We're not making artists; we are helping to restore human beings. That is a lot of space for a lot of experiences.
Shaun Leonardo and Derek Fordjour are both New York City artists on the rise, with shows in places like the Guggenheim and the Whitney museums. They also work with Project Reset, our program offering people arrested on a low-level charge the chance to complete a brief program—like an artist-led workshop—and avoid both court and a criminal record.
The program, which began as a pilot project for teenagers, is set to expand to cover people of all ages across New York City, partnering with arts institutions like the Brooklyn Museum. New Thinking host Matt Watkins sat down with Leonardo and Fordjour to talk about how art can function as an alternative to the traditional justice system, and the responsibility they feel as artists to combat a racialized criminal justice system.
“In many cases,” notes Leonardo of the mostly young Black and brown men he has worked with through Project Reset, “what we discover is that criminality, and the way in which these particular bodies—our bodies—are criminalized, happens well before they were arrested.” Art, and the space carved out to create it, becomes a means to disrupt those narratives—as much individual as societal. And with that comes a chance to rethink some of the decisions that might have led to contact with the criminal justice system in the first place.
For Fordjour, the work is about affirming humanity, including his own; he credits his involvement with Project Reset with helping him to speak publicly about his own potentially life-altering brush with the justice system 20 years ago. “Every day we go in the studio, it's full of potential." As Fordjour explains of the Project Reset participants, "that's the space that is for them empowering.”
The following is a transcript of the podcast:
SOUND UP East 138th St.
Matt WATKINS: Welcome to New Thinking from the Center for Court Innovation. I'm Matt Watkins.
We’re in the South Bronx. It’s a sweltering New York City afternoon.
A woman selling fruit from a sidewalk cart chats with a customer; Robert Moses’s Bruckner Expressway rumbles overhead.
This is a neighborhood of truck parking lots and former factories with names like “Philip Knitting Mills” still etched in stone above the entrance.
The artist, Derek Fordjour, comes down from one of those buildings to let us into his studio.
SOUND UP greeting
As we say hello, today’s other guest, Shaun Leonardo arrives. On foot. Thirsty.
SOUND UP Shaun
Shaun and Derek are both New York City artists on the rise, with shows in places like the Guggenheim and the Whitney Museums.
We’re here to talk to them today about their work with people caught up in the justice system. And—maybe—about what art and artists can do that nobody else can.
Derek and Shaun both work with our program, Project Reset. It offers people arrested for a low-level offense the chance to complete a brief program—like an artist-led workshop—and avoid both court and a criminal record.
Project Reset started as a pilot program for teens. It’s now covering people of all ages and will soon expand across New York City.
Up in Derek’s studio, we sit around a table we built out of cardboard boxes. Sunlight pours through the windows; large artworks in progress lean against the walls.
Shaun is something of a pioneer when it comes to using art in place of the justice system—you’ll hear him reference a program he started called ‘Assembly.’ So, I began the interview by asking him how he sees that work fitting into who he is as an artist.
SHAUN LEONARDO: Any trajectory to my practice that I might share will sound overly clean as a narrative. But I will say that I think there was somewhat of a dramatic shift in my practice, or at least in the content of my work, when Trayvon Martin was killed.
The work holistically has always been for me about questioning identities, or I should say, rather, preconceived notions of what masculinity means—particularly in brown and Black communities. And really it led me to start to question around Trayvon Martin's death and then every subsequent death—Michael Brown, Eric Garner, the list goes on and on. I had to ask myself: how is it that these definitions of manhood, specific to Black and brown men, have a direct correlation to the ways in which they are killed?
In other words, the perceptions of fear that directly lead to their death. It was also around that same time that through my performance practice much of my work was expanding outside of my own concerns and I was bringing participants in to the process. The first work that was a direct response to police violence was a piece entitled ‘I Can't Breathe’ in which I staged what was felt and thought to be a self-defense course.
And it was over 45 minutes in which I would address what was being taught— actual self-defense maneuvers—through the lens of police violence and it culminated of course in the chokehold that took the life of Eric Garner.
