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Meet Laurel Butler of Arts for Incarcerated Youth Network ACT TWO program

Today we’d like to introduce you to Laurel Butler.

So, before we jump into specific questions about the business, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
I began teaching performing arts when I was in high school – in schools, in after-school programs, etc, but in college, I began teaching in jails and detention centers and I never stopped. I’ve always been a social justice activist, and the more I taught in & around the “justice” system, the more apparent it became that mass incarceration was a huge human rights crisis happening right under our noses. It also became apparent that the performing arts were not only a great way to help heal the traumas of incarceration through storytelling and movement and community building, but also a great way to bring visibility to an issue that our society tries to disappear, and to bring voice to a population that the system tries to render silent.

I’ve taught at maybe a dozen lockdown facilities in different parts of the country, usually facilitating collaborative experiences between artists on the inside, and artists from the outside. Much of my teaching has taken place in higher education – University of New Mexico, University of San Francisco, Stanford, UCLA – where I will lead the outside students through some arts education and teaching training, as well as some historical context and critical literacy of the judicial system, and then bring them into a facility to create and present a piece of performance together with incarcerated community members. It’s always a really dynamic creative process, and then we also get to invite audiences to come in and bear witness to the conditions in which the art is being made – and in which literally millions of our community members are living – and that serves an extra politicizing function as well.

I was working full-time at UCLA, as the Associate Director of the Visual and Performing Arts Education Program, when the 2016 election happened, which made me realize that I wanted to have even more of an impact – that maybe focusing on incarceration was not enough, and I should be focusing on de-carceration: working harder to support people post-release as they transitioned back into community life. So I scaled back to a part-time faculty job and applied for a California Arts Council Re-Entry Through the Arts grant to start a performing arts program for formerly incarcerated youth. That was last Fall, and my life has been completely different ever since. The 15 young artists who joined that program spent weeks and weeks created an extraordinary piece of theater, called ACT TWO, that they performed in March to a sold-out audience at UCLA! The program also merged with the Arts for Incarcerated Youth Network to serve as the pilot for a new re-entry program for system-impacted Los Angeles youth, which is so so important now that the County is moving to close some of the youth prisons and probation camps.

It feels really incredible to watch these young people grow into more confident, creative, empowered versions of themselves every day, and develop into activists and advocates working to transform the systems that have impacted their lives in such unthinkable ways. Their resilience and ingenuity inspires me to dream big (for example, maybe we could imagine a Los Angeles in which we have community-based art and youth development programs instead of youth prisons!) and to continue both my personal activism practice – organizing the Beyond the Bars LA Conference, gathering signatures for the ReformLA Jails Campaign, etc – and my personal art practice as a maker of dance, music, and performance work. Finally, speaking of dreaming big, we’ve also just received a 21st Century Fox Social Impact grant to adopt ACT TWO from a play into a film!

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
The initial funding from the California Arts Council was only enough to last through the performance at UCLA in March. In my naiveté, I had thought that would be the culmination of the project: we would just create a show, perform it, and be done. Nope! I should have known better: Replicating dynamics of abandonment with a population of kids who have likely experienced abandonment in any number of realms of life is something to avoid at all costs and, by that time, the youth were so bonded to the program (and to one another) that we had to find a way to continue to provide a supportive and creative programming space for them to continue working together somehow.

So, I began talking with the Arts for Incarcerated Youth Network about merging, but of course it took several weeks to work out out those details… and, meanwhile, the grant ran out! So, for the month of April, I basically ran a program for 15 youth without any funds, paid staff, space, transportation vehicles… it was a little crazy, my husband and I picked up kids in our own cars from all around the city to take them to field trips and town halls and open mics and just make sure they stayed engaged in programming while we worked to find the program a new fiscal/administrative home.

Also, the requests I was receiving from the youth during that time were a LOT, in terms of supporting their needs from a social services standpoint: someone to take them to court, to help them open a bank account, to help them find a job, or a place to stay when they lost their housing, etc. It really tested my capacity, in terms of both actual labor and emotional labor, and helped me profoundly understand the complexities and challenges of the post-release process – we truly need a village, a deeply committed and engaged community with a breadth of skills and competencies, to help make sure these young people don’t just survive after incarceration, but thrive.

Please tell us about Arts for Incarcerated Youth Network ACT TWO program.
ACT TWO is a performing arts program for formerly incarcerated and system-impacted youth ages 15-24 from throughout Los Angeles, and a platform for young people of our community who have been impacted by the juvenile justice system to use the performing arts to tell their own story onstage.

From January through March of 2018, our cast of 15 young artists spent two days a week developing performing arts skills in order to create an original show, showcasing the creative voices of the young people most impacted by the criminal judicial systems in our community. Over the course of 10 weeks, our program participants built skills in theatre, dance, spoken word poetry, music, multimedia, and visual arts, and used those skills to work together to create a fully staged devised theatre performance.

