct relationships with prisons to distribute this type of content. DFS is always thinking about how to form connections with people inside then pull that outside of prison walls to have larger conversations about justice and punishment with public audiences. It will likely be a long time before we can have a live performance since it is more challenging for DFS performers to be a part of a process that requires collaborating via the Internet.

SP: A big challenge is access to the technology to stay connected. Access to the internet, the time, space and privacy to use it as much as you’d like, is not possible for those on the inside, not always possible for those recently released. Thus their voices are diminished even more.

JAC: What action do you feel is necessary to alleviate the safety concerns that incarcerated people face, in light of the Coronavirus crisis?

SD: This current moment has definitely highlighted the human rights crisis happening behind bars. When there is a pandemic that requires distance between humans and access to proper medical care, it becomes very obvious who has access to this and who doesn’t. The reports I’m hearing from inside are horrific. One DFS collaborator said the prison he is in is short staffed with no medical supplies. Infected people are sent to a quarantine room and left to recover or die. But I want to be clear: the situation in prisons across the United States has always been a crisis. In this current moment, I support efforts behind releasing a large number of folks who are serving longer sentences than their convictions warrant, juveniles and the aging. But I also don’t want this conversation to end once this pandemic is over. We need to take bold steps to completely re-writing what the criminal punishment system looks like in the United States, and right now is a great time to begin those steps.

SP: Releasing people, particularly the aged, from jails has been one step; prisons could do better. Fewer admissions to jails and prisons. Increased access to medical care, reduced copays, increased access to phone and video calls. As per [Prison Policy Initiative’s recommendations]: https://www.prisonpolicy.org/virus/virusresponse.html

JAC: The JAC, as it grows, will continue to seek out and implement a vision of how to better support teaching artists. In your view, what does a supportive network need to include?

SD: Center those who have been affected. Ask them what they need. Even though we are all currently isolated, we should never be having conversations in isolation. 

SP: A supportive network is a diverse network, that is continually asking, who needs to be involved? Who do we need to hear from who we are not hearing from? Who is not being represented, that could be? And then the question of resources. Who is getting resources, and who is not. A supportive network would center the voices of those who need, and seek to supply, not just resources, but also power.

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Photo still from performance of Dancing Through Darkness at HERE Arts Center in 2019. Pictured are Benji Hake, Hasson “Dizzy” Harris, Christina Colón, and Milton Jones. Photo credit: Maria Cobb

 JAC: What has been the most rewarding part of your experience working with incarcerated artists?

SD: The ability to affect audiences and potentially affect change. DFS is a project, not an education effort, meaning we don’t go into prisons and teach art. We instead form one-on-one collaborations with incarcerated people. The work from these collaborations goes into a process with formerly incarcerated performers. And then this work is performed for public audiences. The real education happening here is with audiences. Each time we have a performance, I will have a conversation with an audience member, and often one who works in close enough proximity to the system that you would assume they understand the conditions of prison. And each time, their minds are blown. They are blown away to see the artistry behind bars. They are blown away to see the honest and authentic performance before them. Knowing that we are helping the public be more empathetic and see each individual as a human is incredibly valuable.

SP: Seeing the public encountering art whose origin lies with incarcerated artists, and witnessing a shift in perception of, and thus a change in language used around, people who are incarcerated. A shift to understanding a person who may be incarcerated as a person, an artist with a unique voice, instead of a nameless, faceless “other” who is only defined by what got them into prison. Change like this is slow, small, and incremental, being person-to-person, but it builds awareness by allowing members of the public to feel personally connected and involved, and may lead to bigger changes in community engagement, activism, philanthropy, and voting practices, which is bigger!

JAC: As our art networks look to the future, how do you hope the Coronavirus pandemic, as well as this period of isolation, alters the public’s understanding of the justice system?

SD: I hope it has made a lot of people wake up. Again, this pandemic has only highlighted dangerous and inhumane conditions that have always existed because prisons are inhumane by design. When this pandemic is over, prisons will still be inhumane. People will still be over-sentenced and tortured and silenced. What I hope is that the public will keep paying attention to what is going on behind bars in the future.

