Arts and Urban Youth: Ryan Keesling of Free Write Jail Arts on slipping art through the bars
Urban arts programs often build confidence and agency among youth who are disheartened by — or disconnected from — public schools. Over the next few weeks we’ll be presenting a series on Art and Urban Youth, featuring interviews with leaders in the field. At a time when education is being shaped by a rigid test-taking culture, these educators often succeed in eliciting a sense of inquiry and belonging among their students.
For 400 teens at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center in Chicago, a creative outlet can mean the difference between despair and hope. Free Write Jail Arts provides these teens, who often suffer from depression and learning disabilities, with pathways to self-expression through literacy, poetry, creative writing, and music training. “They need to be able to see that they have the ability to choose a different path for themselves,” founder Ryan Keesling told Dowser. Here, Keesling describes the program’s origins and explains why in his work the most important thing is to “keep showing up.”
Dowser: You began working at Free Write while you were in graduate school. How did you learn about the job?
Keesling: I was finishing a master’s degree in education at Northwestern. I was so sick of the abstract nature of that kind of education, where people talk about doing real things, but don’t do them. I couldn’t even figure out what to write my thesis on because I didn’t have anything practical to which I could tie my thoughts.
One afternoon, I was sitting in the education office doing data entry work for my assistantship when one of my professors emailed me about a job with a new program doing literacy training in the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center. I told them I had a master’s degree and got the job [laughs]. The program eventually became Free Write.
Free Write must have evolved since its inception. What was the work like when you started?
When I started, it was just print literacy—straight reading. As I learned more about the students’ needs, we began doing creative writing workshops as well, which generated a ton of writing and led to the publication of our first anthology.
So you upped the creativity level?
Yes. And once we had the trust of the school and detention center, we were able to bring in visiting artists and expand our programming to include authors, sculptors, and musicians—all fields that are grounded in print literacy skills.
Now I even incorporate my DJing and audio production skills because some students fill notebook after notebook with song lyrics. I teach them how to record and produce original tracks.
Sounds like a cool gig. How did you know this was the right job for you?
I really didn’t at first. I didn’t have the confidence to say, ‘This is what I want.’ I like to teach and share skills, and I think I’m good at it, but I could never be a public school teacher. I just couldn’t be subjected to the standards that teachers are mandated to follow, not to mention the rules, the liability, and the censorship of an imposed curriculum.
What is the benefit of taking a less conventional approach to teaching?
I like accompanying the students on their intellectual, emotional, spiritual paths because if you give them the space to lead, they will take you where they need to go.
Some students respond well to a classroom situation and will accept a hierarchy of authority where work is handed down to them through the teacher—but with this population, with the kids I want to be around, they’ve tried that and it didn’t work for them. I like that I have the freedom to let the students tell me what they need.
“Inside Free Write” A profile on Free Write Jail Arts by Chicago Lights
“Finding a Creative Outlet in Detention” Eight Forty-Eight’s audio interview with Free Write’s Girls’ Program Director Amanda Klonsky
“Boys in detention find their own voices in poetry” Story with quotes from teen inmates, from the Chicago Tribune
And what do they need?
They need to be able to see that they have the ability to choose a different path for themselves, and not get held down by the negative things society says about them. The kids in detention centers are encumbered by labels, but they are smart and have beautiful things to say if you just listen.
What advice would you give to someone who finds your work inspiring?
I think my biggest strength is that I come here consistently. You don’t have to be inherently strong to work here, just consistent. A lot of these kids have never had that in their lives.
Some people get caught up in what they perceive as the hopelessness of this situation, and seeing kids locked up all day can be pretty frustrating, but turning your back won’t make it go away. I make it a point to work through my own emotions so that I can keep coming back with a good attitude. Seriously. Keep showing up. You will make a bigger impact than you ever expected.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Photo: Free Write Jail Arts