Stormwater Studios hosted an art exhibition and educational panel on Thursday, titled “Girls Speak." The event highlighted art made by adolescent girls who are currently juvenile offenders at the Lexington County Juvenile Arbitration Program.
The exhibition sought to de-stigmatize labels like criminal and offender and provide an open and safe space to talk about obstacles in these girls lives, as well as empower them. To protect the safety and identities of the artists, the pieces were displayed anonymously.
“The curriculum was really about building these girls up, so that had a lot to do with sisterhood," Jessie Rogers, who works with USC Art Education and has taught art classes for the county, said. "It was really about building a community behind that feminist player.”
The event featured not only the art exhibits but also a reception ceremony and a public forum with a panel made up of esteemed guests that included forum facilitator Olga Ivashkevich, Associate Professor of Criminology Tia Stevens Andersen, graduate history student Elizabeth Sholtis, Director of Lexington County Juvenile Arbitration Debbie Hester and Rogers.
“I think what makes it so wonderful is that art to me was used as a tool for girls to process the traumas in their lives, and the struggles that they're working through," Stevens Andersen said. "It was a very collaborative process where the girls could lean on each other and the facilitators and express themselves in ways that were really important to their healing."
While the panel largely discussed the use of art to aid rehabilitation, other hard-hitting topics, such as the role of race and sex in policing, societal expectations on young adults and how that impacts behavioral outbursts, were covered.
The open dialogue of the panel promoted audience interaction and questions, which the panel members encouraged. Stevens Anderson also touched on the need for community involvement.
“We can't police our way out of youth crime and (policing) not gonna fix it, what's gonna fix it are people in the community coming together to make a difference in kids' lives,” Stevens Andersen said.
According to Samantha Hitchcock, an empolyee of the Aribitration and Restitution of the Department of Juvenile Justice, the effects of the art program are not small, and the numbers of youth reoffenders are low in Lexington County.
“From the numbers that do come in, the success rate is great. There is a couple that will reoffend, but for the most part, this is kind of stopping (youth) from ruining or starting and snowballing,” Hitchcock said.
The success of the art program has greatly helped young girls not only leave behind past mistakes, but learn about themselves as young women Stevens Andersen said.
“They don't want to be associated with this label. Why would they want to be associated with this label? They want to be artists. And so this is who they are,” Ivashkevich said.
Along with the girl's artwork, the event focused on the work of arbitrators, who are volunteers who work alongside the families of children in the system. While every case and child is different, arbitrators will work with the child to get them access to mental health support, tutoring, community service or into the Arbitration art program itself.
"It took me a while as a person coming from a completely different field to understand," Ivashkevich, who is also an Art Education professor, said. "We are really not understanding the entire process and especially the role of the arbitrators because those are people who come from the community who are just caring people who are volunteers, and they are mentoring the girls."
According to Hester, the arbitrators' work focuses largely on rehabilitation and preventing reoffending, rather than punishment.
“We let them know at the hearings, they are protected. They are not to be labeled," Hester said. "They are to learn from this.”