The Keshet collaborative began their work by thinking through the question: How might organizations work together to connect direct service provision to broader policy change for the benefit of vulnerable New Mexican families? Framing this question specifically for youth within the juvenile justice system, original partners – Keshet, NM Voices for Children, NMCAN and the Arts for Incarcerated Youth Network – sought to develop direct services and policy change, with the goal of generating meaningful systemic change in New Mexico’s juvenile justice system.
The collaborative’s approach was multipronged:
- To address connectivity between the real-time issues youth faced who were currently in, or in danger of becoming part of, New Mexico’s incarcerated youth.
- To generate meaningful policy change that could support and positively impact thousands of vulnerable children and families; and
- To establish New Mexico as a leader in progressive policy change that would benefit and heal communities.
While some collaborative partners shifted during the COVID-19 pandemic, the root of this work has remained at Keshet, as they have continued programs for youth inside juvenile facilities, and expanded opportunities to work with youth who had recently left facilities or were “system impacted,” meaning youth who may have been arrested and/or convicted without incarceration.
Critical to the success and sustainability of this work is having youth voices at the table to inform program development and policy changes. Through The Keshet Arts & Justice Youth Leadership Council, young people are working together to amplify voices of system impacted youth by providing educational resources, peer support, and access to an uplifting community. Collaborative partners have also hired youth leaders – members of the Council, who have transitioned out of juvenile facilities or have connections with the justice system – to help support juvenile justice programming, education and outreach.
Emani is a youth leader at Keshet, a Co-Chair of the Youth Council, a member of the Arts and Justice for Youth Collaborative, a home health aide worker, and a student at UNM’s EMT training program. At 17 years old, Emani was arrested, suspended and faced near expulsion from Highland High School. A year later, she graduated 14th in her class and set off to help change the landscape for system impacted youth in New Mexico.
Rashad had been in and out of street life since he was 12 years old, and entered the Youth Diagnostic Development Center at 17 years old. Today, he’s a Youth Leader at Keshet and is using his writing and rapping to share his life story.
This are their stories, in their own words.
I am a 19-year-old, honors graduate from Highland High School in Albuquerque. I ranked number 14 in my graduating class. The way I started my journey to where I am today…when I was a junior in high school, I had just moved from Hobbs, New Mexico. Coming from there, where my family is from, there was a lot of negative, a lot of death. There was a lot going on down there, where I felt that people needed a spiritual cleansing.
I had to defend myself a lot; I had to be this hard, external person so that I didn’t get pushed around or feel like I was being bullied. I was the new kid in Albuquerque. I was loud. I was obnoxious. I was confident and not everybody liked to see that and hear that. I got into a lot of fights. Not even a couple of weeks into starting school, I got into my first fight and it just progressed. It worsened, because I was not able to control myself and I fed into it.
I was a straight A student, and I almost got expelled from school. I’ve never really lacked in school, but because I had that hard external personality, even though I had good grades, I didn’t get along with my classmates. It was hard for me to get along with my teachers because I was always in defense mode. Every time they said something to me, I was always quick to be at my own defense – so I wouldn’t feel like I was being attacked.
I got into a fight with a girl, and they wanted to charge me with aggravated battery. I got to the police station – they asked me a whole bunch of questions about why I was there – and I ended up talking myself out of that situation. I wasn’t booked inside that night. They booked me, but I was able to leave with my grandmother. I still got charged with aggravated battery, and was court mandated to go to anger management classes. I was put on a school contract. I couldn’t walk to my classes without a police officer walking with me; I couldn’t eat lunch without a police officer. I felt really boxed in.
When I had my APS school hearing, it was with the Vice Principal, school coordinator, the APS representative, and maybe one or two other people. Basically, we went in, and the school coordinator said his case. They looked at my files and they were about to say I was going to be expelled for the following year. My mom stepped in and said, “My daughter hasn’t gotten to say anything. You don’t even know her, and you’re basing this decision off of a situation that you weren’t even there for. You’re watching a film.”
