Art and justice reform advocates from around the country visit LA County's Campus Kilpatrick

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More than 120 artists and advocates from around the country gathered in Pasadena this week with the goal of developing a national plan for juvenile justice reform – one that both utilizes the restorative and healing effects of the arts, and incorporates the ideas of youth impacted by the justice system.

Their discussions and work centered around one central question: "How do we artistically co-design youth centered community systems whose outcomes are justice?"

To see a model for how to do so so, over 80 participants went to Campus Kilpatrick, Los Angeles County's new youth detention facility, located atop the hills of Malibu. There, they participated in arts workshops–including theater, drumming, poetry, and visual arts–and discussions with some of the 24 youth currently living at Campus Kilpatrick.

They visited as part of Create Justice: A National Discussion on Arts and Youth Justice, and this is the second forum they've held.

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One of the youth they met was 17-year-old Oliver (we're not using last names to protect the identities of the minors). He says he liked having the visitors on campus, and that he told them about his life before coming to Kilpatrick, and about his life there now.

"I felt like they were listening to me," he explained. "They were making eye contact ... while I was talking, always nodding their head like understanding me, and they always had extra questions to ask."

He said he wanted the visitors to know that the campus itself is beautiful, and that the staff there are kind. He thinks more youth camps should be like Campus Kilpatrick.

In his time at Kilpatrick, which opened in July, Oliver has participated in workshops in theater, poetry, and drumming. He says he likes the arts programs when they're offered, because they help make time go by faster, and he learns arts skills he can use in the future. 

While the visiting artists and advocates were on campus, he and some other youth joined them for a theater workshop in the campus gym, facilitated by the Unusual Suspects Theatre Company.

Together, they created a play about a time they felt unwanted. Oliver played the main character, a kid who receives a letter from his friends, telling him they don't want to be his friend anymore.

He said at the beginning of the workshop, he felt unwanted like his character. But, through acting the scene out, he says he felt better.

"I had to be sad when I was reading the letter," he explained. "I had to be mad."

In the play, his character finds new friends, who invite him to play with them.

"And then later, the other kids that wanted me to play jumprope with them – I felt happy, because I finally was wanted."

That was exactly the point: to make the youth feel involved and valued in the process of developing the reform intended to help them, said Arts for Incarcerated Youth Network executive director Kaile Shilling.

"It's not easy, and it's not perfect, but we thought it's really, really important to do everything we can to make sure we're having this conversation with the young people who are impacted by the justice system," Shilling explained.

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While some attendees of the forum were at Campus Kilpatrick, others–including youth leaders–met at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena to tackle the same central question. Both groups shared their insights with each other on Tuesday at the Armory Center. 

The group will meet next at Carnegie Hall in New York in March 2018. There, they plan to share recommendations for a national plan. 

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