Youth Arts Public Art

Program Description

In 1996, the Portland Regional Arts and Culture Council, in collaboration with the Multnomah County Division of Juvenile Justice Services and other local arts organizations, initiated the Youth Arts Public Art program in Portland, OR, with funding from Percent for Public Art.4 Youth Arts Public Art was designed to serve small groups of youth ages 14 to 16 who were on probation in the Portland juvenile justice system for any status or delinquency offense except sex offenses. The goal of the program was to achieve the following participant outcomes:

  • Improved art skills.

  • Increased awareness of art education and careers.

  • Recognition of new skills.

  • Positive relationships with adult role models and peers.

  • Improved self-esteem and attitude toward the future.

  • Improved social skills (e.g., communication, teamwork, empathy).

Improvement and gains in these areas were expected to enhance academic and social success and reduce involvement in delinquent behaviors.

We need to teach our youth that all behaviors have consequences, not just the bad behaviors. Youth Arts Public Art provides youth with new art skills, gives them a chance to use those skills in developing quality art, and gives youth a chance to succeed and to be rewarded for their positive behavior.
Youth Arts Public Art Probation Officer

I learned what I can do with photography. I'm pretty good with the camera. I hope to get a job taking pictures for a newspaper or magazine.

Youth Arts Public Art Participant

In the beginning, I wanted to be sent back to court. I didn't want to have anything to do with this program. Now I'm very involved and consider myself a leader.

Youth Arts Public Art Participant

A lot of people got to see my work. It made me feel very proud of what I had done, and that doesn't happen very often.

Youth Arts Public Art Participant

The Regional Arts and Culture Council worked closely with the Division of Juvenile Justice Services and arts organizations to develop Youth Arts Public Art, determine its goals and objectives, and define the roles of the collaborative partners and their staff. Staff positions included a project manager, probation counselors, artist instructors, and local data collectors. The director of the Portland Regional Arts and Culture Council served as program director. The council was responsible for daily program operations and hiring and training artists and other program staff, and it allocated Percent for Public Art funds to provide most of the art supplies (e.g., video equipment, costumes) and pay the artist instructors. The Division of Juvenile Justice Services provided probation counselors to refer youth to the program, provide case management, and assist the artists in conducting the workshops. In addition, the probation counselors often provided transportation for participants. The Division of Juvenile Justice Services also provided snacks and gift certificates as incentives for youth participation. Other local arts organizations allocated space in their facilities for program workshops, exhibits, and performances and provided video equipment and costumes for theater productions.

Artists and counselors received orientation training before the program sessions. The training focused on program design, goals and objectives, background of participants, and rules and regulations. In addition to this training, several artists attended an orientation for probation officers that was conducted by the Division of Juvenile Justice Services to help them better understand the program participants and the role of the probation counselors.

Creating monoprints in the Youth Arts Public Art project in Portland, OR. The Regional Arts and Culture Council and the Division of Juvenile Justice Services identified three probation units to participate in the program: Southeast, North, and the Gang Resource Intervention Team (GRIT). The Southeast and North units included youth from at-risk areas in Portland who were on probation for status and delinquent offenses. The GRIT unit included youth identified as gang members or involved in gang activity. Probation officers in each unit referred 15 youth from their probation caseloads to the program, based on their term of probation (i.e., the youth had to be on probation for the duration of the program). Although 45 youth were referred (15 from each unit), a total of 37 actually participated in the sessions (12 from North, 11 from Southeast, and 14 from GRIT). Attendance was not mandatory for youth from the Southeast and North units, but once the youth agreed to participate in the program, they were expected to commit to the entire 12 weeks. To promote attendance, these units offered time off probation and/or community service hours in exchange for active participation. For the GRIT unit, attendance was mandatory, and a $100 gift certificate was offered as an incentive for participating in the program. Despite this incentive, attendance by the GRIT unit referrals was low and sporadic.

Youth from each unit participated in a 12-week session that met for 2 hours, 3 days a week. The program sessions focused on different art forms, selected by the project manager and the supervisor of each probation unit. The North unit received instruction in photography (e.g., use of equipment, style) and poetry (e.g., presentation, forms of poetry), the Southeast unit studied videography (e.g., use of equipment, techniques, sound, editing), and the GRIT unit studied theater (e.g., set design, costumes, script writing, movement). In each session, the youth worked with the artists and counselors in small groups to develop quality public art and to prepare for a final exhibition or performance. The North unit participants published a book of their photography and poetry that focused on aspects of their everyday lives. The Southeast unit developed a short informational video about new juvenile justice legislation affecting youth in Portland, including interviews with local politicians and judges. The GRIT unit performed a play that depicted life in a gang and that involved both music and dance.