It was right around that time that I was thinking about my work through ideas of embodied performance; what it means to take information that would otherwise exist only in your mind and move that elsewhere in the body so that you would have a different type of experience, a different type of bodily knowledge around the work.
It's in that capacity that something that would otherwise be reduced to an argument or a headline or just a debate, all of a sudden takes on more complexity, takes on much more of a visceral experience, and it's much harder to walk away from.
I still to this day consider my work within the criminal justice field an art project. It's indistinguishable from any of my other works.
WATKINS: It was two or three years ago now that you start to get involved in providing this arts-based alternative to young people who've ended up in the justice system—generally in a fairly low-level, but still can be a really consequential, way. Then you decide, I'm going to give Derek here a call, and I'm wondering what made you reach out to Derek?
LEONARDO: My chief partner in this work is the Center for Court Innovation—most directly Brooklyn Justice Initiatives. And it was right around the time that the Recess diversion program, which we entitled ‘Assembly,’ started to take hold that my good friend, and Derek's now friend, Aaron Charlop-Powers, approached me about the expansion of a similar platform.
WATKINS: And moving it into this Project Reset, the program that Court Innovation runs.
LEONARDO: That's right, Project Reset. And to think about: what would an arts-based program look like in its most rapid form? After initial intake, lowest-level misdemeanors, one two-hour workshop or moment, particularly with youth, at the time. And in my point of view, I immediately started to think about artists that could really use that time in a compelling way, and Derek came to mind.
WATKINS: And why Derek?
LEONARDO: To me, it requires someone that can both talk the talk and walk the walk. What's crucial about a project like Project Reset is that in this very limited timeframe, the conversation that can be generated through the arts process can be both critical and fulfilling. I think what Derek brings to the table is a touch, and this is something that is not quantifiable—or even tangible.
WATKINS: And so, Derek, unlike Shaun, you tend to work more in a studio, working more by yourself. What did you think when you got the call from Shaun and how's the experience been in general?
DEREK FORDJOUR: Well, it's funny because we've never had this conversation, but I first owe him a thank you because without that recommendation I would have never come to this work and I would've been in my studio, just sort of doing my thing.
I trust his work. I think he trusts mine too, or what I'm in it for, and those are some of the things that are hard to put into speech. But I think at a spiritual level, Shaun and I always kind of saw each other, and it wasn't just a friendly thing. I think he really, as he expressed, was very thoughtful about who would be there. What he did not know is that I had an arrest experience that happened to me when I was 19 that I had carried and not spoken about for 20 years.
It was kind of a family secret, it was my secret, and there was a lot of shame around it for a long time. I had just asked myself the week prior how I can take what I'm doing in the studio dealing with the art world, which is a particular demographic that is not exactly boots to the street. I was starting to feel a bit isolated, and I was wondering how I could make my practice more relevant to people that look like me, everyday people, people that are indigent and poor.
And then I got a call from Aaron, who said Shaun. There was a divine connection I felt about that call and I knew I had to take that because it was literally an answer to a question I had asked a week before.
WATKINS: You feel doing this criminal justice-based work is what's helped you to talk about this experience?
FORDJOUR: Oh man, it was so cathartic. I mean, that's not even what I thought it would be about. I thought I would not discuss that, but sure I thought it was a motivation for me, that this is a way to deal with what I was carrying and pay it forward and work with young people. But very quickly I found that in the space of doing this work that narrative was a kind of capital. That it was a way to gain immediate trust that the young people knew what my investment was and why I was there. I didn't think about the fact that sometimes they could perceive you to have a job or to be doing what you're obligated to do.
WATKINS: Or you're kind of “the man” in this situation.
FORDJOUR: Yeah, like you're the adult.
WATKINS: Your “mandated artist session.”
FORDJOUR: Exactly. So as a way to engender trust, I started to position my own personal biography and narrative as a way to make myself vulnerable, and it would work every time. In that I started to reassess and to reconsider my own feelings and experience through the lens of all these other experiences and it became very personally cathartic for me.
WATKINS: Let's talk about what's actually going on “in the room where it happens,” where you're doing these, it's two hour sessions, right? So there's really not a lot of time—you guys have been working with young people—to help them process these often traumatic experiences. You are the “court-mandated artist.” What are the ways that we quickly try to set up a different atmosphere?
