Project Youth ArtReach (PYA)


Allegany County, MD

Even hardened skeptics can sometimes be transformed

"You know, I think if I’d had clay on the outside, I wouldn’t be on the inside now." 

That’s what a young man in a Maryland detention center told his pottery teacher. It calmed and centered him, the chance to work with his imagination and his hands, to make something of beauty. 

Another detainee, a young woman, helped paint centerpieces for the annual county executives' ball. I never thought I could work on something so important, she later said. It makes me feel like a valuable person.

Even hardened skeptics can sometimes be transformed. Upon the launch of a djembe drumming class at a jail, a corrections officer said, "I don’t know why you’re babying these guys." He changed his mind after seeing the humanizing effect it had on the men involved. As one participating inmate put it, "I look forward to this every week. For about one hour I feel I’m part of a community."

Such powerful anecdotes are commonly heard among the dedicated teaching-artists of Project Youth ArtReach (PYA) who engage kids and young adults caught up in our correctional system. The artists are generally Maryland-based, but might originate from anywhere in the world: Ghanaian drummers, Bulgarian poets, South African mural painters. The young people they teach may have never left their neighborhoods before being put behind bars. The encounters can leave lasting impressions on everyone involved.

The program—which is supported by MSAC, the NEA, the Montgomery County Jail and other funders—averages 325 workshops (460+ hours) and 25 performances annually at four to six correctional facilities around Maryland, most of them juvenile centers. They reach hundreds of court-involved young people and adults each year. (PYA was formerly known as Class Act Arts, founded by activist and educator Busy Graham, and is a core program of the community arts nonprofit Artivate.)

Director Claire Schwadron says, “I don’t want to be too grandiose. I’m not going to say art is going to save people. But it does connect us—especially those among us who are very disenfranchised—it connects us in a very positive and equal way.”