Jan 18

Look Beyond the Prize: an interview with Mr. Nelson

by: Carly Rapaport-Stein

In November, Restorative Youth Practices Manager Ellissa Collier, PJJSC Executive Director Mr. Nelson, and I sat down to chat about the impact that Mural Arts has had at PJJSC (Philadelphia Juvenile Justice Services Center). Read on to learn about the powerful transformations that happen when students begin to tap into their creativity.

Carly: I’d love to start by talking about the impact you’ve seen by having Mural Arts here at JJSC.

Mr. Nelson: If right now, I took you around to every unit, and let you talk to every child, they’d tell you: I can’t wait till Mural Arts day. When youth get here and interact with the Mural Arts teachers, they get to be a part of it, and they get to have a say. Every time a mural was put up, we talked to the kids and asked them: what would you like? What would you like to see? How do you see and understand it?

A lot of their day-to-day interactions involve being told what to do and how to do it, but in the context of Mural Arts’ classes, they show how creative they can be. It’s just like them–these kids really have something great to offer. If you learn how to draw, if someone draws that creativeness out of you, no one can take that away from you. Anywhere you are, if you’re eating, on the bus, at church, no matter where you are, you can draw a picture.

And it’s a skill you see them passing on. We had a meeting with our staff a few weeks ago, and one of the staff brought in crayola tools so that everybody who had their kids could sit and color. It’s not just something they can have, but something we can share.

We just had a group visit from Argentina and they loved the murals. Everybody wants to take pictures of the murals, everybody wants to take a selfie with the murals–they are that impressive.

How does this translate into something they can do? We belong to JDCAP (Juvenile Detention Centers and Alternative Programs) and they have an art program now. Kids all over the state send in things, and we’ve won it two times. It’s the artistry. You see how proud the kids are, and you see how proud their parents are.

Ellissa: I want to ask you about the student’s self-esteem. Because I know the students have a lot of shame–they feel like being here is the end of the world. How do you think the arts affect a student’s self-esteem?

Mr. Nelson: It’s one of the most powerful impacts that I’ve seen, whether it’s drawing or creating or writing. Their ability to express their grief, sometimes express their guilt. It brings them full circle. Even in their drawings sometimes you’ll see that they draw their life–from their childhood to the things that may be going on currently. I remember one child drew a picture and it was all black, but behind it there was light, and it was his 4th grade teacher–that was, as he saw it, the first light that came into his life. The guilt, the grief, the trauma come to the forefront when you see their pictures. It’s almost like therapeutic intervention that they can draw and come back to realize that, I’m still a person, I have dignity. But it’s also a point of self-esteem, and a moment where they’re applauded for their work. One of our residents has a picture in DC in the National Museum of Art. He won two contests here and as it moved forward he got to the top of the national competition, but for him, as a child, nobody every said great job, good job, atta boy, anything. Not that you recover everything at once, but he’s in a different space than he ever was, self-esteem wise. Just based on people recognizing and acknowledging, he’s got some skills.

We often talk here about BARJ, or Balanced and Restorative Justice. That there’s no victimless crime, and sometimes they find, either in their writing or their drawing, that they hurt somebody–because when you draw something about your life and you look at it and you think how it impacted you, they also think, well I may have done the exact same thing if it was somebody else who was impacted.

Ellissa: I wanted to ask you about the mural that’s in the gymnasium. We thought the students would go with an athletic quote or a sports quote, but they chose instead: “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson .”

Mr. Nelson: They have their own mind, they have a value system, they have care and they have dignity. If you just give them a little opportunity to express it, they will. They’re really great at what they do–they’re intelligent, they’re bright, they’re giving, they’re understanding, and they’re probably more forgiving than we are, and we could take a lot from them. It’s so important to get their feedback because it impacts them, their self-esteem, their understanding, there’s self-esteem and then there’s that confidence and belief that you can accomplish anything. If there’s a kid in a unit that can draw really well, every kid feels happy because they have that kid with them that can draw. They’re like: look he’s on our team, and our picture’s going to be better because of it.

Carly: It sounds like it doesn’t only build self-esteem, it helps both the student and the community grow.  

Mr. Nelson: No matter where it is, what you see is, a growth kind of pulling someone out of their shell, talking more and interacting with people. When the kids are engaged, you start to see so much cooperation and interaction. One of the things our kids don’t really understand is competition without aggression and violence. With Mural Arts, they can be competitive, but they don’t need to be aggressive or violent. It helps them understand that while you can be competitive and eager to do well, but it doesn’t have to be by negating somebody else or putting somebody else down. Kids from North Philly, South Philly, they’re all in a room together cause art can cool it out.

Carly: Thank you so much, Mr. Nelson. I can’t wait to see what projects bloom up from here next!

Last updated: Jan 18, 2017

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