As the full-time caretaker for her grandson, Patricia Dillon began to notice early on the ways in which his life was affected by his father’s incarceration.
“I was interested in community supports for children affected by incarceration,” she tells Madison365. “I knew there was a Just Dane mentoring program, but I was really curious to know if children affected by incarceration was something that the schools were acknowledging.”
The answer was no.
Upon further research into the subject for an Isthmus article, Dillon found that children with parents who are incarcerated are dealing with “a whole battery of issues,” suffering from higher risk-averse childhood experiences (ACEs), such as living with a parent who has a mental health disorder, a drug addiction, or who is abusive; living in foster care; or houselessness. Said children also tend to perform poorly in school than their peers who live without a parent in the prison system. And it is no secret that incarceration rates disproportionately affect BIPOC families and children.
According to Linda Ketcham, executive director of Just Dane, it is estimated that in 2018, approximately 2,000 children in Dane County have a parent who is incarcerated.
“I’m an artist and a writer, and I’m kind of a community organizer, too, and I knew that I could create a program that connects these kids to their larger community,” Dillon said. “We are a cultural art program, but the bigger overarching mission is to create a sense of wellbeing for these children through a connection to their community.”
What then came into fruition was Dillon’s current program, Cultural Connections, a program that uses “art as a tool, a program to lessen the trauma for these kids and connect them to their communities so that they feel a sense of belonging and less stigma.”
The program first began in 2018 with a project conducted out of Dane Arts Mural Arts (DAMA) and was soon after picked up by Lake View Elementary to be a club affiliated with the school. Last year, members of Cultural Connections worked with multiple groups of children including Lake View students and kids from the Goodman Community Center. Starting this upcoming school year, Cultural Connections will be working with five schools across the local Madison area, tentatively.
Most Cultural Connections sessions begin with the introduction of a topic relating to racism or incarceration to encourage discussion around prompting the kids, if they so please, to wrestle with these topics through art. Occasionally, the kids will take field trips to different art spaces.
The kids have already created tangible pieces of art, the most recent of which is a mural made in partnership with DAMA to be erected at the Madison’s Youth Arts Center. The mural features multiple designs and patterns made by the students.
According to Miranda Starr, Cultural Connections not only works to give kids the tools to understand the ways in which the prison system has affected their own lives, but to help “humanize” those who are or have been incarcerated.
“So like starting to talk about how is [incarceration] portrayed and do you think that’s real and. you know. just trying to build some compassion and humanity about that life experience and those that are affected by it,” Starr said. “I find that just to be such a beautiful opportunity to try to break some of the stigmas.”
However, despite the prevalence of incarceration in the lives of many of the participating children, the topic of incarceration and its inextricable link to racism still remains a topic of nondiscussion.
“It’s so funny too because we talk about diversity and we talk about skin tone, but somehow incarceration still is this really taboo subject. I’ve experienced families who say ‘your dad’s in college somewhere.’ We can’t even tell our children the truth about what their families are experiencing,” Starr said. “I’ve always questioned that like: why do mothers feel like they can’t share about a family member? Why do we create stories for children?”
But at Cultural Connections, there are no stories. They are free to choose whether to speak or not to speak about what they have in common which, according to Dillon, is a point of interest for most of the kids.
“I like that we can talk about that we all have something in common, but also that if we don’t want to talk, we can express ourselves through what we’re working on,” Dillon said, paraphrasing a comment made by one of the students. “Another kid said, ‘I just need to get away from my family’ … They all just talked about [how] we feel safe. Some of the kids said, ‘we don’t talk about this with our friends.’ A couple of the kids said they have very close friends they share that with but it’s just a stigma-free environment.
“It’s an idea of creating a safe space and there’s a beautiful freedom that artists come in and then there’s always an opportunity for kids not to do like a molded reproduction but self-expression,” Starr added.
After a year of running her program by herself, Dillon came to understand that she alone could not be the sole facilitator of the safe space she had created; she as a white woman could not be the one to help navigate these children as they produce art and grapple with their connections to incarceration. As such, Dillon added to her program one of the key aspects of Cultural Connections: having various BIPOC artists as the teachers.
“[White people] never stopped learning, like never,” Dillon explained. “We are so conditioned to be white supremacists that we just … the more woke you think you are, the less woke you are … but, eventually, you come out of that because you realize the more comfortable you become with your work, the more work you have to do.
