Black Youth Arts Center celebrates opening of prison reform art exhibit

“Bloom Beyond the Boundaries” is a student-made art piece featuring a large canvas made to imitate a school suspension notice. “Indigenous students are 10 times more likely to be suspended over their white peers,” is written in large typeface diagonally across the canvas. The canvas is adorned with broken chains and vines of wildflowers decorating the edges, the flowers inspired by the floral regalia of Ojibwe dresses and textiles.

The piece is currently taking up residence at the #NoKidsinPrison installation at the Black Youth Arts Healing Center in St. Paul. 

The artist is Dallas Downey, a Hopkins High School junior and descendant of the Mille Lacs band of Ojibwe, who said his Native identity helped inform his art and activism.

“The flowers are breaking the chains of suspension. I wanted to tie in a real rich cultural element with a modern issue,” Downey said. “The ancestors got our backs.” 

The Legal Rights Center, a Minneapolis-based legal and social justice advocacy organization, and Performing Statistics, a national cultural art organization, have collaborated to bring the multimedia installation “#NoKidsInPrison” to Minnesota. The installation has been traveling in various forms throughout the country since 2016, most recently in Philadelphia. The art featured is compiled from 10 years of work done in collaboration with young people, said Kate DeCiccio, co-director of Performing Statistics. 

Youth fellows like Downey are at the exhibit every day, leading tours, hosting discussions with visitors, and demonstrating their skills as local youth leaders. There are 10 LRC youth fellows involved with the St. Paul installation. They spent their summer collaborating with resident artists to add their own work to the ever-changing installation. 

The installation aims to tackle subjects like carjacking, corporate surveillance and youth incarceration in both Minnesota and across the country through interactive exhibits in various mediums, including sculpture, collage and film.  

A retail clothing rack hangs in the center of the showroom, displaying Minneapolis Police Department uniforms with $100 bills shoved in the pockets, the unmistakable Target logo emblazoned over Benjamin Franklin’s face. Above the rack, multiple surveillance cameras are attached, meant to comment on Target corporation’s investment in high-tech surveillance and their long-term cooperation with law enforcement. The mixed-media sculpture is called TARGET(ing) Youth

Youth incarceration statistics were projected on the side of the Ramsey County Juvenile Service Center in Saint Paul by Crice Kahlil, collaborating artist with #NoKidsInPrison. Photo by Nafi Soumare/Minnesota Reformer.

“Don’t Jack Our Future” is an interactive art piece made up of two detached rear car seats, with nearby headphones playing the testimonial of a former youth carjacker. The unnamed youth expresses empathy for those whose cars she stole. “I knew what I was doing was wrong,” she says. 

The Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission decided in July to increase prison time for carjacking, which in Minneapolis this year is down 46%. Data from 2021 show around two-thirds of Minneapolis carjackings that year involved adolescents.

“There’s not enough ways to get youth involved” in gainful activities, said Lupita Herrerra, community strategist with the Legal Rights Center. “We believe both the victim and the perpetrator of these crimes matter.”

In 2019, there were over 240,000 instances of adolescents under the age of 18 being detained in America, and Black youth were detained at six times the rate of their white counterparts. Fewer than a third of all of those youths were charged with violent offenses. 

Giving voices to disenfranchised youth is the goal of the installation, said Mark Strandquist, founder and co-director of Performing Statistics. 

“I think we’re seeing a resurgence of racist, tough-on-crime language from the 1980s, that blamed the very people that need the most support, the very people that have a lot to give, and teach, and lead,” Strandquist said.

To Downey, learning about his peers who have been locked up has helped him to be grateful for the little things in life. 

“It’s really emotionally taxing to hear all of these stories and learn about this, but the end result is so beautiful,” Downey said.

#NoKidsInPrison will be open through Oct. 8 at the Black Youth Healing Arts Center in St. Paul.

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