Arts program unlocks creativity among young people involved in the justice system

A watercolor painting of a sunny day with waves in the ocean curling over just before they curl over a wood canoe gliding through the choppy waters.
Youth Arts: Unlocked participants learn about Japanese art during the Edo era by creating their own versions of “The Great Wave off Kanagawa.” Photo: Courtesy of Youth Arts: Unlocked

Introducing Shakespeare to young people in the Genesee County Juvenile Justice Center isn’t always an easy sell — at first.

In many cases, those who are temporarily housed there have had little exposure to theater, visual arts, yoga and other programming that Youth Arts: Unlocked teachers have provided in the facility since 2011. Introducing participants to the skills and creativity that arts programs inspire is a core tenet of the program, one that can be particularly inspiring to observe as transformations take place in students.

“Bringing Shakespeare in, they (the students in the program) hated the idea of it at first and didn’t see how it applied to their lives,” said Ella McAndrew, a theater instructor who has been with the program since 2013. “I teach improv theater and Shakespearean improv, and we are currently dabbling in mythology.”

Kids stand on yoga mats n their socks with their arms streched out to their right holding the pose. An instructor guides them through their yoga stretches.
Young men at the Genesee County Juvenile Justice Center participate in a strength and stretching yoga class as part of Youth Arts: Unlocked. Photo: Courtesy of Youth Arts: Unlocked

McAndrew said the key is rethinking teaching methods and making the course content accessible and relevant to students. The theater program uses an improvisational style because it isn’t feasible for students who pass quickly in and out of the facility to memorize scripts for traditional productions. Instead, they are given parameters and lessons within a class period, and they come up with their own improvised scenes and dialogue.

“Building relationships with these kids and seeing that they’re willing to trust you and have fun for a little bit is the reason I keep coming back,” McAndrew said. “It’s an hour and a half every week where they can just be kids while they’re dealing with some very heavy things. There’s laughter, and there’s creativity, and seeing that every single week is what keeps me walking through those doors.”

Teachers in the program use improv games to introduce the students to Shakespearean themes and stories, without necessarily saying the work involves Shakespeare. That approach makes the material more accessible.

“Every once in a while, a student will recognize, ‘Hey, this feels like “Romeo and Juliet.”’ And we can say, ‘YES! You just did an entire Shakespeare play!’,” McAndrew said. “Shakespeare can feel hard and unattainable, but we made it something they were interested in and thought was cool. We’ve continued to apply that method to mythology stories from all over the world.”

Since 2021, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation has provided $60,000 in grants to support Youth Arts: Unlocked. Shelley Spivack, co-founder and executive director of the program, said funding from Mott and other partners is “really instrumental in our ability to keep going and to grow.”

Youth Arts: Unlocked uses a research-based, trauma-informed curriculum to deliver visual arts, dance, poetry, yoga and theater to young people ages 10-17 who are being held at the justice center pending court action or other placements. Many of them have experienced trauma, neglect, bullying, abuse and other circumstances that have adversely affected their lives.

“Most of these kids … haven’t had opportunities to learn about other cultures, and our programs do that,” Spivack said. “We teach them while also giving them an opportunity to express themselves.”

This photo shows the arm of a teenaged child writing about his/her feelings on what it is like to be a teenager. The words read: As a teen we get treated as kids...But have responsibilities of an adult. And when we mess up ??? It takes away (writing not visible?) and I want to cry in the...(writing not visible?)...every hour is taken from...
A young woman writes out a poem during a “Herstory: Unlocked” spoken-word class at the justice center. Photo: Courtesy of Youth Arts: Unlocked

Creativity and growth

The program originally was developed as a 12-week pilot offering weekly visual arts and spoken-word poetry workshops. It has grown to a year-round program that serves approximately 300 students per year. The curriculum helps improve literacy and emotional growth, and it teaches young people how to begin using their own voices and language to communicate more effectively. They also learn that various forms of artistic expression can serve calming roles in their lives.

“Students have told me that when they’re doing art, they feel so relaxed or calm or happy,” said Sharlene Howe, who has more than 17 years of teaching experience with the Genesee Intermediate School District and has taught in the Youth Arts: Unlocked program since 2021. “A lot of times they have hardened shells for different reasons, so they actually have an awakening while they’re creating art and realize they’re just having fun and creating.”

A particularly positive outcome for teachers is when students ask them for information on how to pursue various arts programs when they’re no longer at the juvenile justice center.

“The most rewarding thing is watching the kids come out of their shell and develop confidence in their speaking and ability to work together,” said Dan Gerics, who has taught theater in the program for six years. “When we can keep interest in theatrical performance, that’s really cool. A couple of times, students have come up to me and said, ‘I’m going to be out of here in a couple of weeks. Where can I go to audition for shows?’ It is pretty cool when that spark happens.”

Howe said students in the program are curious and excited about where their artwork will be displayed or viewed by others. The juvenile justice facility has a gallery where student work is displayed for visitors. Some of the artwork also has been exhibited elsewhere in Flint, including Buckham Gallery and the Flint Crepe Company.

A collage made of layers of construction paper in primary colors depicts two wild horses running to a river that flows from a range of mountains with ever greens on them.
During an art class, participants in Youth Arts: Unlocked learn how to create a composition collage using different shades of paper for the background, middle ground and foreground. Photo: Courtesy of Youth Arts: Unlocked

Artwork from students in the Youth Arts: Unlocked program will be displayed in March 2023 in an exhibit at the University of Michigan-Flint’s new Riverbank Arts gallery space. In addition, Spivack said the opening of the new Genesee County Juvenile Justice Center in 2023 will allow more space for their artwork to be displayed.

Howe said students in the program often go through a transition — from thinking that participating in the arts is something they must do to being something they want to do.

“In some cases, they realize they need this because it helps them,” she said. “As a teacher, watching that unfold is beautiful.”

The Youth Arts: Unlocked program has continued to grow despite having to move to virtual formats during the COVID-19 pandemic. Spivack said dealing with COVID-19 restrictions forced teachers to develop new instructional methods that strengthened the program as it has returned to an in-person format.

“It was such a challenge to teach through Zoom, but it definitely sharpened our teachers’ skills,” Spivack said. “It also helped the center gain even more understanding of the necessity of our programming and its impact. We were the only group doing virtual programming there during the pandemic.”

There is more growth on the horizon for the program. With funding from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, staff from the program will work with researchers to integrate the Youth Arts: Unlocked curriculum into programs at the University of Michigan-Flint. Spivack and fellow UM-Flint faculty member Emma Davis created workshops at UM-Flint to show how the arts are an essential part of the learning process in sociology, criminal justice, anthropology and other courses.

To learn more about Youth Arts: Unlocked, visit