“It’s really important to me that I’m working with people of color because the children that we serve are primarily children of color,” she continued. “I have a very diverse board of really just wonderful people who either have been affected by incarceration or they have worked with the population. And so they help inform the work that we do. It’s really important that we are inclusive and diverse and our mission is to create access.”
One of the many BIPOC artists who worked with the program was Terrence Adeyanju, who himself was formerly incarcerated. What intrigued him about working with the students was “seeing myself in those kids and having someone to not make them not feel alienated about their experiences and to create a safe place.”
“Someone that looked like me creating or doing anything like that when I was growing up … I didn’t see that,” Adeyanju said. “And so, it would have given me a lot of hope that I’m not alone and that I can do these things because I didn’t see a lot of that growing up — a lot of Black creatives in what I like to do. Seeing someone do that, it gives me confirmation that I can step into this power, too. I think it’s super important that the kids see that, especially the ones that look like me. I know what it’s like to be them and what it’s like to be marginalized. I know what it’s like to live in a society that tricks you into not being yourself.
“There’s so many things telling you cannot do these things and ‘get in line and do this .. you need to do this and you need to be like this to be accepted’ and it’s BS,” Adeyanju continued. “You just get convinced out of your power. So there are many sick messages in the media and all types of things; there are things that are passed down that we don’t even know and that we’re not questioning at all, that are just doing serious damage.”
Another of the program’s initiatives is the notion of connecting their kids to the broader Madison community which, as Starr noted, often ostracizes its BIPOC citizens.
“There is an isolation of populations of color and there are disproportionate effects in the city in different ways. There’s this idea that this is such a rich city, but in working with families in this community really closely, I’ve heard firsthand accounts of experiences they’ve had in certain public spaces in the community,” Starr said. “I’ve heard the fear of going to events, going to street festivals, all these things that make people love Madison for, right? And so, number one, this idea about connecting our kids to the city is … I want them to be able to see themselves in these spaces. We want to provide access to these spaces. We talked about trying to get our families into the space, where in the past, there’s been fear associated with going into those spaces where they may not have felt welcomed.
“So the idea of connecting with the community and giving them a place to display their work and see their work in the community is really with the hope that they recognize that they play a big part. They are the future of the city, and this is their home,” Starr continued.
This summer, the Cultural Connections team will be creating a curriculum based on the social justice standards from Teaching Tolerance. This curriculum will be used solely for the Cultural Connections to help inform their work in a culturally conscious manner.
“I am not a teacher, I don’t know how to write a curriculum, but I knew that there had to be an intentionally socially responsible kind of template,” Dillon said. “It was Miranda’s idea that we develop like a menu item. We will also create an allyship [portion] to support those kids through the kids who have never been affected.
“So that next year, we can go to our artists and say, ‘this is what we’re trying to do. This is how we like the template to be. You do the creative stuff — we’re not going to tell you how to do your creative work, but we want that work, if it’s comfortable, to fit into our mission,” Dillon added.
In addition to the curriculum, starting next school year, Dr. Julie Poehlmann-Tynan, professor of human development and family studies in the UW School of Human Ecology, and a team of graduate students will be researching Cultural Connections and its effects on the kids participating.
Serendipitously, Dr. Poehlmann-Tynan’s work was what informed Dillon about the ill effects of incarcerated parents on their children.
“So part of working with the UW is great because we really want to be able to see if these programs are having an impact on how our families and the students in these programs, how they’re feeling before and after, do they really feel like they have some greater sense of connection to the community?” Dillon said.
However, Adeyanju noted that there is still a lot of work to be done in the way of creating access and mitigating harm for individuals impacted by incarceration.
“It’s still gonna be a lot of work because you got people that don’t want to do the work, you know, because we’re talking about people that have to question their beliefs and be willing to question their own belief systems and their own prejudices and people are terrified to do that,” he says. “And I get it.”
But at the very least, Adeyanju was just happy to work with the young people at Cultural Connections.
“Just being around kids just brings you to the present moment like no other,” he said. “They’re so high energy and they’re just really there, they don’t have that block that I do when it comes to creativity. They’re not overthinking as much. So it’s very playful and so for me, that’s beautiful.
“It felt like it was a healing space and I felt like they got to release something that they were holding on to and I got to release something and we let it go, and the rest is history,” Adeyanju added. “And, hopefully, we can impact each other and. hopefully. that means whatever it means for them.”