SP: I’m trusting that individuals who are currently isolated in their homes, will look twice, think twice about individuals who are a part of the carceral system. I’m hoping that a systemic shift will come in the future of health care, and workers’ rights, in the United States, that will also touch the rights of incarcerated individuals, and that the systemic shift will include valuation of life and not just of money, that will build more equitable systems for health care especially for those who have the least access to it.

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Photo still from performance of Dancing Through Darkness at HERE Arts Center in 2019. Pictured are Benji Hake, Hasson “Dizzy” Harris, Christina Colón, and Milton Jones. Photo credit: Maria Cobb

People can learn more about Dances for Solidarity at:
Instagram: @solidaritydance

Sarah Dahnke is the director and founder of Dances for Solidarity. She is a Brooklyn-based choreographer, multimedia artist, and arts educator. She creates performance experiences that often feature non-performers, highlighting and celebrating the nuances of natural, untrained human movement. She works with public school students to facilitate the creation of their own choreography and video projects, makes giant group dances to teach to the general public, and films instructional videos to disseminate dance sequences widely. 

Through Dances for Solidarity, Dahnke has been a guest lecturer/teacher at Tulane University, Princeton University, UCLA and New York University, a presenter at conferences such as Create Justice, Prison Outside, and NCA – Policing, Prisons & New Public Voices. She was an awardee of a residency/commission from A Studio in the Woods in New Orleans and is working to maintain an ongoing presence of DFS in the New Orleans area.

Sarah Pope is a Brooklyn-based dance artist, dance & fitness educator, and clown. She has worked with many dance companies in New York, most recently Mark Lamb Dance and Renee Gerardo Dances. Her clown character, SarahBesque, debuted new work at the NY Clown Theatre Festival at The Brick Theater, September 2016. As an educator she has taught in many NYC public schools with Together in Dance, as well as at Spoke the Hub Dancing and the Prospect Park YMCA.

 

Teaching Artist Spotlight: Lori Pitts

We recently talked with Lori Pitts, our newest addition to the Teaching Artist Spotlight series. Lori is the Founding Director and a Facilitator at Voices Unbarred, a platform for individuals who are currently or formerly incarcerated to have their voices heard. Voices Unbarred uses the ideology and techniques of Theatre of the Oppressed to guide their participants in identifying needs, discussing issues, exploring solutions, and telling their stories–culminating in creating and performing an original play around relevant issues that is performed for peers, legislators, and the wider community. Through this process, participants learn key reentry skills, feel humanized, and realize they can be change agents in society. Voices Unbarred believes that those most affected by the issues are the best situated to lead the reform process. Lori speaks on the current effects of pandemic on carceral settings, the role of community advocacy during this time period, and the ways in which she believes the criminal justice system might grow from the turmoil of this moment.

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Photo Credit: Kelly Wardle – Lori Pitts

 

 JACAs we navigate this unprecedented time across our national landscape, what challenges have emerged in your work with artists, specifically those who are impacted by the criminal justice system?

LP: The biggest challenge for us is the lack of access to our participants. We were about to start a new session in a prison that is now postponed. It can take a long time to get into a new facility and build trust, so we hope that we are able to start where we left off with the administration there. We were also about to start a new project creating a full script with our returned citizens. Much of our style of work using Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) techniques relies on human interactions and seeing what comes from those, so creating virtually doesn’t feel like an obvious fit. We are excited to explore the possibilities though! The creator of TO, Augusto Boal, thought we should “demechanize” ourselves–get rid of preconceived notions and structures that we follow habitually–so that we can truly examine our society and move beyond habitual thinking
and interacting. We are getting to use these methods we follow on ourselves now! How can we create together virtually? What does a finished product look like? How can we share our work with others in new ways?

Of course, another challenge comes in the form of worrying for our participants in the prisons. I can only imagine how scary it is to be in a prison where you can’t really physically distance from others and you don’t have access to health care or cleaning supplies. On top of that, you are no longer allowed visits from your family or friends and all outside activities are suspended. You are completely isolated and yet not safe from Covid-19. We want to do more to help with their physical and mental health, but aren’t sure what we can do besides advocate to our representatives and raise awareness. It’s a real challenge not to know how to be helpful.

