I admit it. Sometimes I have Philly envy. Philadelphia has a Mural Arts Program, and the community in which I live does not. In fact, very few American communities have anything like it.
This realization hit me again last week at the Arts and Criminal Justice Symposium sponsored by Mural Arts at Temple University. Artists, criminal justice practitioners, and community members explored ways the arts are used to further dialogue and for personal and social transformation in the justice arena.
Philadelphia Deputy Mayor Everett Gillison often says, "We cannot arrest our way out of problems of public safety." He is right. We ask too much of our justice system as we seek to reweave a societal fabric rent by crime, violence, and trauma. In fact, we usually start with the wrong questions.
Our search for justice revolves around: What laws were broken? Who did it? What punishments do the guilty deserve? The adversarial approach assumes the interests of those involved are at polar opposites from each other, and that the outcome will result in a winner and loser. The multifaceted needs of victims are largely ignored, and the personal and social wounds of crime are often exacerbated.
Restorative justice starts with a different set of questions: What harm has been done? What are our obligations to those harmed? How can those involved in or impacted by this harm be best engaged in finding a resolution? This approach assumes the interests and needs of everyone involved — victims, offenders, and communities — must be taken into account as we seek to heal the harms of crime.
I have been drawn to the arts as a way of reframing the challenges of crime and trauma. The arts can engage the whole person to express or understand the harm done and help harness heart and intelligence to reduce isolation. The arts can provide a way to explore what can be done to give back, and to give voice to the full range of human experience. The act of creation can restore a sense of meaning and agency to those who harmed and those who have been harmed.
Every day, the Mural Arts Program demonstrates the value of art as a way to dig deep, reconcile, and transform our experience through active investigation, creation, and collaboration — engaging dozens of adjudicated youths, inmates, ex-offenders, and lifers while attending to the harm done to their victims. Mural Arts doesn't always know where these efforts will lead when they begin, but it dares to ask the questions that need to be answered. In seeking truth and reconciliation, Mural Arts rebuilds connections for its participants with history, identity, and culture, and transforms their individual and collective experience.
The criminal justice symposium was rooted in the power of practice. It drew teaching artists, social workers, justice workers, policymakers, and funders from all over the country to share wisdom born of experience and courage. And, though the energy in the room at the end of the day was palpable, the attendees were also aware they have a lot to learn about themselves and their co-practitioners, as well as inmates, ex-offenders, victims, and victims' advocates.
I applaud Philadelphia for nurturing Mural Arts. My hope is that other communities might catch that vision, learning from this city the value of arts in building community and seeking justice. If that happens, I will probably still have Philly envy, but for different reasons.
E-mail Howard Zehr at howard.zehr@emu.