How Art Is Transforming a Facility for Miami's At-Risk Youth
How a community activist is providing inspiration and sanctuary through an expanding gallery, library, and educational center.
Images courtesy of DopexGold
Facilities for at-risk youth are heavily enclosed, but often big and sprawling. As such, they’ve got peculiar acoustics, simultaneously loud (echoing voices, the reverberation of slamming doors) and intensely quiet, with long, silent stretches of hallways. It’s dissonant, and it can make the body feel cold.
At one South Florida facility for young men, though, there’s a room that’s warm and bright. It’s colored by murals, dotted with framed paintings, well-stocked bookshelves in each corner. There’s a speaker playing John Coltrane and Erykah Badu; teens in the facility spend an hour there, thumbing through books like I Am Malala and The Rose That Grew from Concrete. It’s raining outside, but in this library-slash-gallery, the fluorescent lighting hits the colors on the wall, reflects them back in a yellowish spectrum, and makes it all look like sunlight.
Creative director DopexGold, known at the facility as Mr. E, works with youths. With the help of library donations and artist friends, Mr. E opened the library about two months ago. “I felt it was a therapeutic form of rehabilitation for the youth,” he explains to The Creators Project on a tour of the center. “The youths here are predominately black males. This is the future. I’m dealing with the kings.” The goal: bring literature and art to the kids who fall through the system’s cracks, bolstering their collective and individual senses of self. To frame an educational initiative as something leisurely means the youths take it upon themselves to read, to examine art, to expand their own consciousnesses if they so choose. Says one young man, “I never really experienced art before I was in here. Now, art is something that makes the time in here go fast, gets my mind back, helps me gain knowledge.”
The library is still growing. Mr. E initially teamed up with Dwight “Screamer” Wells, the founder of Bikes Up Gunz Down, a Liberty City-based movement to minimize gun violence and get kids exercising. Wells came to the facility to speak with the teens, in what will become part of a larger initiative of monthly talks promoting education and job skills. Mr. E then reached out to AholSniffsGlue to paint his signature murals on the walls. Says Ahol, “[Mr. E's] mission was genuine and straight from the heart. It’s crazy how a little bit of paint on a wall can grab the attention of those accustomed to being forgotten.”
The room is actually a small sector, filled with dorms that would otherwise function as holding cells. Miami artists Hagia Safiya and Pulp Taboo have transformed two dorms into worlds of their own—the former’s landscapes are dotted with houses and rolling hills; the latter’s murals are bright, rainbow-colored, featuring black and brown faces lit aglow. Says Safiya, “The idea of helping kids locked up away makes me feel better—I have a cousin away, so it helps. I came up with a place that could look exactly how I wanted it to look, and it was beautiful.” Mr. E has reached out to other artists to curate their own rooms; each room, he explains, will contain a loveseat, a lamp, and books that communicate with the walls’ visual content. “Every room is meant to imply hope,” he says. The fact that it’s even here might be hope enough. One teen says, “I feel supported. Since Mr. E came here, he’s always been helpful. He always says, ‘you’re going to be something.’”
The main room has each bookshelf organized by section (the arts, lifestyle, black history) with several books and periodicals on prominent display: a book of works by Mike Kelley, Best Jobs for Ex-Offenders, Letters to an Incarcerated Brother, issues of National Geographic and VICE. The lifestyle section features magazines with black men on the cover, like Will Smith and Prince. There are science kits, comfortable seating, and a short list of rules. Number 4: “Don’t be loud. Please vibe.” Three young men help run the space—they’ve come up with the rules themselves (no library books checked out for more than five days). It’s easy to forget that centers like these house children—is it only the children on the outside who ought to muse over a painting or flip through a magazine at will? These gestures seem small, but they aren’t. One of the teens who manages the library says, “This room makes me feel calmer, like I’m learning more than I was before I got here. I’m expanding my mind.”
While it can be hard to gain access to educational resources, they’re crucial. According to Barry Holman and Jason Ziedenberg’s Justice Policy Institute report, "The Dangers of Detention: The Impact of Incarcerating Youth in Detention and Other Secure Facilities," “in one study, 43 percent of incarcerated youth receiving remedial education services did not return to school after release. Another 16 percent enrolled in school but dropped out after only 5 months." The racial prejudices inherent to the criminal justice system means these phenomena will disproportionately affect youths of color, particularly black men. According to a report by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, “non-Hispanic black juveniles accounted for the majority of nonwhite youth held in residential placement in 2013.
Mr. E wants to help change that. “We need another Malcom, another Martin, another Fred Hampton, more judges, more lawyers,” he says. The kids know it. “It means a lot to me,” says one of the teens who helps run the library. “Everybody looks at us like we’re criminals, like we’re not people. But Mr. E makes us feel like we’re people, too. He showed us that as black men, we already have something against us, but we need to educate ourselves, because we’re the future.”
The library’s content is calming, too. Says one young man, “This library puts me in a mellow mood. Sometimes it can be real hostile in here, but when you’re in this room, you can chill out and get your mind right.” Mr. E's insistence on educational rigor has shifted the tides of learning, too. The teen adds: “Where a lot of us are from, people tell us we can’t do anything. But I can truly say if I wasn’t in here, I wouldn’t have graduated and gotten my high school diploma.” Another made honor roll. “I couldn’t have gotten that on the outside, where I needed the help,” he explains.
It’s the emotional support, though, the empathy, that seems to matter most, and will ultimately be the catalyst for real change. Says one youth, “I just want people here to have the opportunity to learn about history. If you don’t learn, history will repeat itself. I like these books, these paintings. It might seem little, but to us, it’s so big. Nobody ever took the time to make something just for us, to help us succeed and do better.” Says Mr. E, “They have a place to go, a place of serenity, where they can be educated on their ancestry, who they are. You can lock up their bodies, but not their minds.”