JAC: What action do you feel is necessary to alleviate the safety concerns that incarcerated people face, in light of the Coronavirus crisis?

LP: We definitely support REFORM Alliance’s SAFER Plan.

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REFORM Alliance’s SAFER Plan

Lowering the number of people in the prison system is vital to stopping the spread. There are so many people we have worked with who are nonviolent offenders and who would be getting out in the next few months anyway. If those people are released early, as well as those who are at high risk for Covid-19, we could significantly decrease the crowding in prisons.

It’s also important to not re-incarcerate people for technical parole violations at this time, such as failure to pay a fine. Let’s look into alternatives to incarceration!

Finally, people who are incarcerated should have free access to health care visits, sanitizing products, and masks. They are under the care of our governments and shouldn’t be denied access to these basic things during this pandemic (or ever).

I’m hoping many of these changes stick around after we’ve gotten to the other side of this, but let’s just start here.

JAC: As you know, the JAC is focused on ways in which art can connect those in the prison system with those on the outside. How has this relationship been jeopardized by COVID-19? How have you been keeping connections active during this time?

LP: Many people are focused inward right now. Life has been vastly disrupted in some way for most people, and it’s a scary time. Adjusting to a new way of life is a hardship and is completely valid. However, when we’re scared, we don’t want to have to think about others’ horror stories. Things are hard enough. We now also are confined to our own neighborhoods, houses, and virtual contacts, which puts us in a bubble where we don’t have to hear concerns that vary wildly from our own. Both of these factors can make it hard to get people to think about those who are currently incarcerated and connect with them. Prisons and jails have also had to make drastic changes to their operations to try and protect people’s physical safety, so making sure people inside have access to creative arts or outside connections has become a lower priority. Overall, making connections is tough right now. 

Voices Unbarred is not currently in a position where we can have contact with our participants in the prison, unfortunately, so we are mainly focusing on keeping connections with our returned citizens. We are pushing content on our social media that aims to raise awareness about people in prison during the Covid-19 pandemic. We, also, have been highlighting other organizations’ efforts to keep people connected, like The JAC and the pARTner project’s initiative to write letters to artists on the inside! We are also so excited to see JAC’s virtual workshop series starting to take place for those in the prison. It is so important to keep these connections in place, and we’re glad the arts world is stepping up to do it.

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Photo Credit: Manaf Azzam – Two returned citizens act out a scene from Dear America: Disconnect Between Perception & Truth

JAC: The JAC, as it grows, will continue to seek out and implement a vision of how to better support teaching artists. In your view, what does a supportive network need to include?

 LPFirst, I have to say that we love the support that the JAC is already giving us! We’ve been so excited to partner with them on past events and appreciate the connections that have been made. Being able to connect with others in the field, prisons, and community members are very important factors of a supportive network, so I hope those aspects continue to strengthen. I also think an outstanding support network should provide places to get feedback or advice on curriculum and best practices for this field of work. Finally, it would be great to have access to funding resources and partnership opportunities. The network could provide these, as well as compile a list of others that offer these resources and opportunities. 

JAC: What has been the most rewarding part of your experience working with incarcerated artists?

LP: “You all were the greatest part of LCP for me. You made me feel human again. Thank you so much for that. … I tell everyone about your group and what you did for me and for those you reach. … I would like to stay in touch. You all are great and truly helped me in many ways. … Thank you soooo much for what you all do.” — M 

When I hear the impact our sessions have had on our participants, like in the comment above, it is incredibly rewarding. Voices Unbarred started as a small idea in my head to use theatre as a tool for those most impacted by incarceration, so to see it working and hear that it’s meaningful is beyond amazing. We are incredibly grateful for the many relationships we’ve formed with our participants. They continue to reach out to us upon release, and even work with us when in the same city! Seeing our talented, brave, and committed participants grow and thrive is what this work is all about.

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Photo Credit: Manaf Azzam – Voices Unbarred returned citizens perform a poetry piece from Dear America, entitled I Am A Repair Man.

JAC: As our art networks look to the future, how do you hope the Coronavirus pandemic, as well as this period of isolation, alters the public’s understanding of the justice system?

