A platform co-created with and for artists with justice histories that seeks to (a) elevate their voices and artwork, (b) raise awareness about the vital role of art and community in the reentry and criminal legal systems, and (c) help reduce the social stigma against people with justice histories.
Client: The Creative Arts Program at The Fortune Society
Team: Jamie Maleszka & members of the Creative Arts Program
Art Portal is the output of my MFA thesis, which I developed in collaboration with the Creative Arts Program (CAP) at the Fortune Society (Fortune).
Fortune is a reentry organization whose mission is “to support successful reentry from incarceration and promote alternatives to incarceration, thus strengthening the fabric of our communities." They serve around 9,000 new yorkers per year.
Fortune is among very few reentry organizations that has an Arts Program through which they offer workshops in Music, Creative Writing, Acting, Drawing, and more.
Even though I had contact with other stakeholders from the organization and the CAP, Art Portal was mostly created with the Director of the program and members of the Creative Writing workshop.
Tools & Methods
I started the project in early 2020 by learning about the criminal justice system and the impacts it has on the people that have contact with it. I specifically looked at the way the criminal justice system intersects with (and negatively impacts) people who have been detained, convicted, imprisoned, and those who come back to the community after their release. This meant I had to dive deep into understanding Mass Incarceration, the Carceral State/Prison System, and reentry.
At this initial stage, I conducted comprehensive secondary research comprised of reading books and online literature, listening to podcasts, and watching documentaries, ecosystem mapping, stakeholder mapping, and interviews among other research activities.
In my research, I found that the most common reentry services are indeed fundamental to keeping people alive. However, I also found that there is a gap in the system when it comes to tending to social-emotional needs. And it turns out that those are what allow for healing, growth, and a sense of fulfillment in life. I juxtaposed this insight with Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs to map the unattended needs. The top 3 levels are the ones that enable healing and post-traumatic growth, these are what help us to build meaningful lives beyond survival for the long term.
My research also showed that self-expression through creativity and community-building are rarely (deliberately and intentionally) included in the breadth of reentry services. They are seen as disposable and nice-to-haves. However, what I’ve learned through research and also in my own life is that given the tools for self-expression in community, people can tend to those needs.
Working The Fortune Society's Creative Arts Program
To address this problem, I got the honor to collaborate with Fortune and their Creative Arts Program. My way into the organization was Jamie, the creative writing teacher (back then, now the Director of the program) who invited me to her workshop.
I came into the space wanting to learn about the organization, the workshop, mostly who the community members are, what they want, and how could I support them. The Creative writing workshop is a group of ~15 participants from diverse backgrounds and demographics, all of them impacted by the criminal legal system, and all of them now growing their writing skills. I attended the workshop for months, participating and actively listening, and slowly earning the community's trust.
To better understand the organization, the systems, dynamics, and people, I conducted additional research which included audits, stakeholder mapping, interviews, surveys, and presentations to validate learnings and assumptions.
I learned a lot from my research, but the three top learnings were:
1. the workshop is a Healing & Brave space. And Art-making is life-affirming for them.
3. they want to reach out to connect with more people and expand the community. And more broadly, to reach the mainstream to create empathy, and reduce social stigma.
3. Sharing work with others is important to them, and most want to be published.
Based on the research, learnings, and insights I asked myself, how can we build upon what's working in this workshop and create a structure that supports the desires of the group, while also addressing the gap in the reentry system?
How Might We build a structure that provides individuals with justice histories with access to a community of peers and opportunities to develop artistic and personal practices that can help them in building long-term stable and meaningful lives?
I proposed to my artist friends in the workshop and the organization to co-create an online platform to address this question, and they welcomed the idea with excitement.
Building Art Portal
To co-create the platform, we formed an Advisory Board composed of myself, Jamie, and 5 volunteer artists from the workshop.
I met individually with the members of the Board, and also facilitated co-design workshops where we discussed things from the goals of the site to the logotype to the audience and calls to action to the color palette, etc. We proposed, discussed, voted, and agreed on the best ways to move forward.
Weaved into our collaboration is the intention of making this process one of mutual learning and capability development. While I learn from their expertise and their lives, I also get to share an insight into the design universe, as well as guide them into developing a sense of agency, confidence, responsibility, and leadership. I hoped they would take pride and ownership of the platform, and become advocates for its rollout.
Art Portal is an art-centered platform co-created with and for people with justice histories that seeks to
(a) elevate their voices and artwork, (b) raise awareness about the important role of art and community in the reentry and criminal legal systems, and (c) help reduce the social stigma against people with justice histories.
Art Portal is composed of seven parts: Publishing, About the CAP, Resources, Advocacy, Financial Support, Tech Help, and Documentation.
In building the platform as we did, the process becomes an output itself. The totality of the intervention is both the tangible outputs and the process of creating them. It is a system, the Art Portal System.
The Longer-Term Vision, The Dream
The dream is that Art Portal will be a drop in the sea of the reentry system that makes big ripples. We start small and niche in the Creative Arts Program at Fortune and work hard to make waves that touch other organizations, and then hits the whole reentry system; and at last, that reaches the general public.
The change I/we want to create starts by humanizing and valuing the individuals who have been and are impacted by the system. Art Portal is a tool that advocates for holistic reentry services that foster growth and healing, not just survival. It Advocates for programs, organizations and systems that promote mutuality, opportunity, justice, and love.
Above all, my Long-term aspiration is that this platform becomes a vehicle for individual and collective healing. I believe in something we say in the creative writing workshop all the time “hurt people hurt people, and healed people heal people”. I hope that we can extend the healing powers of art + community to many more people impacted by the prison system and that those who are more healed, like my friends in the workshop, can become healers in their worlds.