Making it Work
For years, the Bubbler has been providing creative programming for youth in the Dane County Juvenile Detention Center (JDC) and shelter home as a part of the Making Justice program. During the COVID shut down, teen services librarian Jesse Vieau, Bubbler media instructor Rob Franklin (Rob Dz), and Bubbler partners scrambled to find ways to reconnect with those teens in the system who found themselves even more isolated than before.
On a weekday in August, I meet up with teaching artist Carlos Gacharna over Zoom. When Carlos moved to Long Beach three years ago, the Bubbler team was just a little heartbroken. A long time teaching artist with the Making Justice program, we had come to love Carlos’ easy going style, quick rapport with the teens we worked with, and highly engaging art projects grounded in social justice movements. But when COVID hit, and workshops moved digitally, California suddenly didn’t seem that far away.
His ability to connect and form relationships with youth hasn’t changed, regardless of the time zone, and remarkably, regardless of the online platform. He's sharing the history of protest movements in the US through videos and music and connecting to activist street art practices. But the digital world of art making is a little harder to crack. “Hold on just a second,” Carlos tells me, as he pulls a roll of green masking tape out of his desk. “I’m getting my hand-cam set up.”
Carlos’ “hand-cam” is his phone, attached with masking tape to a lamp clamped onto his easel. It’s a second video screen logged into our zoom call so the kids can still see his face and talk to him, but also see his hands as he guides them through the art project. “Hey, you know, we make it work,” Carlos laughs.
“Making it work” is the trend in Making Justice workshops these days. Historically always done in person, it took weeks to navigate public health concerns and find ways to connect with the youth in the JDC. When Jesse Vieau was able to get technology to the staff to use with the kids, it still took some adjustments. “The relationship building part is the easier part, my ability to work with kids and connect with them hasn’t changed,” Rob Franklin told us.“It's the technical stuff that's harder, like working on a beat. It is hard to coach a kid on writing their rhymes online. But it is all relatively new and we’re learning as we’re going.”
There have been a lot of things to learn, and Jesse has been leading the charge. When he heard that all newly incarcerated youth faced a two week quarantine away from the rest of the population, Jesse first focused on getting them library materials - mp3-players loaded with music and high interest books - then navigated how to connect with the group virtually. Providing iPads to youth at the Juvenile Shelter home allowed them to gather on Zoom and make art together, even when they had to be separate in their rooms.
It has helped that we're not alone in making a digital landscape work for us. We've learned a lot partnering with the Urban League of Dane County as well as Mike Ford’s Hip Hop Architecture Camp to provide enriching experiences online. From sending materials through the mail to participants (what can we fit in an envelope!?) to engaging with online tools like Tinkercad or SoundTrap or getting creative, like teaching design by creating a pair of custom Nikes on their website - everyone is innovating.
Taking Art Outside
However, some of our best practices did translate to the new normal - like creating outdoor, community focused murals. Once technology was available, Jesse connected teens virtually to muralists Emida Roller and Shiloah Coley to create a vision for a blank wall at the shelter home. The students took ownership of the project quickly - having the idea to tie in elements from their other workshops with Carlos and teaching artist Audifax into the design.
Old English lettering from Carlos’ workshop reading “We Matter” appears at the top of the mural, and a design from a student at detention done in Audifax’s abstract painting workshop was translated into the jersey worn by the young man pictured looking into the mirror, seeing his future self. While students from detention couldn't participate in the painting, they were delighted to see their work incorporated.
Students at the shelter home were able to safely work outside with Emida and Shiloah to remove the overgrown vegetation from the hill above, clean, prep, and paint the wall. Shiloah was excited to see the kids' confidence and comfort level grow day to day with the project.
“At the beginning, one of the students didn’t feel comfortable contributing ideas to the mural,” Shiloah told us. But near the end of the projects “he took a lot of initiative by telling me what he wanted to paint and start working on; it was great to see this shift.”
“It was also obvious that the kids just liked being outside,” she remarked. That much was certainly evident. Realizing how much more shady space was available after clearing the brush above the mural, shelter home mentor, Ivie Tharpe, acquired several hammocks to create a “hammocktopia” for the kids.
“It has been awesome to see them transform the space and make it their own,” Ivie told us. “They feel so much more comfortable here and have ownership over the space.” And pride. When one of the students was picked up at the shelter by his family, he insisted they HAD to see the wall. He posed for photos and told them the entire process, excited he had created something amazing, even while going through a challenging experience.
Ivie was energized by the project and its power to build meaningful relationships with the shelter’s resident adults, the artists, students, and even with the community as neighbors would stop and connect while walking by.
The focus on relationships as well as the sense of safety, ownership, and voice has always been the focus on Bubbler programming for teens. It has been nice to know we can all still “make it work” when so much has changed around us.
You can see more images of the mural in progress on our website.