LP: There have always been issues with the justice system. The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted some of these issues for people who may not have been aware before. I hope this helps people see how inhumane prison can be and how it affects us all. The coverage of the conditions inside some facilities, as well as the changes being made to try and stop a prison pandemic will hopefully bring these issues to the front of peoples’ minds. We keep prison so far on the edge of our society that it’s easy to forget about or be unaware of what’s happening. This global crisis will allow us to examine our systems and the things that don’t work, and give us time to start making changes. I hope that some of the temporary changes made to the system right now show people that it’s possible to approach incarceration in a different way, and maybe some of them will stick around! 

Also, while being at home is not the same as being in prison, it does give you some insight to how isolating prison is and what that can do to your psyche. Many people were complaining about going stir crazy inside their homes after just one week, and that’s with access to streaming TV, freedom to cook what they want, and being able to go outside for a break. Some people are experiencing true depression or financial hardship during this time. No matter your experience, from mildly irritating to truly bad, I hope this period of social isolation and fear helps people empathize with those in prison and see how damaging long-term isolation can be. Maybe this will help people realize that a prison sentence doesn’t have to be so cruel.

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Photo Credit: Manaf Azzam – A Voices Unbarred audience engages in a demechanization activity before the performance begins.
People can learn more about Voices Unbarred at:
Facebook: @VoicesUnbarred
Instagram: @voices_unbarred

 

Lori Pitts is an Applied Theatre practitioner, Joker, teaching artist, performer, and director in the DMV area. She is passionate about creating platforms for voices that often go unheard. In addition to her work with Voices Unbarred, she is a core member of the DC Coalition for Theatre & Social Justice. Pitts teaches and performs regularly with Young Playwrights’ Theater and has recently been seen on stage with Second City at Woolly Mammoth, Rorschach Theatre, Ally Theatre, and The Welders. She is a member of the inaugural cohort of the Culture Caucus with The Kennedy Center, a graduate of the 202Creates Fellowship, and is a two-time recipient of the Arts and Humanities Fellowship Program grant through the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her work within the community.

 

 

 

 

Teaching Artist Spotlight: Matt Malyon

Matt Malyon (Underground Writing) - JAC Spotlight image
Matt Malyon, Executive Director of Underground Writing

Recently we talked with Matt Malyonour newest addition to the Teaching Artist Spotlight series. Matt is the Executive Director of Underground Writing, a literature-based creative writing program serving migrant, incarcerated, recovery, and other at-risk communities in northern Washington through literacy and personal transformation. He speaks on embodies presence in creation during COVID-19, the relationships that we can form both within and beyond the carceral system, as well as ways he suggests that we as a community can continue to remain involved in our work, even during isolation.

 JACAs we navigate this unprecedented time across our national landscape, what challenges have emerged in your work with artists, specifically those who are impacted by the criminal justice system?

MM: Embodied presence! The biggest challenge by far is the fact that all our sites have temporarily been placed on hold. We have no in-person creative writing workshops right now. Regarding our sites in jail and juvenile detention, we cannot conduct online workshops because the facilities are being cautious about gathering people together in groups. Our writing workshops—and the person-to-person encounters they facilitate—are at the core of our organization. So the challenge now becomes about how we adapt and re-define ourselves for the time being. How do we continue forward in our mission to amplify student voices? How do we generate and publish student writing? How do we podcast? How do we optimally stay in touch with students who are incarcerated? These are questions that will continue to provide productive tensions as we move
forward during this time.

JAC: What action do you feel is necessary to alleviate the safety concerns that incarcerated people face, in light of the Coronavirus crisis?

MM: There are definitely significant safety concerns right now. How do you conduct social distancing for two or three people in a 6 x 9 cell? What if you have a cell to yourself and a new person is booked and then placed with you—is the person virus-free? How do staff in sites of incarceration care for themselves, and how do they know whether or not they’re bringing in the virus from outside? Strange and anxious times.

