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A Black man with short hair and facial hair stands in front of a white board that has purple writing on it, in a large room with a gray floor. He is wearing a blue jacket and a badge over the right pocket, blue jeans and white sneakers. Behind him is a fan.

At Davis Juvenile Hall, poetry is being used to keep kids out of the justice system

on December 13, 2023

When Donté Clark talks about poetry, his entire demeanor shifts. His cheekbones rise to reveal a knowing smile, and his whole body hums and bobs and bounces as he speaks. In these moments, it feels like he’s on the verge of breaking out into verse. 

Clark, an award-winning spoken-word poet from Richmond, hopes the passion he brings to his craft rubs off on his audience. Since April, he’s led bi-monthly poetry workshops for boys at John A. Davis Juvenile Hall in Martinez, as part of the Poetry Series Program.

“To have an opportunity to go into a juvenile detention center and pour into these young souls, I look at it like my spiritual obligation,” said Clark. “Whether I get paid or don’t get paid to do it, I feel like I have to do it because that’s just, like, a moral responsibility.”

PSP is a recidivism reduction initiative by the Contra Costa arts coalition ARTSCCC. Workshops take place in the Trinity Unit on Saturday mornings, last for about 90 minutes and are led by Clark, who is frequently joined by fellow spoken word artist Jose Cordón. Most sessions average between seven and nine students, and Clark takes a flexible approach to lesson planning based on what comes up at the moment. 

“My main goal is to be like, ‘I need to be here to show y’all that I see y’all, I hear y’all, somebody cares about y’all. No matter what your situation is, it’s not too late. If you can see it, you can be it.’ And how can we use our words and our time intentionally to manifest that reality that we like to see?” Clark said. “That’s been my goal, to get them to open up.”

Clark grew up in Richmond, where he was torn between the pressure to pursue an education and the temptations of the streets. He says this tension propelled him to start writing, which helped him better express what he was going through. 

“In my 18-year-old mind, I had believed that if I were to take my experiences and talk about it in a good way, writing would be my avenue toward success, healing, health and prosperity,” he said. 

In the decade since, Clark co-founded an artist collective in Richmond, published multiple collections of poetry, and traveled the country to share his experiences with young people. Clark is also the subject of “Romeo is Bleeding,” a 2015 documentary that follows his attempts to use art as a way to confront gun violence in his community. 

Jenny Balisle, executive director of ARTSCCC, sees Clark as an ideal role model for youth at Davis. She believes the mentorship he provides directly addresses the needs identified by the county’s Juvenile Justice Coordinating Council in its 2021 Annual Plan.  

“They basically said that in the juvenile justice system, there’s limited mentoring and peer support and that they saw that the access to prevention programs are pretty much limited and non-existent,” Balisle said. “They had to come up with different ways to really address these existing racial disparities, and we believe the arts are that tool to it.” 

Esa Ehmen-Krause, Contra Costa County’s chief probation officer, said responses to ARTSCCC’s program have been favorable, adding that poetry workshops are among several ways the county exposes young people to the arts. 

“We found the reception of youth to be really positive, that they are very engaged, they’re excited to go to the workshop series that are hosted on Saturdays,” she said. “And it’s been a really good partnership with Contra Costa County so far.”

The first step in bigger plans

The PSP makes so much sense for the Trinity Unit, in particular, partly because Trinity is a pre-deposition unit, meaning its residents are coming and going as they get through the court process.

For both Balisle and Clark, this iteration of the PSP is likely the beginning. The two plan to develop a permanent workshop, which will also be offered to female and coed units, and a continuation program for youth release from juvenile hall. 

Despite what they’ve already accomplished, Balisle and Clark recognize the limitations involved with working alongside the juvenile justice system. For example, Clark is not given any information about the youth who attend his workshops, including details about their cases or how long their sentences are. 

As a result, he said it can be jarring when they suddenly stop coming to workshops. 

“It’s kind of traumatic,” said Clark. “I’ve opened up to this person, and now they’re just gone and there’s no way of knowing what happened to them or a way to follow up with them.” 

“You feel like a part of your heart is gone, in a way,” Balisle said. 

ARTSCCC was able to secure funding for the PSP from a California Arts Council JUMP StArts grant through Feb. 10. 

As the program continues to evolve, Clark and Balisle will continue to show up for the youth at Davis, even on those days when only a few students meet them. 

“They say you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink,” Clark said. “But that doesn’t mean that you stop offering them a cup.”

Could you be Richmond’s next poet laureate?

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