Art and Identity dance freely through “Arts and Detention”

Shelley Spivack gets right to the point. “It’s all about arts programming for kids who are locked up in Genesee County’s juvenile detention facility.” The cofounder and director of Arts in Detention, which offers instructional workshops in both visual and performing arts for the 10- to 17-year-olds sentenced by to the Genesee Valley Regional Center. 

It includes theatre, poetry, and dance as well as “HerStory: Unlocked,” a gender-based program geared towards the very special needs of girls in the juvenile justice system, says Spivack — pronounced SPEE-vack, she politely corrects with a grin.

Now on display at Buckham Gallery, the “Arts in Detention” exhibit is diverse in content and expression. Some focus on cars and Flint history with black and white sketches while others zero in on abstract shapes and thoughts with bright colors and dramatic shapes.

The program was designed by Spivack along with co-founder Steve Hull to address ways for youth to reclaim identity and feelings — “to reinforce a sense of worth in who they are,” said Spivack. 

Arts in Detention launched with classes and workshops in 2011 with a 12-week pilot project and has since grown into three ongoing programs three nights a week. “Youth who are detained in Genesee Valley Regional Center can become very quiet voices in a society that finds it easier not to think about them, let alone give them a platform to which to speak,” the program literature notes.  

And, it makes an impact, says Steve Kleiner, program director at the detention facility. 

“The staff at GVRC sees that the kids are benefitting from these programs and it relaxes them — they see nothing but positive from it. … (Arts in Detention creates) a sense of accomplishment they haven’t had before. No matter where they end up when they leave here, if they have it within them that they can do something well, it gives them a sense that they can do better.”

Spivack knows a lot about the juvenile justice system. She is an attorney by trade, working first as a public defender in Flint in the 1980s. Now, she serves as a referee attorney in Genesee County 7th Circuit family court for juvenile cases. Spivack also is criminal justice and women’s studies lecturer at the University of Michigan-Flint. 

While Arts in Detention serves both girls and boys — The boys visual arts workshops is facilitated by local artist Todd Onweller — HerStory: Unlocked directs towards girls because, Spivack says, “girls go into the juvenile justice system for a lot of different reasons than boys.” 

“HerStory: Unlocked,” was developed by two lecturers at UM-Flint: Traci Currie, Ph.D., a communications lecturer and spoken word performer, and Emma Davis, a dance instructor and choreographer. 

“This issue has been growing over the last 10 years,” Spivack says. “What we’re seeing is more girls getting into trouble for simple assaultive offenses that they were not arrested for in years prior.” 

Spivack notes that the program is designed to work with young people who have been through trauma and works to create a sense of resiliency as well as a  safe place for them to create and express themselves. 

“Basically if you’re in the juvenile justice system, you lose a bit of your identity. You get a number. You get put in the same uniform, shoes and given a number, like everyone else,” Spivack says. Packing up notes with her work cell from the table, Spivack gives another brief even smile as she heads off to court. “The point is that the system can impact and strip away a young person’s identity and with our program we start try and rebuild that sense of self.”

Buckham Alley is open noon to 5:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. The “Arts in Detention” exhibit continues through May 5. 
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Read more articles by Jake Carah.