These girls had been bullying me since I got to the school, and it just keeping building and building. So, the person from APS started reading through my transcript, and reading through the comments from my teachers that said, “Please let her come back. We really enjoy her.” APS decided to let me go back to school, but on a contract. If I was tardy. If anybody made a complaint about me – I would be expelled. I walked on thin ice all through the rest of the year.
It was so dramatic because I was in the period when I was doing ACTs and SATs. I was in all AP classes. It was such a hard shift. I was suspended for two weeks, and in just that timeframe, going back, I had all Fs. Within those next couple of months, I got all of my grades back up and was able to apply for EMT classes at the Career Enrichment Center because my GPA was high enough again.
I think it was for the better. I didn’t really appreciate how the process went, but there’s always room for progress – especially within myself. So, I took that time to reevaluate who I wanted to present to my community, and who I wanted to be. And, that’s how I started the Youth Council. The goal was to connect with system-impacted youth, like myself, and educate them on the system. I feel like, if my mother wouldn’t have spoken out, I would have just gone along with the decision, and I would have been expelled – even though I knew I didn’t deserve it. But, when you know about the system and how it works, it’s easier to feel like an equal because you’re not getting run though.
I started the Youth Council at the very end of my Junior year, and coming into the summer of my Senior year, I knew I was going to focus on building the Council. I was experiencing my own injustices and it made me want to do more for the youth here. It was really about educating youth on the system, and how they could be proactive in their community – how they could make change here in their own town.
I was already doing therapy with Amanda Santiago at Centro Savila – an amazing woman. Very loving and very caring, and understanding. I was doing individual sessions and family counseling. As I talked to Amanda more and more about wanting to make change, she said, “You know, there are these community board meetings that you can go to.” For the youth detention center, they assign different board meetings with judges, parole officers, police officers, social workers and therapists, who are able to speak about policies and things that are going on inside the detention center. The very first meeting I ever went to was called “The RED” – racial, equality, discrimination division.
When I went, there were no other youths. I was a 17-year-old kid, coming in and talking about what I thought needed to change. I was just speaking and putting my voice in the atmosphere. It opened up so many doors. It really opened up not just physical doors for me to do different things, but mentally, it allowed me to grow. I don’t think there is ever a time when you’re just OK with injustice, but I started to understand that not every action taken against injustice has to be violent or angry.
I went to this meeting and didn’t know anyone. I finally introduced myself and people were surprised to have a youth there. It turned from everybody talking, to me just sitting there asking my questions. I was never scared to ask questions – I would stop the meeting and say, “I don’t know what we’re talking about. Can you explain it to me?” I think that’s where people started to realize that they needed more youth involved. That, for me, really opened up the idea that my voice is important – that I’m going to say something and people are going to want to listen. That’s when I thought, “I should start a Youth Council.”
At these board meetings, I was also doing JDAI (Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiatives) meetings, and they fund different programming inside the detention center or for students coming out of detention. Students are provided with resources to help them stay on track to either find a source of income or put in community hours. I was at a JDAI meeting and Shira from Keshet was there. She introduced herself and we just started talking, talking and talking. It went from us talking about dance to art, and to how art weaves into the justice system. It really just clicked for me. I had never thought of integrating the arts into justice, or knowing that my poetry could change the minds of policy makers and the people who are affecting children’s lives. It sparked a lightbulb for me.
That’s when I learned about Movement for Mercy. I told Shira I had never danced before, and she said, “Anybody can dance! Don’t worry about that. Never say you can’t do it.” She said, “Just come, try it out and if you don’t like it, that’s OK. But, I think you’re gonna love it.” And, I did. I loved it.
I went to my very first rehearsal and I didn’t know my body could move like that. It was really fun. Then to understand what Movement for Mercy was, made me feel so much more comfortable. Movement for Mercy is a collaboration between system-impacted youth and older people inside and outside of the system. Teachers are working with youth in the system to bring their work to art shows. There are no restrictions – it can be as vulnerable or invulnerable as you want it to be. For a lot of youth, that made them feel like they were in control of something – that they were doing something.
