Youth Justice Awareness Month Creative Arts Cafe: A look into performances and art based on justice

      On Thursday, October 18, Eastern held their third annual YJAM Creative Arts Cafe. YJAM stands for “Youth Justice Awareness Month” and the event was filled with learning about youth justice and included justice-related performances. There were several spoken words, poems, a painting, a dance and a human sculpture activity to represent situations within America’s prison system. The event was run by Dr. Kimberlee Johnson, who is the department director of the Urban Studies program and the prison ministry club. The week leading up to this event was prison ministries awareness week, so YJAM fell into that category.

      The night started off with Dr. Johnson sharing trivia questions for the audience to answer and win prizes for. Some questions that were asked included, “true or false, children as young as seven years old can be tried as an adult in prison” and “true or false, Pennsylvania has the highest rate of black and hispanic races incarcerated within the United States.”  Both of these questions were true. These questions allowed for the audience to question the prison system within America and set the stage for the performances that were included in the event.

      One of my favorite spoken words was done by Eli Echavarria and Carter Heerema which was titled “Two Sides of the Story.” They each shared their own perspective on police officers growing up and their opinions differed greatly. After hearing their spoken word, I interviewed Echavarria about how they collaborated together to form this spoken word and what kind of impact it had on him. He said that he grew up in Brooklyn, NY as a minority, while Heerema grew up in New Jersey, as a majority. Heerema saw the police officers as people who protected the community and was there to support individuals.

      They were often respected within his neighborhood and interacted with people daily. Within the spoken word, Heerema said “there was never a need, a true emergency.” On the other hand, Echarvarria shared his experience, and stated, “I was reminded by his parents, that because I am a minority, because I look different, I may be treated different, and this is just a reality.” After writing their two sides of the story, they came together and decided how they could intertwine the stories together to make it a spoken word.

      “The impact the spoken word had on me was to see another person’s perspective and to see cops going to church with Carter, that’s not something you always think about. These police officers that you are told to fear are people in your neighborhood and your community and are regular people, and I forget that,” Echarvarria said.

      This story was just one that was shared throughout the event and many more people shared their artistic abilities to draw awareness to the injustice in our country. One of the activities that was done was creating human sculptures to represent emotions and feelings towards real-life scenarios that happen within prisons. Some of these scenarios included, those in prison often had mental health disorders, children are often sexually abused while in adult prisons and there is an increase in suicide rates due to imprisonment.

      Each group was assigned a different scenario that they had to portray with their body. One group portrayed sadness, anxiety and frustration, while one member turned their back to the audience. They stated that “our society often turns their back to sexual assault and the problems inside of prison and would rather ignore these injustices.” This activity was empowering and the audience not only learned facts about the prison systems in America, but were also able to share how it made them feel.

      Overall, the night was filled with emotions, learning, fun, and creativity. It brought light to injustices in our world within a creative and engaging environment. It brought up conversations within the group and to be extended onto campus in other interactions. The awareness for youth justice should not end here and we should continue these conversations within our lives and help stop the injustices in our world.

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