THE MAYORAL race has been dominated by talk about the need to end the senseless violence that plagues our city schools and streets.

Most solutions center on law enforcement: more cops, different policing strategies, more and better metal detectors and searches. While I understand this thinking, I want to propose a radically different approach. Let's increase the amount of caring, attention and respect we give to young people who are the most at-risk. Let's do it with the arts. I've seen it work, daily, for 20 years.

Sketchbooks and paintbrushes may seem like a feeble response to the bloodshed and hopelessness that surround and sometimes consume our urban youth.

But we at the Mural Arts Program have experienced the transformative power of art firsthand, on countless occasions, and we think that the next mayor should embrace our approach.

Art is the channel through which many kids can find their voices, unlock their hidden talents, learn to interact positively with their peers, and begin to participate in their neighborhoods through constructive, rather than destructive, activities. These experiences have the potential to change, and even save, lives.

Last month, we dedicated new murals at the House of Correction, where we work with 65 young men who have been tried and sentenced as adults.

In an environment that could hardly be more grim and isolated, these young men created a vivid mural that depicts their memories and dreams of a color-filled "normal" world. At the dedication ceremony, one young artist cautiously raised his hand to say that he'd always had problems with anger. But since learning to paint, draw and create, he feels different. He feels better about himself and believes that things and people can change. He has changed.

Violence is no longer the only way he knows to say, "I am someone. Pay attention to me."

Along with mural-making, our program offers formal art education and special initiatives for more than 4,000 at-risk youth - many of whom are delinquent, truant, coming out of residential placement or incarcerated.

The young people in these programs write and paint with devastating clarity about what led them to crime and their regret for the pain they have caused.

The creative process lets them articulate their identity and try to find reasons to believe in themselves. For many, this is the first time in their lives they've had such an opportunity.

Despite deep psychological wounds and a youthful bravado that deflects most interventions, many kids can reconnect to the world through artistic collaboration. We at the Mural Arts Program try to challenge them with high expectations - demanding responsibility, learning, patience and compromise.

WHEN THEY see their hard work blended with the work of others to produce larger-than-life images, they feel validated and connected. They connect with their own humanity and the humanity in others.

I really began understanding the connection between art and violence-prevention when I started working with men serving life sentences at Graterford Prison, the sixth-largest maximum security prison in this country.

One day, I heard some of the men explain how their lives "went dark" even before they were teens. I realized that they were simply older versions of the kids we work with every day who see their lives going dark as well.

The young people who seem the toughest to reach are often the most responsive to art. What better way to prevent violence?

What does all this say to the next mayor? Art can't be treated like a frill, the first thing to be cut in school and city budgets.

It is both preventive and restorative. Philadelphia needs art programs now more than ever. Art can cauterize the wounds of a community, allowing disparate groups to come together, often for the first time.

Art-making challenges the cycle of violence and overcomes the fear and isolation it causes by lifting up, instead of punishing, by rebuilding life instead of shutting life down.

Don't let more young lives "go dark" in Philadelphia. The price we all pay is too high. *

Jane Golden is executive director of the Mural Arts Program.