Flint Twp., MI–Just over 10 years ago Youth Arts: Unlocked began introducing young people at the Genesee County Juvenile Justice Center to visual and performing arts.

“At that time, I was what they call a family court or juvenile court referee. Basically like a judge,” said Shelley Spivack, co-founder of Youth Arts: Unlocked. 

Aside from working in the juvenile system, Spivack was also teaching at the University of Michigan-Flint and serving as a Buckham Gallery board member. She said she watched as funding cutbacks left her young clients in GCJJC–previously the Genesee Valley Regional Center–without access to art programming.

“I saw that and thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if Buckham could basically share their artistic expertise with the kids in detention?’”

A Youth Arts: Unlocked student paints a cat modeled after Jean-Michel Basquait. Several student artworks were on display at the St. Pauls Episcopal Church in downtown Flint, Mich. on Oct. 8, 2021. (KT Kanazawich | Flint Beat)

Spivack had read studies on art’s impact for children in the justice system, and she felt that such programming would benefit the 10-18 year-olds at the Genesee County center.

“Through the arts, kids can become empowered, they can have their voices heard,” said Spivack. “It gives them an outlet. It gives them a means for self expression and improved self esteem.”

With the help of one of her then-students at UM-Flint–Steve Hull, who now chairs the board of Youth Arts: Unlocked–Spivack secured a $5,000 mini-grant from the Ruth Mott Foundation to run a type of “pilot program” of her concept. 

“So we started the program. We had two workshops a week for a period of 12 weeks: one visual arts and one spoken word,” she said. “And it was very successful. The kids really enjoyed it, and the staff really liked us being there.”

Ultimately the young people who took part in the pilot produced a book of poetry and had their artwork exhibited for the public at Buckham Gallery.

“We did a lot with $5,000,” Spivack said, laughing. 

“That went on for quite a few rounds,” Hull said. 

The pair continued to apply for small grants to keep the program running, 12-week cycle by 12-week cycle.

“Then, as we progressed and more research became available and more supports became available, we were funded by larger entities,” said Hull.

Moving from cycle-by-cycle funding to a more stable, long-term funding structure allowed Spivack to transition Youth Arts: Unlocked out from under the umbrella of Buckham Gallery by 2018. 

Since then, the nonprofit has been operating on its own, with Spivack tapping local artists to help run workshops that have expanded beyond visual arts and poetry into theater, yoga, and dance.

“We keep it open to how everyone wants to respond,” said Emma Davis, a dance instructor with Youth Arts: Unlocked and lecturer at UM-Flint’s Department of Theater and Dance.

The Youth Arts: Unlocked art program displays art and video at St. Pauls Episcopal Church in downtown Flint, Mich. on Oct. 8, 2021. The program brings art and dance classes to youth at the Genesee County Juvenile Justice Center. (KT Kanazawich | Flint Beat)

Davis’s workshop is part of the nonprofit’s “HerStory” programming for the young women at GCJJC. 

“It’s not just about dance,” Davis said of “HerStory,” which involves selecting a current or past female figure and modeling movements and class conversations after that woman each week. “It’s about creating an opportunity for the girls to engage in a sort of reflection in their own lives and within society as a whole.”

Davis said recently, during a month themed around the idea of “rising up” the girls in her class were asked what they can do to help raise up themselves and their communities. 

“Their responses are always super intelligent and very informed,” said Davis. “They want to see things like backpack giveaways for kids, or to be a motivational speaker and share their story with other youth.”

As part of their 10-year anniversary, Youth Arts: Unlocked hosted an October celebration featuring a collection of artwork from the young people who have engaged in their programming since 2011. 

Some of the work from that event, plus other artwork and videos of past participants’ dance and theatrical performances, can be viewed on the nonprofit’s website.

Kate is Flint Beat's associate editor. She joined the team as a corps member of Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues....