What Happens When Youth Train the Police? An Interview with Mark Strandquist, Performing Statistics
By Elizabeth Johnsen
Organized around the question “How would criminal justice reform differ if it was led by currently incarcerated teens?”, Mark partnered with Art180 and the Legal Aid Justice Center to connect incarcerated teens with artists, designers, educators, and Virginia’s leading policy advocates. Together they created films, photographs, protest posters and immersive exhibitions that travel the state and become the basis for materials used in schools to challenge the school to prison pipeline. Inspired by one of these exhibits, a Richmond, Va. police chief opened the door for their police training initiative.
In the summer of 2016, youth created an arts-based training program for Richmond’s active duty Police force to hear youth perspectives, trauma-informed policy strategies, and alternatives to arrest/incarceration. The Opportunity Agenda talked with Strandquist in November to learn more about Performing Statistics and how the project is breaking down barriers between Richmond’s youth and community police officers.
Can you tell us more about the police training and why it’s important?
We are at a moment of high tension in our country between the police departments and the communities they are working within. In Richmond, we saw a rare chance to develop a relationship with a new police chief and, hopefully, get ahead of some of the things we’re seeing around the country. For some context: more students in Virginia get kicked out of schools and sent to police officers than any other state in the country.
And yet the state has no mandatory in-school training for police officers. So you can be in a school with a gun or a Taser and not know a single thing about youth development, de-escalation, restorative justice, trauma-informed care or any of these things that we believe not only would keep kids out of the juvenile justice system, but would keep them safer in schools. We saw this as a crisis, but also as an opportunity. So we turned to incarcerated teens and asked them ‘How would you train police?’ ‘What questions should they have to answer?’ ‘What research or training should they have to go through before ever getting to step into a school?’ And that became the foundation for what has become our police training initiative.
We are at a moment of high tension in our country between the police departments and the communities they are working within. In Richmond, we saw a rare chance to develop a relationship with a new police chief and, hopefully, get ahead of some of the things we’re seeing around the country.
For the training, we used the teens’ art exhibit as a classroom to walk police through their lives – the struggles they were going through – and then layered in a bunch of different speakers to that experience. It’s a four-hour training. During the first hour, they immerse themselves in the teens’ art, journaling about what they’re seeing. After that first hour, there’s a facilitated dialogue where formerly incarcerated youth’s family members, former police officers, and brain development specialists work with the officers to talk through what they’ve seen and experienced. We use this dialogue as a way to highlight conversations about the school-to-prison pipeline and what trauma-informed policing would look like. That leads into a whole section on brain development and trauma. We end the training making art with the police officers while they talk about what they wish people knew about them.
Essentially, we are trying to break down stereotypes on all ends and work with the police themselves to think about what they can do to foster better relationships with the communities they’re working with. We’re training recruits, we’re training long-term officers, school resource officers, narcotic and gambling units, we’re training the entire police force.
One of the things that feels very powerful about what you’re describing is creating a space where long-held ideas between youth and police can be transformed. Did you witness an example of this kind of transformation at the training?
There was a moment during the training that really stands out. After the police see the work of the teens, we asked them to go to the art piece that they most connected with and say something about it. One officer stood next to a piece where the teen was talking about growing up with family struggles. The officer started sharing his own experience about how, when he was a kid, he had no idea what his mom did. She made sure he had food on the table and clothes – even though it wasn’t a lavish upbringing. When he became an officer, he somehow researched her background and discovered that she had been involved in sex work and had been arrested multiple times for prostitution. It was an incredibly powerful movement in the training where he talked about the relativity of right and wrong and the things people do to take care of the ones they love.
It ended with him having this emotional moment, crying and walking out of the room, but being comforted by the other police officers. Having the space to get beyond the stereotypes and seeing ourselves on the other side of class or race or the uniform… well, there’s something about art that can break these barriers down, if only momentarily.
When I hear folks talking about trainings or forums, art is not what immediately jumps to mind as the medium. Could you talk a little bit more about your strategy in using art for these events?
At the end of the day, we’re all constantly performance artists. We’re performing roles, some of which we have agency within and some of which we have very little. Acknowledging this helps you think about how art can create a stage for alternative scripts, conversation, and roles.
I think that, on a basic level, the environment radically transforms a conversation – always. Could we do this training in a cold fluorescent-lit classroom? Of course. Would it be as powerful as it is when the space is filled with incredible art by the youth? I think it would be a radically different experience.
Think about how encountering another person’s experience on a very human level can change the way we think or talk about things on a policy level. We believe that no policy can change until that perception shift happens. They go hand in hand. We also don’t believe in just creating some beautiful art with incarcerated youth and putting it on a wall. That work has to be activated through trainings and parades and other forms of public engagement. It’s a mutual relationship that allows for deeper impact.
What windows of opportunity did you see working with officers? And what are the key things that could move this work forward now that the training is over?
We’d love to get to a place where we’re able to work with the recruits a couple times a year or more. We had officers say ‘Can we do this once a month? Once every two weeks?’ You definitely see a huge shift in their perceptions of youth and the role of police officers in communities.
I think some of the officers are really looking to have this kind of conversation and to become better advocates for the youth that they’re working with. I think that, culturally, officers feel like they’ve been asked by society to take on more roles than they’re trained to do. I don’t think that most of them believe they should be in schools. I don’t think they believe they should be social workers or the multitude of other roles they’re not adequately trained to do. If they are going to take this on, they need to be trained better.
There are many actors along the school-to-prison pipeline and the two actors that I think get the most blame are the youth themselves and police officers. This distracts from the policies, policy makers, school boards, codes of conduct in schools – all of the things that are really perpetuating the massive push of kids into the criminal justice system. We just blame the most visible part of the system as opposed to actually trying to address those root causes.
We know that these trainings alone are not going to solve the issues that we’re trying to fight, but they are staging grounds to develop relationships that can solve those issues. To truly change culture and policy, this work needs to be way more sustained. As we try to raise more funding and develop our relationship with the police department, that sustained engagement is something that we’re trying to work towards.
We are building on a huge legacy of amazing organizing and advocacy work. We’re excited to get the word out about our project if for no other reason than to connect with others that are doing similar work. I know there are layers that we’re missing – other ways in which we can bring people into the conversation and vice versa. Once we’ve trained the departments in Richmond, our goal is to train every officer (or at least every school resource officer) in the state and then beyond. Our biggest need is connecting with folks around the country.
This election has shown the deep divisions in our society. Your project shows that two groups traditionally pitted against each other can come together to find solutions. How can the rest of us learn from this?
This is something that we are constantly trying to figure out. What our project does best is use art to understand the power and limitations of any discipline. The most powerful photo created is only going to have so much of an impact. But it can create the most incredible public stage to bring folks together. It can positively charge an environment and allow us to get beyond the stereotypes, to rewrite these scripts, to perform a new way of working and living together.