LEONARDO: Knowing that the program is court-mandated and that there are expectations that the experience will be punitive, one of the first things that I address is, I say, “I'm not interested in the case at all. I'm not interested in your guilt nor your innocence. What I am interested in is what we can accomplish in the two-hour period through a collaborative effort.”
And it's in that simple line that I try to establish a tone, and try to establish a working environment that regardless of why a person enters that space through those doors, that those expectations of punishment and shame can be set aside for a moment and that for those two hours I might guarantee that it will be worthwhile.
WATKINS: And it's also an experience where some of the people you're working with have not been exposed to capital-A Art all that much and the whole thing might seem very intimidating to them. A lot of the art world is set up sometimes to not be that welcoming to outsiders—wealth and whiteness, Derek, you said to me at one point.
FORDJOUR: Yeah. But I think artists ourselves have always been fairly democratic. I think that the space that artists occupy is not fixed. That we can be many things, that we assert our humanity. I think that that's the way I think of myself and Shaun as well. I think when you approach them on that level it works.
WATKINS: And so Derek, we bring people in, we’re trying to establish a vibe right off the bat that says, “hey, I'm coming to you honestly, let's have an experience together and let's make it meaningful.” You and Shaun are different artists, so what does that work look like for you?
FORDJOUR: I'll tell you, a breakdown in terms of time is the first 10 or 15 minutes is a “get to know you.” I'm going to know who they are, what borough they come from, something interesting about themselves. I share the same. And then I invite them, much as Shaun described, to take a ride with me, that if they could just suspend what brought them here and if they can just commit in terms of focus and energy over the next 90 minutes we'd be in good shape.
They usually buy in. Immediately following that we do an art activity, which is very rudimentary to art for me, which is drawing from life. We put together a still life. We light it. Everyone has their own workstation and they begin an observational drawing which is very direct. It's put down what you see. This is about process, it's not about product. Just let's go for it.
We choose a song—they all choose the music, which is very often contemporaneous music. I'm a little older now so I can’t DJ [laughs]. But they play some music that's relevant to them, very often Lil Baby or something really cool and that gets them comfortable and they start working. And halfway through the exercise I have everyone stand up and we walk around and look at each other's drawings. Some people are struggling, other people are overly-confident.
But in the process of looking at each other's works they generally develop more confidence. We finish the exercise and we have a critique session and it's at this point that we walk around and look at the works as a group, everyone enters the discussion to critique the work. I find this to be really team-building. There's a lot of comradery that evolves at that point. They're kind of gentle with each other.
And then we return to the circle that we started with for 15 minutes and we recap and that's where I unpack that this is sort of an object lesson. That they came in not knowing anything or not having any of these skills. They trusted the process, they learned from each other best practices. That together we could assess that everyone has something to offer at the end in the critique.
And so how they could then apply these things to life is what the concluding kind of exit conversation is about.
WATKINS: And, Derek, when you were saying that at the end of the two-hour session there's a reflection and that's the time when you want people to think about what they've learned and apply some larger lessons. I mean, I realize we're not making widgets here and trying to just produce result x at the end of this process. But what are the ways in which you think doing this still life and this collaborative process is helping people maybe think about their life a little differently or decisions, I guess, when it comes to what led them into this mandated artist’s session?
FORDJOUR: At the risk of sounding self-congratulatory or Pollyanna, I think the degree of transformation that's possible within the setting of two hours is limited. What I find to be more impactful—when you actualize and you activate your body in an activity, to me that's the point of transformation.
It's not necessarily the object lesson in that everybody's going to click into that and walk away from here and skip home and never... I don't think it works that way. But feeling validated, having time carved out for your expression—which sounds very simplistic but I'm basing this on the response of the participants.
One of the things I never expected to happen, I'm eager to hear how this works with Shaun as well, was in my first few sessions asking them at the end, “how was that?” And I thought they would say, “Oh, we barely made it through, it was arduous.” Almost every session half of them would say, “That was relaxing,” like they got a massage.
