Celebrating the Art & Activism of Shepard Fairey
It’s become a tradition for the street and urban art community to rally support for the Young New Yorkers arts program with an annual silent auction. Dozens of notable artists donate works to be sold, with all proceeds to go directly to the non-profit organization, which provides arts-based diversion programs to court-involved 16- and 17-year-olds who, in New York State, are tried as adults in the criminal justice system. YNY graduates’ cases are dismissed and sealed, leaving them free of the collateral consequences of an adult criminal record.
This year’s auction will be celebrating the art and activism of Shepard Fairey, and will showcase a selection of artwork by Fairey, as well as 80+ street and urban artists, such as: Keith Haring, Janette Beckman, Swoon, Icy & Sot, GILF!, Dan Witz, Gaia, Hanksy, RAE BK, Dee Dee, Jaime Rojo, Daniel Albanese, and many others.
While the auction will take place in New York City on April 7th, you don’t have to physically be at the auction to bid, and all art can be shipped internationally. Bidding is currently taking place through Paddle8.
“I wholeheartedly support Young New Yorkers; not only as an art program and constructive alternative to teens being incarcerated, but it is also highly therapeutic. It builds problem solving skills that can boost self confidence and allow participants to feel more empowered to pursue their dreams as well as deal with their realities.”—Shepard Fairey
I recently interviewed Rachel Barnard, YNY Co-Founder and Executive Director, about the work of the organization, its relationship to street art and how the silent auction came into being.
Dusty Rebel: What’s the relationship between Young New Yorkers and the street art community?
Rachel Barnard: Young New Yorkers has been in a deep partnership with the street art community from the beginning. Our first diversion program, in 2012, was completely funded by the first Silent Art Auction. Lunar New Year brought in his street art community, and together they donated artworks, and set up the show. Since then, many of the street artists have taught in YNY classes, and 50 artists from the first year have grown to over 100. This year, Gilf! (Ann Lewis) is doing an incredible job co-curating and co-directing the show with Lunar New Year.
I think one of the reasons that so many street artists are drawn to support our diversion programs is that many of them were arrested on graffiti charges when they were young. They understand the trauma that can be associated with an arrest, and want to support young people going through similar experiences and want to assist in creating change within the system itself.
Dusty Rebel: How did the annual Silent Art Auction come into being? How important is it to funding the program?
Rachel Barnard: At the beginning when, YNY was merely an idea and had yet to get approval for our first program (let alone graduate our first class), we were exploring fundraising methods. It was the street art community that that were willing to take the risk, and back us. Today, the Silent Art Auction remains our greatest single source of income. It is critically important as we try to grow and provide more programs.
Dusty Rebel: This year’s auction is also a celebration of the art and activism of Shepard Fairey—tells us about his connection to Young New Yorkers.
Rachel Barnard: Shepard Fairey has been a long-term supporter of Young New Yorkers, donating to our auctions from the beginning. Youth justice is a very important issue to him. He says, “I wholeheartedly support Young New Yorkers; not only as an art program and constructive alternative to teens being incarcerated, but it is also highly therapeutic. It builds problem solving skills that can boost self confidence and allow participants to feel more empowered to pursue their dreams as well as deal with their realities.”
We are thrilled to be partnering with him in this way. Our participants discover his art and activism work in many of our diversion programs, and his work has sparked many conversations in class amongst our participants about who traditionally gets represented in public space and why. Through understand his work, participants begin to see that art not only raises awareness around social issues, but may actually assists in social change. After all, Young New Yorkers started out as a public art project, and we secretly still run it as though it is one. We constantly ask ourselves how we can provide a platform for our extraordinary participants to be heard, so that they may advocate for themselves and what is important to them.
Dusty Rebel: Can you explain how Young New Yorkers came to be, and about the goals of the organization?
Rachel Barnard: Young New Yorkers started as a socially-driven public art project, when I was fortunate enough to be awarded the Goodman Fellowship from Columbia University in 2011. The fellowship proposal was for a public art project, titled “Young New Yorkers,” and aimed to give voice to 16- and 17-year-olds in New York State who are prosecuted as adults, despite being too young to vote and enact meaningful change around the legislation that affects them the most.
In 2012, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman announced that the state would work to raise the adult trial age to 18. Though this push to “raise the age” has yet to go through, it was the impetus for the creation of the Adolescent Diversion Program (ADP). Special youth court parts were set up for 16- and 17-year-olds and Young New Yorkers was on the ground floor to become the first arts-based court-mandated sentencing option for ADP in Kings County.
Today YNY offers two court-mandated diversion programs and a number of voluntary programs. We have an 8-Week Arts Diversion Program, and a 1-Day Arts Diversion Program. These programs are offered as alternative sentencing options for teenagers being tried as adults in New York State. At the completion of these programs, the majority of our participants have their cases dismissed and sealed, avoiding a lifelong adult criminal record at as young as 16 years old.
YNY’s ultimate goal is to transform the criminal justice system through the creative voices of our young New Yorkers. Each 8-Week Program culminates in a large-scale public art exhibition that has been designed by the participants, which gives voice to a social justice issue that is important to them. Recent topics for the exhibitions were: young people in solitary confinement; gun violence in Brownsville; and of course, the issue of 16- and 17-year-olds being tried as adults in New York State. Many of our criminal justice partners attend the exhibitions (including judges, assistant district attorneys, and defense attorneys) and have the opportunity to re-meet the young people beyond their rap sheets, as creative members of their communities with something valuable to say.
Dusty Rebel: Your success rate is really impressive. I read on your site that “100% of over 250 participants have successfully graduated” from the program and that their re-arrest rates are “notably lower than similarly situated teens in Brooklyn, and the national average.” What makes your program so successful?
Rachel Barnard: There are a lot of different factors to our success, the biggest one, of course, being that our participants are nothing short of extraordinary. We acknowledge that many YNY participants have experiences borne out of growing up in poor neighborhoods with high levels of criminal justice-involvement that many of us may never experience ourselves. We acknowledge that this affords our young people a profound depth of human wisdom. In view of this, we take a partnership approach in class: the program teachers offer up certain distinctions—such as economic disparity, criminalization of neighborhoods, choice and impact, and so on. This is helpful to participants because it can assist in de-internalizing complex social problems. The participants then lead discussions about their lived experiences around certain issues, including their own criminal justice involvement, and channel those narratives and ideas into their artwork.
We take very seriously the restorative justice elements of our program, which are designed to empower our participants around their own accountability. But I’d also like to draw attention to the fact that the current “default,” institutionalized definition of success when evaluating diversion programs is centered on recidivism rates, or re-arrest rates. This is not a bad measure in and of itself—a core goal of YNY is certainly to have young people avoid further criminal justice involvement. However, the complexities within the criminal justice system that currently lays in the wake of thirty years of tough-on-crime political rhetoric and policymaking has been particularly damaging to our young people. Instead of treating justice-involved youth with a humane and rehabilitative approach, youths began being treated as fully culpable adults (beginning at age 16, in New York State). Criminal justice involvement across the board escalated for minor offenses.
Success need not be measured solely by the so-called reform of young people, but in conjunction with the reform of the criminal justice system. YNY, in addition to serving justice-involved young people, aims to provide everyone working within the criminal justice system an opportunity to engage with our young people outside of the courtroom, and celebrate their accomplishments and insights. YNY serves as a tiny example of what a criminal justice system that works towards being empowering for everyone—both the participants and the actors within the criminal justice system—could look like.
Dusty Rebel: Okay, so anyone in the world can participate in this silent auction, and you’ll ship anywhere. But what do you love the most about the in-person experience?
Rachel Barnard: The first thing to know about the Silent Art Auction is that it is the best fun ever, and brings together so many people from so many different walks of life who are committed to our young people and have fun buying incredible artwork.
Time: 7 pm to 10 pm
Location: 160 West Broadway New York NY 10013