Others who have been in similar work for longer than I have might be able to provide a more detailed list of proposals. This said, I too am thinking about these questions. They’re vitally important. One idea: Consider releasing people who are incarcerated and accused of low-level offenses. I think this needs to be very seriously considered. This would help lower the number of people in prisons and jails and juvenile detentions, and thus physical distancing between people could be better facilitated. In the meantime, I believe the precautions that the general public are being asked to do should be something incarcerated people can do as well. Each facility should be as accommodating as possible for the sake of safety, humanity, and health.

Finally, and even though it affects our work, I think it’s wise that most the facilities of
incarceration in America have closed their doors to outside programming. It’s tough. It’s sad. Yet it seems for safety’s sake to be the right thing to do for now.

JAC: As you know, the JAC is focused on ways in which art can connect those in the prison system with those on the outside. How has this relationship been jeopardized by COVID-19? How have you been keeping connections active during this time?

MM: For the most part—and this is a generalization—I believe most of the relationships being formed with those on the outside via the practice of arts programming in the prison system, these relationships have as their conduits individuals who go into the system to do the programming. This network of programming has, for the most part, been put on hiatus for the time being because of the COVID-19 crisis. Thus, I would say that such relationships have definitely been jeopardized. This says nothing regarding the personal intent of anyone. There still exists a deep care, concern, and an abundant enthusiasm for art and relationships. Yet it’s in jeopardy due to our circumstances in this crisis. How do artists within the prison context get work to the outside? How do facilitators help? It’s still possible, I think, in modified forms, if teaching artists/ programs/facilitators are willing to adapt and be creative. This is something I’m seeing rapidly develop across America. It’s truly encouraging.

Underground Writing has been trying to keep our student/site connections active by adapting to the current moment. We’ve just started offering very simple, e-deliverable “workshops” to all our sites. The format is a simple four-page workshop: One sheet with the workshop on one side and our permission to publish on the other side; the second double-sided sheet contains a poem on each side to be used in the workshop. We plan to continue to send a new workshop out every two or three weeks to our sites. Secondly, we launched a Twitter account three weeks ago to publish more student writing and connect our students and organization to the wider world. Finally, we’ve just started a #WriteHopeNow hashtag/writing prompt for the COVID-19 era. It’s very simple: Write about something giving you hope in your community, and then post it on Twitter / social media with the #WriteHopeNow hashtag.

We’re also currently trying to re-route procedures for our podcast, and are continuing forward with a number of grant-backed projects that are still in-process. And like many other organizations, we’ve been filling out grant applications, doing financial diagnostics, and co-signing petitions for federal and local relief funds for arts organizations.

#writehopenow
#writehopenow is an ongoing hashtag/writing prompt started by Underground Writing, as a response to the COVID-19 era

 JAC: The JAC, as it grows, will continue to seek out and implement a vision of how to better support teaching artists. In your view, what does a supportive network need to include?

 MMOne of the things that first comes to mind is getting more people involved with this sort of work. I like to think that our entire field (in general: arts in at-risk settings) is now moving beyond the “emerging field” status. There are more programs and people doing this sort of work than we might think—and far more than is perceived by the general public. I think one of JAC’s greatest initial inroad items for those who might be interested in this type of work (in knowing about it, or in doing it) is the geographical listing of programs. It’s been so useful in helping me understand the field and what’s out there. It’s been great for making connections with people, and we’ve had opportunities arrive at our doorstep simply by being included on the JAC list. Thank you for it!

In my areas of focus—creative writing / literature / voice amplification—I’m interested in
promoting this work we’re doing in such a way that others will join up. We need more people doing such work. This is what I have in mind for an initiative that’s grown out of our experiences in Underground Writing. One Year Writing in the Margins aims to inspire teachers and writers to consider facilitating creative writing workshops in an at-risk community settings for one year. It launched the day of the current president’s inauguration. One angle: It was me pivoting my deep anger in a different direction, transforming it, and then doing something positive with it. The wider angle: I really believe in the power of what we’re doing in Underground Writing, and what many others across the country are doing in beautiful programs similar to ours. I see its impact all the time. The impact that creative writing can have on an individual can be almost instantly transformative. One Year Writing in the Margins is a small initiative right now. It needs a large organization to take it on and develop it. Someday I hope it will become something like a creative writing equivalent to the Peace Corps. Finish your BA, MA, MFA, or PhD, and then—before entering your career—give a year to teaching creative
writing in an at-risk community near you. Or, if you’ve already been in your career awhile, it’s fine—teach once a month for a year, concurrent with your other roles in life. I have little doubt it will change the lives of anyone choosing to be involved—teachers and students alike.

