Growing up in Highland Park, Johnny Ortiz always wanted to be an actor, but he had no idea how to get started.
At the age of five, he recently recounted, he called 4-1-1, asking for advice. The operator gave him a phone number.
"I called the number but it was a false number," he said. "I guess she just didn't want to break my dreams, you know?"
Instead of chasing his acting dreams, Ortiz ended up joining a gang at 10 years old. At 15, after being charged with robbery, he landed in juvenile detention.
But it was there that Ortiz was finally exposed to formal acting classes.
Four years ago, the Unusual Suspects Theatre Company came to do a ten-week workshop at Camp David Gonzales in Calabasas. Through the program, inmates learn about performing and write their own plays. At the end of the workshop, professional actors come in and perform what they've written.
This experience made Ortiz even more determined to turn his life around and pursue acting once he got out. When he was released, he started volunteering and taking acting classes through the Boyle Heights theater CASA 0101. And eventually started booking gigs – including on the TNT show "Southland," ABC's "American Crime" and with Kevin Costner in the Disney film "McFarland, USA."
Now, at 20, Ortiz has become a shining example of the possibilities of moving from juvenile detention to a full-fledged career in the arts. And he’s part of a coalition that’s aiming to help others do the same.
"When you get these programs and you sit down and start writing the feelings that you have and you see the other writing, the meaning that it has inside," Ortiz said recently at a gathering of arts advocates celebrating expanded arts offerings in juvenile detention centers. "It’s so powerful, so we just gotta help out every kid that we can."
Dozens of arts organizations have been working with incarcerated youth for decades – giving many of them their first exposure to arts instruction. Now, the focus is on connecting kids who've built those skills to concrete job opportunities once they're released.
"I call it a reverse pipeline," said Ella Turenne, an arts activist and educator. "We talk about school-to-prison pipeline a lot. If we can reverse that, we just have to make a path [to a career] that doesn’t have obstacles."
Turenne has launched the Create Economy Create Autonomy Project, which aims to build a systemic bridge to help formerly incarcerated youth get arts-related jobs in Southern California.
The Otis College of Art and Design's latest report on the creative economy solidified Los Angeles region's status as the creative capital of the country, with a higher concentration of creative workers than any other metropolitan area. Citing these statistics, Turenne said opening the pathway to arts careers "just makes sense."
A big part of this project is building a partnership with a cooperative of arts organizations who are already reaching these young people while they are inside.
The Arts for Incarcerated Youth Network (AIYN), a cooperative of nine organizations working in juvenile detention centers, have banded together to try to transform the experience of juvenile incarceration.
"Part of what we’re trying to do is change the system that the kids are in and as part of that help the kids see a pathway to a lifelong career, possibly in the arts," said Kaile Shilling, executive director of AIYN.
"Can we all ban together can we create a systemic bridge, a pathway?" Shilling said. "If we all pitch in a little bit we end up being able to do so much more than any of us could do by ourselves and it’s been really amazing to start to dream together."
To build the bridge out, the work starts in the camps. The groups in AIYN just wrapped up the first cycle of 11-week programming in 10 juvenile facilities in L.A. County.
Inmates took creative writing and poetry classes, participated in mural projects and at Camp Afflerbaugh in La Verne, young boys enrolled in an African drumming class.
"We tell them at the end when we roll to put the emotion into the drum," said Anindo Marshall, an instructor with the Rhythm Arts Alliance. "Just really let that drum support that emotion."
Probation officers say that some of the boys seated next to each other – smiling and playing intently – are from rival gangs.
Seventeen-year-old Jaquan (we're not using last names to protect the identities of the minors) has been at the camp for eight months and says this is the only activity that’s more than just a way to kill time.
"This is a good way to let out a lot of stuff like anger, frustration, stress," he said.
He said he thinks it's "pretty sick" – stopping to add, "like, sick as in cool" – that more young offenders are getting the opportunity to regularly participate in activities like this.
"It could make you think about a lot of stuff, change your life, do better," Jaquan said. "This could be something you could do on the outs, you could probably do it for a living."
That's exactly the lesson the groups are hoping the students take away from the programs. But inculcating ambition isn't enough, so advocates are also trying to make sure that the young people forge relationships with working artists that they can maintain after they're released.
Taylor Code Maxie, Jr., 37, was incarcerated 20 years ago when he participated in a writing workshop from Street Poets Inc. He says learning to express himself through writing changed his whole world and he stayed connected with the group after he was released.
"The relationships being forged with people in that network opened up doors for me to get jobs in the film industry and a really high end architecture firm," Maxie said.
Now he works as a teaching artists with Street Poets Inc., and goes back to teach in the same facilities he used to be in.
"It’s a really humbling experience," he said. "It gives my life more purpose, more meaning."
Maxie also spoke at the event hosted by the AIYN and the Create Economy Create Autonomy Project. He said that as someone who has been an advocate for juvenile justice and the arts for decades, he's thrilled to see the work gaining traction.
"There used to be a time where I would walk into a room full of other people doing this work and I would know everybody," Maxie said. "But today I'm in a room full of a whole bunch of strangers and that just speaks to the impact that this work is having."