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Library Art Program Aims To Dismantle School-To-Prison Pipeline

Dane County 'Making Justice' Initiative Serves 500 At-Risk Teens

pizza prep
Bridgit Bowden/WPR

In 2011, black youth in Dane County were 15 times more likely to spend time in secure detention facilities than their white peers. Once kids make their way into the justice system, it can lead to challenges that ripple throughout their lives.

Making Justice is an art program for teens who’ve had contact with the justice system, and it’s aiming to curb these numbers. The program is run by the Madison Public Library, where Jesse Vieau is a teen services librarian.

“By definition, teenagers are at risk,” he said. “Because that’s when you take chances, and we all did.”

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Making Justice’s goal is to provide a platform for those at-risk teens to express themselves, learn new skills and meet potential mentors.

A Making Justice participant makes pizza as part of a lesson about anthropology. Bridgit Bowden/WPR

Youth across Dane County participate in the program, including those in the Dane County Juvenile Detention Center. Making Justice, which is run through the library’s Bubbler program, started in 2013 and now serves about 500 kids each year.

“The most basic outcome is to have tried something new and know whether or not you like it based on experience, not just word of mouth or reading about it or making assumptions,” Vieau said.

One of the program’s weekly groups is made up of young people who were referred to Making Justice by the court system, through the Neighborhood Intervention Program. At the end of the program, they’ll put on an art show.

High school junior Surprise said she’s tried a lot of new things in the class, and learned things she “didn’t think it was possible to learn.”

“Like art,” she said. “I hate art. And when you bring art and me, it won’t work. But I did it.”

Each week, the group learns new skills that range from painting to writing raps to cooking food. The kids meet partner instructors that include students and faculty from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and local artists, they learn that art isn’t limited to just visual art. Last month, they learned how to make pizza.

“Art to me can be gardening, it can be cooking, painting, screen printing, you know. It can be so many different things,” said program partner and local artist Carlos Gacharná.

Local artist and Making Justice partner Carlos Gacharná helps teens in the class make pizza. Bridgit Bowden/WPR

Gacharná grew up in Madison, and took some risks when he was younger, he said.

“Police officers and that kind of thing could have sent me down a different path, but decided not to,” he said.

He could have easily been in the same situation as the teens in the program, but he got lucky, he said. Now, he’s hoping to help others stay out of the system.

“So many of the kids that I see are on the edge,” he said. “So if I can just pull them back before they get into one of those situations where you might not get lucky, then you know, hopefully I did a good job.”

Gacharná said he tries to make the classes about more than just the physical items that they’re making. So when they learn to make pizza, they also get a lesson about anthropology. They learn that food is one of the best ways to learn about other cultures.

“To me, art is a vehicle to teach about a whole bunch of stuff,” said Gacharná . “So, I get to teach about culture, I get to teach about science, I get to teach about history, about elements of design. In a sense it’s a vehicle to teach about expanding learning in general.”

Gacharná and the other partners have a great rapport with the kids, playing popular music and making jokes. When sixth-grader Tremayne’s pizza collapsed into a heap of dough and toppings when it was bring transferred to the oven, Gacharná helped him fix it.

“I’m kind of angry and happy at the same time,” Tremayne said. “But now, I created a new thing!”

For Gacharná, Making Justice is about more than just the skills they’re teaching.

“I feel like we’re on the front lines of dismantling the school to prison pipeline,” he said.

Gacharná said art and good mentors were what made the difference for him, and he hopes it’s the same for the kids in this program.

Editor’s Note: WPR agreed to identify juveniles participating in the Making Justice program by their first names.