WATKINS: Well, it's a time of focus and presence.
FORDJOUR: Yeah, and I never thought about the gift it was to give people studio time, but then when I thought about it that's what I enjoy about being in the studio—I'm playing my music, I'm barefoot, I'm not thinking about anything else. And I guess in an effort to be pragmatic, I really kind of discounted that.
But that time to young people who have been discounted, who have been processed, who have been targeted—all the nonverbal cues they get around value and self—to say, “hey, I'm going to give you time, and this is your space to do your thing.” They really felt grateful for that.
LEONARDO: And just think about that in which they're brought into a scenario that they've been obligated to be at, being told that otherwise there may be consequences.
And then we’re greeting them into instead a situation where we're inviting them to cancel out the noise, and to understand that while you may have been brought into this situation through expectations that it might be punitive, we're going to bring some value into these two hours of your day.
WATKINS: Make it expansive not punitive.
LEONARDO: It absolutely correlates in the ways in which their personhood, their creativity are given validation. You're talking about Black and brown young people, and even in the older populations that I've worked with, in which that creative spirit has in many cases never been validated. They're coming from school environments in which there aren't even art programs.
FORDJOUR: But you know what Shaun? And even thinking about the power of creativity and I really try not to get into hokey territory, but in listening to Shaun talk about it, how do you solve problems? How do you solve any problems? It's creativity! At a core level, these people have made poor decisions in many cases. I decided to smoke weed with my friends… I wanted to shoplift because my cousin said so…
It's just classic poor decision-making that's evidence of a lack of maturity. But creativity is how you rethink those skills or those desires to be rebellious. So, I have an object lesson, because we have to structure the time—all of our teaching artists will have an object lesson—but I think the transfer happens experientially, and not in the time schedule.
WATKINS: And it's often said about the criminal justice system that the process is the punishment, and in this instance you guys are... I mean, this is going to sound, if not hokey, kind of something… but the process is the possibility, or the gift, in a way.
FORDJOUR: It's true. I'm curious, Shaun—not to take your spot here—but what happens in your time? I never have had the time to-
WATKINS: That was my question, so it's perfect.
FORDJOUR: So, we're both curious about this! And I don't know if you've ever seen Shaun’s performances.
WATKINS: I have indeed.
FORDJOUR: Powerful. So, I’ve been dying to know what happens in that time.
LEONARDO: I attempt to, in many cases, steer right into the reasons that they are appearing before me. But I don't center their personal stories of arrest and/or incarceration. Instead, I might offer a single word as a prompt, as a starting point. Typically, what I move forward with is some sort of emotive space, something that might capture a sense of being.
I might say something like, “we're going to organize ourselves, or we're going to share stories, around the word anxiety, isolation, desperation.” And so, of course, it's in that space that quite often their own narratives of arrest may rise to the surface because it's a raw experience. And then the nature of my work is to take those stories which are not shared aloud, but rather with someone else in the room that is a stranger.
But then we allow those stories to be channeled through someone else's body, a different participant. And so, the principle is that two very powerful things can happen when you take a story and translate them into a performative gesture, as minimal as it might be, without words. For the storyteller, they get, for the first time, to objectively see their own story played out in front of them–
WATKINS: –by someone else–
LEONARDO: –by someone else, through a different body. Collectively we also take a moment to analyze what is at the heart of that story. Quite often what happens, particularly when an experience is raw or potentially traumatic, is there is a level of disconnect that happens. Particularly with young populations, they recite the story as if it happened to someone else. The risk in that is that they've internalized the ways in which that story has been told for them. That these stories of criminality have been imposed on their body.
WATKINS: You're talking about a population that's often being told things about them, right? I mean, ‘When They See Us’…
LEONARDO: Through their school settings, in their family settings, in the streets—that their lives are being devalued. And so, it's in this process where we're trying to bestow more meaning into the story so that yes, a young person—or anyone really, because I work with various populations—might attribute more meaning and sense the decisions that led to that moment. But also, maybe more importantly, as a group we get to examine the circumstances, the powers, the forces that have also influenced that story.
