The Joan and Lyle Middleton Center for Children’s Rights recently partnered with ArtForceIowa to establish the #KnowJustice project for Iowa youth in the judicial system.
In an average year, more than 5,000 children appear in juvenile court in Iowa for allegedly committing a delinquent act. The court process can be confusing and frightening for children, and many feel powerless when they enter the system. Often these children struggle to understand their legal rights.
Thanks in part to a grant from the Slay Fund for Social Justice, the #KnowJustice project teaches youth about the legal process and their personal rights, and then helps them express what they learn through art.
“Our goal was to empower young people by helping them understand their rights and responsibilities in juvenile court,” said Brent Pattison, director of the Middleton Center for Children’s Rights and Drake Law professor. “Through education and artistic expression, hopefully we can help them be more engaged in their cases and be more successful.”
Drake Law students in the Drake Children’s Rights Clinic started developing the curriculum for the program early this year with the support of Pattison and John Mark Feilmeyer, executive director of ArtForceIowa.
“I think the law students learned as much as the participants did,” Pattison said. “They had to come up with a curriculum that was meaningful to the participants and break down the legal concepts in a way that young people could relate to.”
The program began on Feb. 10. Drake Law students taught one unit per week to the youth participants using interactive, experiential learning methods. The children learned about the juvenile justice process, with discussions on law enforcement, the First Amendment, school discipline, and more.
Second-year students Jessica Eglseder, Abby Maher, and Sarah Wilson taught the participants about their rights in juvenile court and demonstrated a mock trial. Meret Thali, a third-year Drake Law student, taught a workshop on police interactions.
“For all the topics, the focus was on the specific rights that young people have,” Thali said. “It’s important because young people can only be empowered if they have the right information.”
Kacy Merseal, a third-year Drake Law student, helped lead a workshop on freedom of speech.
“We taught them about their rights as well as limits, particularly in a school context,” Merseal said. “I worked to help them find ways to advocate for themselves without resorting to retaliation or evoking negative consequences.”
Starting in mid-March, the youth participants began the second phase of the program: expression through art.
They spent eight weeks collaborating with Des Moines artist Jordan Weber to create art projects based on their own personal experiences in the system. Through their artwork, the children were encouraged to explore, analyze, and strengthen the connections between personal rights, social activism, and artistic practice.
The artwork will be displayed in an exhibit at the Polk County Heritage Gallery in Des Moines from April 21 to June 2. The exhibit will also give the public an opportunity to better understand the challenges faced by young people involved in juvenile court.
Learn more at www.artforceiowa.org/knowjustice.
Established in 2001, the Joan and Lyle Middleton Center for Children’s Rights advances children’s rights by providing legal representation to children in child welfare and delinquency matters, advocating for legislative changes, and providing multidisciplinary training in the area of children’s rights.
ArtForceIowa is a nonprofit with a mission to transform youth through art. The organization’s various programs focus on incorporating life and work skills, mentorship, and advocacy into the art of creative expression.