BE GOOD: HOW AN ART PROJECT IS LEADING THE WAY IN CHANGING THE NOTION OF CRIMINALITY

According to data from a 2015 New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services report, black and Latino youth comprise 33 per cent of the state’s population, but 77 per cent of all felony arrests. Nationwide, some 2.3 million were jailed in 2016, the United States accounting for just five per cent of global population, yet a staggering 25 per cent of the world’s imprisoned.

The mass incarceration of youth of colour is a profound issue for society in contemporary America, as highlighted in Ava DuVernay’s multi award-winning 2016 documentary, 13th, in which she posits that slavery has merely changed its guise. Founded by New York art initiative, Recess, Assembly is an artist-led diversion programme for youths in Brooklyn who have taken their first steps down the wrong path, seeking to tear down the public’s notions of ‘criminality’.

Operating from a storefront gallery in Downtown Brooklyn in collaboration with artist Shaun Leonardo and Brooklyn Justice Initiatives, Assembly can see minors awaiting trial for misdemeanour offences turn into artists, rather than cons. Encouraging youths to open up about their experiences with the system; with police and the courts; with society; and the stigma of being labelled a criminal, their potent stories are used to inspire workshops that offer a new reality in potential. “We believe that artists by their nature are creative problem-solvers”, Recess founding executive director, Allison Freedman Weisberg, tells Artnet, “who can approach problems and social maladies using a creative toolkit that’s not accessible to all of us.”

Assembly Public Workshop One with Shaun Leonardo © Recess
Assembly Public Workshop One with Shaun Leonardo – courtesy of Recess

Assembly’s intent is invaluable in creating a more just society that values and supports all of its people, regardless of the problems they’ve encountered. To be eternally maligned for non-violent misdemeanours – to send young people to adult jail – is a condition of criminality that’s a social construct fed by media and popular culture. Using art, a practice embedded in human expression, to reshape that construct, Assembly affords its students a voice they might not have previously thought they could find, a chance to validate their own personality and free themselves from the constrictions of stereotypes.

Of course, this is not to say that those who have committed more grave crimes, who have been unable to avoid incarceration, don’t deserve redemption. “We are all human beings and are going to make mistakes”, says Coss Marte, the founder of ConBody gym, and a name nobody who attended Ministry of Idea’s sister un-conference, MATTER last year – courtesy of LE Miami’s sister event, PURE Life Experiences – could forget. “Who hasn’t done something stupid in their life? We were raised in neighbourhoods in which we did not have many opportunities. Neighbourhoods and race make a difference. Many white Americans who come to my class were raised in suburbia, where there’s fewer police officers [who] are even friendly with them. Here”, he continues, “they would put us up against a wall all the time.”

Marte doesn’t excuse his convictions for drug dealing, nor try to trivialise them; but he’s acutely aware that second chances matter, especially given the entrepreneurial talent that many who’ve chosen the wrong path possess. Making some $2 million a year selling cocaine, his gym’s success hints that he might be hauling in more than that legally in the near future, if not already. “I have a lot of people calling me from San Francisco and Los Angeles – I may turn it into a franchise, always with ex-convicts, because that is my mission.”

ConBody
ConBody

As Marte says, “who hasn’t done something stupid in their life?” – and who are we to judge another’s previous transgressions? In business terms, though, there may be a more cynical reason to give ex-cons a chance. “They want it more than just any other Joe Bloggs”, Simon Drake, the then-manager of Conrad London St. James, told the BBC in 2016. “They’ve seen the harshest side of life, and they don’t want to go back there again. These kids come out thinking, ‘I’m never going to make a success of myself’. They have a slight option, a tiny light at the end of the tunnel that we give them, and they either throw their all into it, or they don’t.”

“Once you’ve been in prison, it’s very rare that people want to go again”, he continues, “so most of these kids come to us and really want to make a difference. That’s what I want: I want people that are passionate, and are going to learn. Every now and again you get one that doesn’t, but the majority want it more than anybody else.” It might be surprising, given the received idea that convicted criminals are the last people to employ, but what Drake asserts makes perfect sense. In fact, major hotel chains such as Hilton, Radisson and Holiday Inn hire ex-cons – and aside from extra commitment, it’s a practice that can change lives.

“People who have served their time for a crime have an extensive file on who they are and where they have been. They work harder than other employees, show up to work early, stay later, accept overtime, ask for more work, do more, and truly value their jobs”, explains former chief Human Resources officer of Wynn Resorts, Arte Nathan, who shares the sentiments of Simon Drake. What’s interesting, though, is that of the ex-offenders Nathan hired for Wynn Hotels, only seven per cent went back to prison – that’s a staggering 68 per cent reduction based on statistics showing that 75 per cent of inmates eventually return to prison.

Magdas Hotel Vienna
Magdas Hotel Vienna

As Drake and Nathan can contest, there are clear benefits in trusting ex-offenders, besides returning value and dignity to their lives. In helping to prevent potential convicts from wasting years or decades on the road to redemption, Brooklyn’s Assembly is a model that seems common sense for the travel industry to adopt – or at least try to initiate.

Two-thirds of staff at Vienna’s Magdas Hotel are made up of asylum seekers from countries such as Syria, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Afghanistan and Guinea-Bissau; Tuscany’s Villaggio La Brocchi is part of a government initiative that helps refugees by allowing them to bring tastes of East Africa to guests and locals; The Movement Hotel in Amsterdam (set in a former prison, of all places) is a pop-up hotel aimed at empowering asylum seekers through job training; and Good Hotel, alongside a range of worthwhile initiatives, has a programme dedicated to training the long-term unemployed.

Which all shows that the industry is moving in the right direction with social responsibility. If you’re thinking of ways to help those less privileged, Assembly is a fine starting point for inspiration. Criminality is a construct of society, help change that preconception.

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James Davidson
James Davidson is a contributing writer for THE SHIFT and editor-in-chief of We Heart, an online design and lifestyle magazine that he founded in 2009 as a personal blog and now receives over half a million monthly views.