It's in the complexities, in that larger meaning, that a person all of a sudden is able to take hold of that narrative differently. But it's in all of those details that we also can assign one essential thing to that story and oftentimes it's the ability to say I was afraid; I felt alone; I felt abused; I felt manipulated. It's in that single emotive word that a person more firmly grasps what has happened.
And so, it's in that meaning, it's in that subjectivity, that they're finally placing into their own story, reclaiming the agency of how that story is told, that we're moving through something that would otherwise be punitive and restoring value to how a person sees themself.
Because from my point of view guilt is a limited deterrent. Punishment, as has been proven by many stakeholders in the criminal justice field, punishment is also a limited deterrent.
WATKINS: Especially for a teenager.
LEONARDO: Especially for a teenager in which consequence hasn't been fully formed. What moves a person into navigating the world differently and potentially making different choices is not the threat of what might happen to them. It's rather: how do they feel more full? How do we create a whole sense of who they are? And that to me starts with how we tell our own stories.
WATKINS: I realize it's probably hard to generalize, but what are the kinds of stories that are being enacted, and what does that look like?
LEONARDO: In many cases, what we discover is that criminality, and the way in which these particular bodies—our bodies—are criminalized, happens well before they were arrested. And so, what we start to understand it's that it's in the schools, at home, it's in the streets, it's in the job place, in which a person becomes devalued. And if, in a person's surroundings—whether in direct or indirect means—a person understands that they are not worth something, then it's just a matter of time before that fault turns into something larger.
It's just a matter of time before that mistake, as driven by not feeling fully human, that that mistake becomes a charge, because these are bodies that are constantly being criminalized. It’s worth being said that, many of the reasons that, particularly these young populations are coming through Reset, in other communities, white communities, they won't even result in arrests.
We would be doing these participants a disservice if we didn't use these two hours to introduce some level of criticality—not only to how they see themselves, but also their own relationship to the justice system. Because it's in that complexity, it's in that humanity, that a person will start to move differently, and seek out other options. But if you put up a limitation to how they can move and be in the world by saying, “if you do this, then,” that is not going to guide different choices.
FORDJOUR: I think the power of Reset, by using art, is to reclaim that humanity, that agency. As you were talking I thought about my son's grandmother—I have a 21-year-old son—and I think about him a lot in this work. I worked with a lot of young people. And his grandmother said something to me the other day.
Of course, we're like, “he's a kid. He's screwing up,” and I'm complaining, and she says, “Well, at least my grandson is not in jail.” And something about that relating him to the possibility of an arrest. This is a kid who's never had any trouble, but because of what he looks like she understands that he could very easily be in jail. But there is something in criminalizing him that I found problematic. This is something that he inherits, right?
WATKINS: That people carry in their bodies, right? I mean, that's what you guys are-
FORDJOUR: Well, in your home, in your grandmother's expectation of… He has no interaction with the criminal justice system, but it's so prevalent and so likely that he could, and so this inevitability that you talk about as a result of a kind of criminalization.
When I go in a bodega and I see my own body, my own person, in a security cam, I think, “oh my God, I hope nothing happens,” because I look like a criminal! If that tape went out and I had done nothing, I'd have a hard time in the minds of the public because my phenotypical presence in that black-and-white grainy cam equals criminal. I look guilty, and I'm buying Starbursts!
LEONARDO: If I were going to relate a very particular experience that I often encounter in the space of Project Reset and Assembly: in the youngest populations, they are closed in on their own bodies. Again, with these expectations that the experience is going to be punitive, that they are going to be yet once again ushered into doing something, or forced into, or contained.
You can see in their body language—they're slumped forward, they don't look you in the eyes, they're closed in, minimal movement, shuffling feet. I often think of what drives me into this work, or the chief motive, is: how do you change how someone perceives themself—not only emotionally and mentally, but how that might restore some level of humanity in how they conduct themself through their own bodies. That's where the transformation is palpable.
All of a sudden when something clicks, when their narrative is given visual form, all of a sudden, they open up. They stand up straighter, their shoulders move backward. They're able to communicate by looking at you in the eye. That agency that we've been talking about, you can sense that in someone's presence, and that is a person that all of a sudden is going to, even from this limited time, that is going to move into the world with a bit more confidence and able to navigate things through strength not weakness.