JAC: What has been the most rewarding part of your experience working with incarcerated artists?

MM: First, I love the fresh insights from students. I love the academy, but I love teaching and being outside of it. Our students—many of whom never graduated from high school, or are in high school, or younger still—are bright, articulate, and have good ideas. Whether they’ve ever been affirmed for such, we don’t know. We love dialoguing, hearing what they have to say, and reading their writing. I often find myself in a workshop setting saying things like, “I never thought of it that way, but, of course, that makes even more sense than what I said.” Being outside the academy means were almost always outside the theoretical and into the practical stuff of writing. I love theory, too, but being in these contexts grounds me in reality, in our community, and in the daily ritual of sharing words and literature together.

Second, I find the whole experience of what we’re doing to be humbling. It’s a whole new sort of education for me. A way for me to see through others’ eyes in ways I never did before. To educate me on blind spots I’ve had, or ones I need to work out. On the other side, I think the workshops are enlightening for our students—they have great things to say, they can read a poem by Sappho and find commonality, they can write a riff on the Inferno and thus become part of the tradition of writing, they can be funny and smart and intelligent. And, to top it off, they have someone—our teaching writers—notice these things and reflect it back to them.

Third, if I’ve learned one thing over and over it’s that all of us are in the boat together, as it were. We make sure to convey this to our students. We write, and in doing so we join the great river that is literary tradition. We try our very best to avoid damaging pedagogical models. We facilitate workshops from a seated position. We guide the workshop rather than teach from a top-down perspective. We affirm, convey empathy, and we listen. I don’t feel all that different than our students, as far as our shared human condition. I’m no better or worse. Sure, we’re not exactly alike, but we have so much in common. We meet and read and write together in true community.

JAC: As our art networks look to the future, how do you hope the Coronavirus pandemic, as well as this period of isolation, alters the public’s understanding of the justice system?

MM: I hope more people start thinking about it. I work in these contexts all the time and forget some people just don’t think or know much about such things, such places (and there’s still so much that I need to learn). Our society has more often than not obscured the subject and reality of incarceration from widespread knowledge. I feel like there’s a great deal of momentum right now to change this. It’s very hopeful.

I also hope that as the general knowledge about incarceration increases, a rising pressure to reform can be leveraged enough to cause a real turn to humility within the personal lives and public work of the policymakers and leaders of our American system. We’re not doing things well. It’s not working. So, how about we look to other models that are working far better than our own? Perhaps we should look to other countries, particularly Scandinavian countries like Norway. Why, we might wonder, are they doing so much better, with such lower rates of recidivism?

With all the pandemic coverage that’s happening, with all the calls for adjustments to facilitate what should be simple human rights . . . I hope people will understand just how much reform needs to happen within the justice system, particularly as it pertains to incarceration. And I hope this will have the outcome of actual and real change taking place now and in the near future.

 

two-catalogues-lying-on-a-light-wooden-surface-mockup-a14600If you are interested in reading or sharing more of Matt’s reading, JAC encourages you to explore his work, The Stories We Save May Include Our Own.

The Stories We Save May Include Our Own – Matt Malyon

 

Matt Malyon is the founding Executive Director of Underground Writing, a literature-based creative writing program serving migrant, incarcerated, recovery, and other at-risk communities in northern Washington through literacy and personal transformation.  He is the author of the poetry chapbook, During the Flood.  His poetry has received a Pushcart Prize nomination and has been featured in various journals— including the University of Iowa’s 100 Words, Rock & Sling, Measure, and The Stanza Project.  He serves as a Mentor in the PEN Prison Writing Program, and recently founded the One Year Writing in the Margins initiative.