The resulting show, ACT TWO, was performed to a sold-out audience at UCLA’s Northwest Auditorium in March of 2018. Through magical realism, movement, and poetry, this original piece of collaboratively devised theater bravely confronted the crisis of incarceration, and our power to transform it through the creative visions of our community’s young artists.

The show was an extraordinary display of the power of youth to creatively reimagine how knowledge and art can be used as power in the movement to end incarceration, deconstruct the school-to-prison pipeline, and reinvest resources into a more just and liberated future… and it was also a profound example of the transformative power that art can have on the lives and self-identities of young people. After the performance, two of the ACT TWO actors, both age 16, mentioned that they’d never had families – that ACT TWO was the first time they’d understood what it meant to be supported and unconditionally loved by a group of people. Another ACT TWO actor described the performance as “the best day of my life.”

We now meet up every week at Chuco’s Justice Center in Inglewood to work on adapting ACT TWO from the stage to the screen. One thing that I’m really proud of is the fact that the cast has consistently shown up for rehearsals every single week, despite having a wide range of challenging life circumstances. Some of our actors come to us from residential facilities where they are staying as they transition from incarceration back into community life. Some of our actors have been incarcerated in juvenile halls, probation camps, and even adult county facilities, and were released from incarceration mere weeks before joining the program. Some of our youth currently live in foster care or shelters. Some of our youth have incarcerated family members.

Some of our youth are activists with local community-based organizations, traveling throughout California to speak out about the juvenile justice policy changes that they want to see. ALL of our youth are absolutely brilliant and talented performers, bringing their firsthand experience with the school-to-prison pipeline to the artistic process with nuance, insight, and a deep commitment to creativity and change.

Another thing that I’m really proud of in terms of the program model is that we know how important it is for funds that go towards arts programs for formerly incarcerated folks to end up directly in the hands of the people most impacted by the criminal justice system. Making art is hard work! Offering stipends to our youth program participants not only provides a direct source of support and intervention in the cycle of recidivism, it also validates artmaking as a legitimate and viable form of labor. In a state where the creative economy comprises a large part of our economic growth, framing the arts as a vocation worthy of compensation is a form of workforce development for the arts sector – it communicates to the youth that their time, energies, and talents are valuable and worthy of compensation.

We also provide snacks for the youth at every workshop, as well as transportation – driving vans to Inglewood, Carson, Van Nuys, Highland Park, wherever we needed to go in order to make sure our actors can make it to the program. Additional leadership opportunities for our youth also arose over the course of the program: we were able to enroll several Agency Arts youth in paid internships with WDACS or the UCLA Youthsource center, to feature several Agency Arts poets at the UCLA Underground Scholars Just Culture Festival and the LA County Transitional Age Youth Conference, and bring two of our youth to New York City to participate in the Arts for Incarcerated Youth Network’s Create Justice Conference at Carnegie Hall!

I am now the Youth Development and Leadership Specialist for the Arts for Incarcerated Youth Network, an interdisciplinary collaborative that provides exceptional arts programming in order to build resiliency and wellness, eliminate recidivism, and transform the juvenile justice system. I’ve been working in deep collaboration with their extraordinary staff to take what we learned from ACT TWO and use those learnings to pilot the new AIYN RE-Entry Program. Right now, that program consists of two parts: YOUTH TO POWER – a peer-to-peer mentorship and youth development initiative for recently released Los Angeles youth – and the YOUNG ARTIVISTS LAB – a project-based learning curriculum for systems-impacted youth to engage their creative voices and visions.

ACT TWO:The Movie is the project that we’ll be working on in the Young Artivists Lab this Summer, but we’re really excited to see what other kinds of project-based learning experiences we could bring into that space moving forward – especially since AIYN has almost a dozen member organizations who provide exceptional arts programming for incarcerated and systems-impacted youth throughout LA. It’s an exciting time to be in such a rich community of folks and organizations working at the intersection of art and justice!

If you had to go back in time and start over, would you have done anything differently?
If I had to start over, I would have written into the grant some transition time – a period of weeks after the performance to support the program as we reassessed and took a look at possibilities for next steps. That month of sustaining programming and youth engagement without a funding infrastructure definitely almost bankrupted me – not so much in terms of finances, but in terms of my own energetic resources! So, so much of my time has been spent just worrying about these kids, and it’s really important to have a staff to help hold all of that energy – the investment, the concern, the victories, the stresses, etc.

I think if we’d had the support of a grant to help carry us through that liminal time period and set us up for continued success I wouldn’t have gotten as close to the cliff of burnout as I did. I’m trained as a performing artist, which means I’m trained to be an incredibly empathetic, sensitive, porous creature in my interpersonal relationships, and with this work, there are just limits to what you’re actually able to hold on your own, in terms of trauma exposure.

At the same time, I learned a lot during that time about the need to reach out for resources and community in the field, and I’m just so so incredibly grateful that both AIYN and 21st Century Fox recognized the deep value of what we were doing and showed up in the nick of time to offer the program the support it needed and deserved.

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
Brouk Peters

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