We were having teachers go inside, learn choreography with youth, and then bring it back to us so that we could learn the choreography and showcase it in our Movement for Mercy show. And then when the youth get out, they get offered a job at Keshet as a Youth Leader. They can also be a Council Member and participate in these workshops to learn more about the system.
When I started working with Shira, the goals of the Youth Council started changing, as I began realizing what I wanted to accomplish with the arts and justice system. Centro Savila mainly focuses on mental health – which I completely support – but what I wanted to do something with the arts and justice system. I just switched the Council over to Keshet under the Arts and Justice Network.
We created a structure that allowed youth to not have to commit to having a job or being an employee of Keshet; they could just be a Council member and attend monthly meetings, and get a stipend for the meetings. There are also Executive Committee members and Co-Chairs – these are people who do more public speaking, interviews and educating on the system.
As a Youth Leader, you can really determine what you want to do. For me, I dance for Movement for Mercy, and I’m also choreographing my own piece. I did a poem and recorded it – that will be put to the choreography for my dance piece. I think being a Youth Leader allows for other youth who are system-impacted or inside to see that there’s a different future.
Just recently, me and Juliana, another Youth Leader, did a workshop for the youth in Keshet’s KP3 Program (a pre-professional dance program), which is for young people to learn all different dance skills that they can put on their resumes. These are youth who live everyday lives – they are mostly white and not system impacted. But, they live in Albuquerque and they know the struggles that people face.
Juliana and I talked to the youth about the Council briefly, and then played them a Marvin Gaye song called, “Inner City Blues.” It has a lot of imagery – a lot of the struggles, police brutality. Each person took a word from that song and created their own movement, and then we made a full phrase. We showed them that just that quickly, you can make movement that is designed for justice, and integrate the arts and justice systems.
I think the biggest thing about youth who have been impacted by the system is to remember that we’re learning. I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t think anybody has all the answers. I think we all have to work together to create something beautiful. For myself, it’s about being patient. I am still young; I still slip up and I still make mistakes. I still have to alter my way of thinking because my lifestyle has created this alternate way of how to go about things. I’ve had to break out of that habit, and create positive alternatives for myself.
When I come into contact with people who knew the old me – who don’t know me now, I have to explain to them, “That was me then. But I’m not that person anymore.” I have to be patient and understanding with them. I do home health care for the elderly and assisted living. I have graveyard shifts. This year has been really scary for older people. My very first graveyard, I watched a man die. It was so awful, but having to get into the habit of seeing people go, makes you have a different kind of patience for people. Life is all about finding ways to help me learn. If there’s something I don’t know, I hope someone will educate me, so I can learn it and grow.
I was born in Ft. Worth, Texas. I was brought here [Albuquerque] at a young age – just due to domestic violence between my mom and dad. My mom came out here to escape. We already had family here so it was easy for her to come out here.
I’ve been in Albuquerque since I was two; I grew up in the Southeast – so, they call it the War Zone; not a very popular part of town. I’ve been fighting poverty probably my whole life – and in and out of the street life since I was about 12.
I did some very bad things and I got some time. I struggled with trying to change habits and ways I would get money – I’ve been struggling with that since I was about 15, when I had my son. I got incarcerated at 17. Turned 18 and got out when I was 19. I never had a dad, so I started taking steps to change things for my son. I felt obligated – like I had to do it. Obviously, my son didn’t ask to be here. I feel like it’s my job. I didn’t want my son feeling the way I felt growing up. In YDDC (Youth Diagnostic Development Center), I realized that even though I didn’t choose to leave my son, my actions affected him.
At YDDC, I was connected with Keshet and their programming. I started working with them and doing dance classes through Zoom. One of the other clients there – he had gotten out a little before me – and he was connected with Keshet. I saw how he had gotten a job with them and how they fit his creativity into their programming.
