After completing her Bachelor’s at Hampshire College, Gianna Rodriguez looked for a position that would allow her to use the arts to help young people who had become immersed in the legal system. She found AS220 in Providence, Rhode Island, an artists’ organization with a youth program that provides arts education to at-risk young people.
Rodriguez’s interest grew from first-hand experience watching people close to her who had become involved in the court system, often also struggling with substance abuse. Her mother, who was a teacher, always encouraged her to try to understand why people made certain choices, even self-destructive ones, and show compassion. “I believe I am an educator,” she says, “because I grew up with an educator.”
When she and her husband decided to move to Baltimore a few years ago, Rodriguez wanted to find a program similar to AS220; however, there were none. So, she started Baltimore Youth Arts, initially volunteering to teach arts classes at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center. She started with one class but was soon teaching four, as well as one class at the Thomas JS Waxter Children’s Center, the detention center for young women in Laurel.
The young people she works with have asked her how they can stay connected to the program once they leave the detention center. Through her fellowship, Rodriguez hopes to expand her program to offer arts education, mentorship and transitional employment for young people who were involved in the juvenile justice system but have returned to their communities.
“What I’ve learned from working with young people, working within these institutions, is that there is too much that is needed,” Rodriguez says. “The young people are constantly losing their connections to services, to education, to adults with whom they’ve established a relationship. The goal is to create relationships with adults while they are incarcerated and continue those relationships once they return to the community.”
For the employment program, Rodriguez will offer four training sessions a year to young people ages 14-to-22. Youth involved in the legal system or leaving it will be fast tracked into the program but it will be open to youth citywide. The young people will be paid an hourly wage for their time and learn arts and job skills while connecting to mentors and services in the community, such as GED classes or assistance with government benefits.
“It’s not realistic to ask older teenagers to join me for an art class when they need to take care of themselves or younger siblings,” Rodriguez says. “So, I wanted to find a way for them to be paid for their time while they are learning.” Many of the young people she works with often tell her their only job opportunity once they are back home is “street pharmacist.”
By connecting young people to consistent relationships with adults, creative skills, job training and support services, Rodriguez believes they may have more accessible and healthy options. During each program session, participants will develop a portfolio of work along with skills necessary to find and maintain employment. Eventually, she also hopes to create partnerships with arts organizations to offer internships or entry-level jobs to the program graduates.
“This is about more than transitional employment,” says Rodriguez. “We want to engage with young people over time and work with them for the long term so that we can help connect them to better opportunities.”
Listen to Rodriguez talk about Baltimore Youth Arts on WYPR’s On the Record.