WATKINS: It sounds to me like both of you, in different ways because you're different artists, whether it's through the still-life work or whether it's the performative work, you're focused on the individual person. Every time one of you says “validating” the other guy nods his head because I think that's really a big focus for both of you in the work that you're doing with these young people.
So you're focused on the individual, but then you're also focused on larger contexts and trying to disrupt larger narratives and maybe introduce the idea of, “hey, you've got a social and historical context that is not always in your favor, and yes, that can seem limiting, but knowing that gives you agency.”
LEONARDO: Absolutely right. I think the question that is then often posed particularly to artists like ourselves, but also against the effort of expanding Project Reset—which is right on the cusp of going city-wide, really taking hold specifically in our institutions—the question we always then face is: why art? What is it in the capacity of art?
WATKINS: Why isn't it painting over graffiti?
LEONARDO: Exactly. Why is it not contained and limited to community service, or some other type of consultation, or forced labor? And there is in that question a limited scope of imagination of what can be accomplished in two hours.
What I would say is that artists offer a very different skillset, and artists, to go back to Derek's point, are able to say, “yes, this happened; yes, you had a role in why this is happening; but how else might we look at this thing?” Where is it that we can introduce different ways of looking so that it's not a story or an event that is going to take a hold of the individual? I often say, is it a story that runs you, or can you run the story?
FORDJOUR: I think that, to Shaun’s point, everywhere else in the system it focuses on the problem: you're here because you did something wrong. Art is a space of potential. Every day we go in the studio, it's full of potential. That's why I come here, and that's the space that is for them empowering.
Everywhere else in the system we focused on the problem; the problem you're in, the problem you created. You go home your parents reinstate the problem, and then you come to art and the art is a space of potential, which is all you're hearing from us is: how capable are you? So, I think that's probably the point of transformation—just acknowledging and insisting on and I think that that two hours insists that then you actualize this potential.
We're acknowledging that you have potential, but it's not a conversation. Now you will make good on it. Show us; with Shaun your body, with me your eye, your hand. I think that the freedom for there not to be a perfect end-result is also–
WATKINS: It's open-ended.
FORDJOUR: It's open-ended. It doesn't end when you leave.
WATKINS: As Shaun just mentioned, Reset's on the cusp of expanding to most of the city and it's not just young people anymore. It's moving into the Brooklyn Museum. You guys helped make the curriculum.
What's the challenge in training the trainers? How do we bottle this process, or what were some of the challenges for you guys?
LEONARDO: It's a continuous challenge because I think it requires an expansive view of what pedagogy is. And the difficulty often comes in being prescriptive and not being responsive to the energy and conversations that emerge in this space. As is the case in our own work, sometimes you might move in with a very specific expectation and perception of what the thing is going to be and have to abandon that plan entirely.
FORDJOUR: Shaun is right. I think the improvisation has to be baked into the program, meaning we have to give enough elasticity for an artist to give the program whatever shape they dictate. What I think we want at the end is effectiveness. We want transformation. We want connection. We want humanity to be affirmed and validated. How that looks, we're open to learn and we're game for that.
And whenever you bring together a group of artists we represent risk. I don't mean risk as it's probably referred to in the space of criminal justice. I mean a positive creative risk, meaning we don't know exactly what shape this will take. But I think as long as you stand in the position of affirmation when these participants come to you, and you’re committed to a certain kind of care in the experience, then the outcomes will be beneficial. You can almost guarantee that.
LEONARDO: I would also add that the requirement really is of an artist and a person, a human being that understands that the stakes are rather high even if it's a low-level misdemeanor. And it does compel an artist to really start to become much more knowledgeable of how the criminal justice movement has been shaped and is changing. I can tell you that in the scope of Assembly, over the three years, we have brought in many different artists and residents into the process.
And they have all left transformed, because they never quite understand that they have to up the ante in their own practice in order to be responsive to these populations. And that it will very well feed into their work; it will very well feed into their studio practice. And that reciprocity—if you're there, if you're present for each one of those sessions—will leave you changed.