Evaluation Activities and Findings

In January 1997, probation counselors for each of the three probation units selected youth for the comparison group from their existing caseloads. They attempted to identify youth who were similar to participants with respect to age, sex, and other important factors (e.g., court history, living in high-crime areas). Although the counselors invited 45 youth to volunteer for the study, only 22 agreed to participate. These youth were given a modest stipend for their participation.

As in Atlanta, data were not uniformly available for all youth in the two groups. Complete preprogram and postprogram data from the YOC survey were available for only 19 of the 37 core participants and 13 of the 22 comparison youth. Program-related skills assessments were available for 21 participants. Only nine program participants were available to participate in data collection for the followup evaluation. Participant survey and archival data were augmented with interview data from the staff artists and with data from focus groups of the participants themselves.

Based on the end-of-program participant skills assessment, all 21 of the participants had gained the skills necessary to produce quality art, had produced art, and had received public recognition for their work. According to the program staff, the participants took great pride in their work and looked forward to the public recognition for their achievements. In fact, for the GRIT unit, it was only after the artists threatened to cancel the final production because of poor rehearsal attendance that the group became serious about their work and participation. Every youth in the GRIT unit was present for the final public performance. As shown in figure 3, most of the youth also showed improvement in all program-related skills during the program period, particularly in their ability to cooperate with others. The project manager and artists also observed improvement in the participants' ability to work as a team and form new friendships.

Figure 3: Program-Related Skills Exhibited by Youth Arts Public Art Participants

Findings from the YOC survey were also promising. Although the number of program participants and comparison youth who completed the survey was relatively small, there were noticeable improvements in participants' self-reported involvement in delinquent behavior during the program period. Additionally, a greater proportion of participants than comparison youth showed improvement in their attitudes toward school, resistance to peer pressure, and self-efficacy. These findings were supported by focus group data from the nine participants interviewed at the 19-month followup. These youth said the program taught them self-respect, ways to get along with others and work in a team environment, and, especially, the importance of taking responsibility for their actions. In addition, they said the program helped them recognize their talents and—most important—opened their eyes to opportunities and career options.

More sobering was the fact that, although most of the youth acknowledged that dealing and using drugs were wrong and illegal (as reflected in their survey and focus group responses), many considered these activities a necessity—for money or to escape everyday life. These youth were very open about their daily "reality," which for many involved guns, violence, poverty, homelessness, and fear. For these youth, involvement in the program was very important because, as one youth explained, "It gave us a safe place to spend time and it provided us with an opportunity to feel good about ourselves."

Because of difficulty in locating academic data for participant and comparison youth, especially those who did not regularly attend school or who attended alternative schools, little can be said about the impact of the program on academic achievement. Anecdotal information from participants suggests, however, that the program was successful in changing how some of the youth felt about education. As a result of their program participation, some youth reported that they are getting their priorities straight and trying to do better in school.

Although limited by the quality and quantity of evaluation data, findings for the Youth Arts Public Art program suggest the program may benefit some youth involved in the juvenile justice system. Using what has been learned about program implementation and impact, program staff are refining the program to emphasize what works and change what does not work. Additionally, reassessing which outcomes are realistic from a 12-week arts-based program with high-risk youth has become a priority for program staff during the redevelopment phase. They acknowledge that the problems facing many of the youth involved in the program (e.g., neglect, physical abuse, homelessness) are more serious and require greater intervention than Youth Arts Public Art can offer. Staff are also reevaluating the appropriate target population to be served by the program.

Plans for the Future

The Youth Arts Public Art program used the evaluation results and lessons learned from the first year of operation to make important changes to the program.

Greater awareness of implications of art media being selected. The project manager and staff learned that they need to be more careful when selecting the art media to use with different populations of youth. For example, they discovered that the use of theater with youth in the gang unit, who are guarded and reluctant to put themselves in vulnerable situations on stage or off, was probably a poor match. A less threatening art form, such as the videography project, might have been better suited for this group of high-risk youth.

More emphasis on recruitment and attendance. Program staff determined that attendance rates would need to improve for the program to be successful. By serving less serious offenders and targeting youth who express an interest in the arts, staff hope to have greater success at maintaining participants' interest and increasing involvement in the program.

Greater collaboration across sessions. The project manager is working on the development of increased collaboration among the various youth groups involved in the different sessions, which would expose youth to more art forms without significantly increasing program cost. Additionally, the joint project would provide opportunities for youth from diverse backgrounds to work together toward a common goal.

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The YouthARTS Development Project Juvenile Justice Bulletin May 2001