I’ve been connected with Keshet for about a year and a half. We stopped classes for a little bit, but then I transitioned to another pod – it was an honor pod at La Mesa – and they connected me back with Keshet. Then, I had started reaching out to Keshet – letting them know I wanted to work with them and asking how I could connect with them outside of the facility, after I got released. The last month before I got out is when we took the steps to get me actually employed with Keshet.
Just seeing the way Keshet works with the community and tries to give back really caught my eye. I was big on restorative justice when I was in YDDC. Seeing the way Keshet works with community – and the type of work they do – really drew me into the programming. I had to transition from going into the system as a juvenile and coming out as an adult. It’s kind of hard to start working, especially if you’re not used to it, and Keshet has been very lenient and flexible with my schedule. They knew I was incarcerated and they were willing to work with me. They knew I did stuff in the past that I wasn’t proud of, but they still treated me equally as if I didn’t do anything. That made me feel really comfortable about reaching out and trying to work with them.
I have a team of Paul [Teaching Faculty], Eddy [KCA Theater and Facilities Director], Alija [Database Systems Coordinator] and Elysia [M3 Program Director]. With Elysia, I’m working on myself – I’m taking typing courses and courses for marketing because I want to get into my own fashion and design. I want to learn how to sell my own music. With Alija, I’m logging in data on the computer. I might clean the lobby sometimes and make sure it looks presentable. With Eddy, we’re making sure the building looks up-to-date. We paint and fix the lights. He’s going to be teaching me how to use the soundboard and work the lights – sound engineering and stuff like that. Paul is about working on myself, too. We’re tapping into my creative side. We’re supposed to visit some recording studios and meet with producers to see if we can get some of my songs out there. We went to a couple of art galleries, just to see different variations of art.
Now that I’m a Youth Leader too, I just joined the Youth Council. We do more work with the youth justice system, and things that are wrong or right, or things that we think should be changed within the youth justice system. It’s about youth in general, and how we can build our community to help youth stay out of incarceration before they become adults.
A lot of the staff at YDDC are involved in clients’ growth and trying to get you rehabilitated. That helped me, and knowing that some of the staff have been in the same walk-of-life that I was in – whether that was involved in the streets or homelessness. I was more drawn to those staff because I felt like they understood me more. It’s harder for someone to judge you for something that they’ve gone through themselves. It just feels more comfortable – so I want to be that type of person for other people.
For the future, I would like to see members of the Youth Council going to the facilities and actually speaking to kids. I would like to tell my story to kids to let them know that they’re not alone, and they can actually reach out. I’d like to build a connection with them in-person and let them know that they won’t be judged.
I know Keshet is based off of dancing, but I’m a rap artist. I would like to have a couple of pieces of poetry or raps in the shows at Keshet. I feel like art is a way to express yourself – you paint, you dance, you rap, even haircutting. You’re reaching out to let people know your story or your pain or you just want people to see things through your eyes.
For me, my art – the rapping – is a way for me to express myself. I had a lot of aggression and built-up anger, just from being alone for so long. The type of lifestyle I was in, it was very easy to get hurt being so young. I had to be more aggressive. A lot times, instead of saying that I was sad or showing I was sad, I would get angry or just get frustrated. That was one of my biggest problems – I didn’t like opening up to people. That was where a lot of my issues went unsolved and unresolved.
It all goes back to my son, and I started realizing that my anger was going to get me taken out of my son’s life. So, rapping was the way I could get my emotions out without me feeling judged; it was a way for me to actually identify my feelings – seeing them on paper, writing them and rapping them out loud.
Everybody has struggles – no matter where you come from or how much money you have. It doesn’t matter. I would like people to know that as long as you keep going, you get through it. I’m religious – I’m not gonna say everybody else is – but I believe that God has a plan for everybody, and everybody deserves to live a great life. If you’re alone, reach out. You keep pushing, no matter what the struggles are because there’s a light at the end of that tunnel.