Derek, what are your thoughts—or maybe the better word is beliefs—in the practice of diversion?
FORDJOUR: And by diversion you mean an alternative to sentencing?
WATKINS: To formal, traditional…
FORDJOUR: Look, I'm excited about diversion as a possibility. Not to personalize it, but as a 19-year-old person I just wish somebody took that into account—I might not be making the best decisions right now. I just wanted someone to say, “all right, one more chance.”
Diversion says to me that there is a mid-step. It's like the yellow light. The traffic signal only had red and green for a long time, for a long number of years. And to me diversion is the yellow light that says, “whoa, maybe there's a point of consideration here. Something else can happen.”
And to go further and create diversion opportunities that have arts, or something that affirms humanity, I think it really gives the American criminal justice system a conscience in a way that does not focus on this punitive, puritanical, witch-hunt notion of wrongdoing. I'm a believer in diversion. What are your thoughts on it?
LEONARDO: When you hold up the American justice system against other examples across the world, what is uniquely punitive about the way mass incarceration has emerged has to always be looked at through a racialized lens, and the way that Blackness is criminalized.
The reason that I participate in this imperfect system—by system I mean diversion not the justice system largely—but the reason I have decided through my own practice that it's a necessary collaboration, is that, to your point, or as an extension of your point, diversion is the single existing thing that starts to create a corrective cycle to what we have done to Black and brown bodies.
And it's, yes, there's the giving a chance, but it's also the philosophy that incarceration should be the last resort. That the default should be diversion. That imaginative space is what I want to contribute to.
FORDJOUR: I agree with that in terms of the enormous potentiality around diversion and I think that's where we should invest a lot of our energy as creatives. But even as a society. I mean, this is the language that I hope starts to get out there.
LEONARDO: And to your point, this investment, if I'm going to add any call to action it's this: that the stakeholders in legislative and policy change will need quite a bit of convincing that art is a space and a capacity that might drive change. And we need artists and arts institutions to step up.
So often in our insular conversations we talk the talk, but we don't walk the walk. And it’s this deep investment in understanding that as an artist we do have a responsibility to operate out in the world, however you define that. That will very much drive culture. Cultural change comes first. Political and policy change always follows hearts and minds.
WATKINS: I think a criminal justice world where all of the diversion programs were pursued with the same humanity and seriousness of purpose that it certainly sounds like you guys are doing then that'll be a great world. That's not always the case with all diversion programs. I mean, it sounds like we need a mobilization of artists like under the New Deal or something.
FORDJOUR: I don't only see it as a space of artists. I think that we have a particular skillset, as Shaun said, but I see so much potential for diversion programs of all shapes. As people are listening to this, think about what you do for a living, or most of the time, or passionate, even what you do in journalism, and think about how that could apply. What's great about art is that it's broad enough for an elastic interpretation of potential.
We are free and we kind of exist on the periphery. We have this kind of slippery category. But what that then does is opens up so many other possibilities. I can see so many other industries that can have their own brand of diversion that two hours can be transformative. Again, the primary focus here is on experiential change. We're not making artists, that's not our goal. We are helping to restore human beings. That is a lot of space for a lot of experiences.
WATKINS: That was Derek Fordjour. And with him was Shaun Leonardo. They’re both artists who work with our program, Project Reset.
To learn more about both Shaun and Derek’s work and Project Reset, and to see some really great photos of our recording in Derek’s studio taken by my colleague, Samiha Meah, there’s a link to the episode page in the show notes. Or visit courtinnovation.org/newthinking.
For help with today’s episode I’d like to thank Aaron-Charlop Powers, Anna Krist, and Adam Mansky.
This episode was edited and produced by me. You can find me on Twitter @didacticmatt. Recording and engineering was by Max Aharon. Samiha Meah is our director of design. Emma Dayton is our VP of outreach. Our theme music is by Michael Aharon at quivernyc.com. And our show’s founder is Rob Wolf. This has been New Thinking from the Center for Court Innovation. I’m Matt Watkins. Thanks for listening.