Youth Empowerment Program presents art, poetry through the lens of youth from juvenile center
People who say that the world’s youth will shape the future oftentimes fail to take into consideration the many incarcerated children and adolescents in juvenile detention centers who don’t feel they have a future. The Youth Empowerment Program (YEP), a student run organization at UC Davis, strives to fix that.
YEP, founded in 2009, visits the Yolo County Juvenile Hall twice a month to connect with the youth through lesson plans and shared experiences about their home lives, families, fears and general beliefs. The purpose of the organization is to show these individuals that their past actions do not define them and to educate them about the effects of racial and class marginalization.
Members of the organization, known as “Yeppers,” are hosting their annual “My Resilience is My Resistance” art show, which will present artwork created by youth in the juvenile detention center to reveal truth behind those closed doors.
Deziana Torres, the president of YEP and a 2016 UC Davis graduate, said that YEP’s primary goal is to break stereotypes and to instill hope in young people’s minds.
“The youth we work with are often labeled as ‘failures’ ‘thugs’ and even labeled by judges themselves as ‘menaces to society.’ These labels have so much more power than we could ever imagine,” Torres said. “It becomes their future because they are constantly reminded of their mistakes and of their [lack of] worth. We say things instead like ‘we need you in this world,’ ‘you have too much potential to be locked up in here,’ ‘you can have a better and brighter future that you desire,’ ‘if no one ever believed in you, we do,’ ‘you’re amazing’ and ‘you’re important.’ We truly mean what we say and the youth know it. Our hope in them breaks the stigmas that would otherwise continue to marginalize them from society.”
Like Torres, Maria Pantaleon, a fifth-year Spanish and Chicanx Studies double major, stands firm in her belief that the youth, especially within these communities, need to be encouraged because they are the face of the future.
“We tell them that once they get out of there they have a future, they can go to college, they can go back to school, it doesn’t mean that they’re bound to failure and that their life is over,” Pantaleon said. “We’re trying to break those stereotypes out of their heads. We need to empower our youth because they’re our future. Everyone has the power to do good in life. Maybe these kids can be the next president or an engineer. Yes they might have had a rough time growing up, but we can direct them to a better path.”
Youth that spend their time in juvenile detention centers are limited in social interactions and activities, making it difficult for them to express their mixed emotions, worries and insecurities. Brenda Baresi, a third-year Chicanx Studies and sociology double major, said that YEP’s lesson plans and discussions are important for both the detained youth and for people who attend the annual art show.
“They’re there all the time, right? And the only things they really do are get up in the morning, shower, get breakfast, maybe go outside for an hour and do whatever they can to make up their time. But a lot of them do art to make time pass by,” Baresi said. “There are so many things that are building up inside of them because they have no one to talk to. For them, art is what helped them get through their time their and gave them the opportunity to put all their thoughts in art. That’s also why we try to do the art pieces every year so that people can see their experiences and to humanize them again.”
A large part of YEP’s visit to the YOLO County Juvenile Hall is the members’ ability to connect with and share personal experiences with the youth.
“Some of the times that we go in there, they don’t want to do the lesson plans. They feel like it’s dumb and that it’s not going to help them,” Baresi said. “What we try to do in those times is we try to move away from the lesson plans we have set for them and just have a discussion with them. The only way we’re going to be able to reach out to them is if we’re vulnerable to them. Every time I go in there I make myself vulnerable and tell them about my experiences.”
One of the pieces featured at YEP’s upcoming art show allows the viewer to see multiple experiences through the lens of the artists.
“One of the ones we did was ‘if you looked into my eyes could you see what I see?’ We gave them an actual picture of a drawing of an actual eye, and in there they wrote or drew about different experiences that they’ve had in the past that have impacted them,” Baresi said. “The different lesson plans we do with them is a form of self-expression, and we want to give them that outlet to talk about some of the things they can’t in that institution. The whole purpose of the art show is to show people in society that the youth that have been detained — it’s not necessarily their fault that they’re there, it’s different institutional barriers and oppressive forces that led them to where they are. We want to show the world that these youth have dreams and futures and are not necessarily bad people.”
YEP’s main goal is to show the world that there are multiple facets to the U.S. criminal justice system, meaning that people should take into account the reasons behind a criminal’s actions. Yeppers also educate their community about systemic and institutionalized racism, as well as social marginalization as two of the factors that lead to the incarceration of youth of color.
Edi Xacon, a fifth-year Chicanx Studies major, wants to see change not only in Yolo County, but also in his community back at home.
“I think programs like this and what we do are important for people of color because in reality there are a higher number of people of color incarcerated,” Xacon said. “In order to reduce recidivism rates, meaning going back in and out [of juvenile detention centers], programs like this and connecting with the youth can serve as a tool to inspire them to do better. I’d like to see YEP expand in other campuses and I want it to be seen as a model for others who are interested in doing similar work. Personally, I would like to be a mentor and someone who can inspire youth back at home.”
The art show will be held on May 3 from 6 to 9 p.m. in the ARC Ballroom. To learn more about the upcoming art show, visit YEP’s Facebook event page or email them at email@example.com.
Written by: Becky Lee — firstname.lastname@example.org