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Spawning Activism Through Art

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Over the past five years, I've been following Richard Ross's exploration of the juvenile justice system and, during this time, his work has also made me aware of the nationally important debate that he addresses himself to. That I came to understand the need for reform of the juvenile justice system is initially due to having encountered these intense pictures depicting real people in real spaces, and because of them, I have become aware of the broader national discussions that surround this subject.

Augmenting the ethical and judicial discourse surrounding the need for reform, Richard Ross's images demonstrate viscerally how incarcerated young people live, and he tells us their stories. Giving us access to the real individuals, the kids who make up this community, it is a body of work that seems to solicit empathy without being in any way sentimental about these youngsters. Some of their stories reveal shocking acts of violence, while others point to broken homes and abuse. Some of these kids are extremely rebellious, while some are just individuals the authorities don't know what to do with. Yet, whatever their crimes or misfortunes, Richard Ross's images give all his subjects both humanity and visibility. He allows them the dignity of a voice and reveals that, no matter what kind of institution they are incarcerated in, they are not an abstract set of figures and that they are deserving of more than simply being locked away and forgotten. These pictures are a wake up call to the failure of our imagination. They are a sad testament to the way, as a society, we privilege punishment over the resolution of poverty and other social problems and how we hold up the dream of prosperity for all, while ignoring the disparities of opportunity that make such a dream impossible for many.

About eighteen months ago Rachel Zimmerman, Executive Director of InLiquid, and I began to talk about Richard Ross's photographs and how this work should be exhibited in Philadelphia. In particular, we wanted to make local audiences aware of the critical discussion about juvenile incarceration that is going on nationally and to give a voice to at-risk communities. Our city, of course, is an appropriate place to exhibit this work. In communities like North Kensington, high levels of poverty and unemployment put young people at risk and make institutional detention an acknowledged rite of passage for many young people growing up in this environment. Equally, however, as well as making visible the drive for reform of the juvenile justice system, we wanted to acknowledge that Philadelphia is a city that is taking a lead in trying to improve the conditions under which youth are detained. In fact, Philadelphia's new youth detention center, Philadelphia Juvenile Justice Services Center, provides a level of care for traumatized youth that should be seen as a national model.

Institutional detention, however, does not solve the fundamental problems causing delinquency, and no matter how hard we try to provide care for youth in detention, we will not change their lives until we provide early support for them in their communities. Incarcerating youth is not a solution, but keeping young people in education is, and it helps them develop the skills to imaginatively reach for a better future.

In an effort to make an impact toward this importance cause, InLiquid will host #GivingTuesdayPHL and organize Philadelphia's first-ever youth expungement clinic as apart of the Juvenile In Justice art exhibit. Over 150 of our city's youth will have the opportunity to receive free legal services and begin the process of getting their juvenile record expunged. Not only do we wish to educate the youth in our city, but we feel its important that they have a chance at career and education opportunities that a juvenile record would otherwise devoid.

Inspired by Richard Ross, Rachel and I are on a mission to articulate a serious case for the reinstatement of arts education in our public schools, and to argue against a trend that values standardization at the expense of the individual creative imagination. Our hope is to spawn activist initiatives that we anticipate will bring this important discussion to a broader community across Philadelphia.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in celebration of #GivingTuesday, which will take place this year (2013) on December 3. The idea behind #GivingTuesday is to kickoff the holiday-giving season, in the same way that Black Friday and Cyber Monday kickoff the holiday-shopping season. We'll feature at least one post from a #GivingTuesday partner every weekday in November. To see all the posts in the series, click here; follow the conversation via #GivingTuesday and learn more here.

And if you'd like to share your own #GivingTuesday story, please send us your 500-850-word post to impactblogs@huffingtonpost.com.