For more on Matt and Underground Writing, visit:

www.undergroundwriting.org

www.oneyearwritinginthemargins.org

 

 

 

 

My Block. 

by Annabel Manning

On the last day of my Hine Fellowship, the Men’s Empowerment Program (MEP) interns at the Harlem Community Justice Center (HCJC) had the opportunity to experience the power of creating their own art exhibition while drawing public attention during their graduation. MEP is a new program designed to create a safe space for men of color, ages 18-25, through placemaking, community advocacy and involvement, employment, and career/educational counseling.

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They created still and video/audio collages of their neighborhood blocks, inspired by Romare Bearden’s work in Harlem decades earlier. Each intern said a few words at the opening about their visions of their neighborhood blocks, interrogating concepts of belonging, community, self, and identity. Several expressed their excitement at being recognized as artists, often for the first time in their lives.

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Our plan is to mount the digitized versions of the block pieces on fencing surrounding an area of the Wagner public housing development in East Harlem, once construction for the community hub, organized by the Justice Center’s Mayor’s Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety, is complete.

I am also working collaboratively on a series called “a self of my former shadow,” a phrase from the poetry of Evie Shockley. The idea is that the activity of art transforms a person into a self (with agency), free from being a mere shadow of his/her future self. The new series includes images from the HCJC MEP group below, but also extends to works from other projects I have been working on.

Interns reconnected at their art opening with artist Pastor Isaac Scott, who came in a prior week on my invitation to meet with the MEP interns, and who is an important role model and resource for them going forward. Pastor Scott is a previously incarcerated artist from the East Harlem community and Program Director (and Founder) of “The Confined Arts,” as well as the Arts and Communications Coordinator at the Center for Justice, Columbia University, where he is also a student.

For the past several months a group of us, including Pastor Isaac Scott, Center for Institutional and Social Change at Columbia Law School, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the Broadway Advocacy Coalition, and others have been organizing the Prison Art + Aesthetics Project (PAAP), an 18-month series of symposia, art exhibitions, poetry readings, plays, concerts, and other art events focused on the transdisciplinary aesthetics of prison art in the U.S. and elsewhere. All events will be centered on the lived experiences, art, and spiritual empowerment of people presently and formerly incarcerated along with their impacted families and communities. Youth involved in MEP and in other HCJC programs will be welcome as participants in PAAP.

PAAP will explore the roles of prison art and aesthetics in four overlapping areas:
before prison (e.g., education, social support, employment);
during prison (e.g., art programs, independent art activities, educational programs);
after prison (e.g., reentry/reintegration, parole, voting);
beyond prison (e.g., alternatives to incarceration, restorative models of justice and abolition).

As part of PAAP, I am proposing to organize an exhibit of art around incarceration that will include the artworks of HCJC-MEP participants along with other artists at Cathedral of St John the Divine. Our inaugural event will be on September 25-26, 2020, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

About the guest contributor:

Born in Mexico and raised there and in South America, Annabel Manning’s role as a social- practice artist is shaped by the needs of the communities with whom she collaborates to find ways for individuals to represent themselves, whether in jails, restorative justice centers, pre- schools, schools, hospitals, or art centers. In 2011, she helped to create a Spanish-language “Jail Arts Initiative” at two Charlotte-Mecklenburg County (NC) Jails in collaboration with the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art and the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office. For the past four years, she organized, with ArtsPlus in Charlotte (NC), a bilingual art and literacy program for Latinx families and their preschooler children.

Annabel uses photography, printmaking, painting, poetry, audio, and other tools in collaboration with individuals to express their experiences with economic and physical hardships as they struggle for recognition, respect, and rights in society.

Currently, she is a Duke University Lewis Hine Fellow working at the Harlem Community Justice Center. As part of this fellowship, Annabel is developing art projects with the Justice Center’s Men’s Empowerment Program (MEP), which works with young men of color between the ages of 18-24. In addition to creating self-portrait monoprints, they are creating audio collages based on photography, videography, and audio, around Romare Bearden’s concept of “The Block.” Ultimately, MEP hopes to digitize the blocks and install them on fencing surrounding an area of the Wagner public housing development where the Justice Center’s Mayor’s Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety is planning to create a community hub.

Annabel Manning
Duke University, Lewis Hine Fellow
Harlem Communiy Justice Center
annabelmanning.com
https://www.instagram.com/annabelfmanning/
https://www.instagram.com/mep_nyc/