ArtSpring’s arts-based workshops for underserved communities promote self-esteem and understanding

Leslie Neal has been involved in the Miami dance community since 1981. In 1992, she held a tenured faculty position at Florida University as an Associate Professor of Dance with a focus on community arts when she started her own modern dance company, Leslie Neal Dance, which performed at events such as the national conference of the Coalition Against Domestic Violence. She also formed her own nonprofit organization, ArtSpring, with the goal of offering arts-based workshops to a diverse group of people within a community to promote respect, cooperation, and cultural understanding.

Neal began visiting Broward Correctional Institution, a women’s prison, on a volunteer basis to research how the arts can impact the prison environment. She became so interested in the subject that she shifted the focus of ArtSpring to work within prisons and in 1994 began teaching Inside Out, an interdisciplinary improvisation-based arts workshop for incarcerated women that explored issues of self-esteem and stimulated personal responsibility through the creative process.

Since that time, Neal implemented arts programs through ArtSpring at five other correctional facilities for women and female juveniles in Florida and taught at facilities for women in California and Michigan. All of the programming was provided at no cost to the institutions, and was entirely supported through grants and fundraising efforts.

The organization grew significantly from that first program, though it always remained dedicated to arts in corrections. Neal was able to expand programming and hire about 15 artists she trained and sent out into different correctional facilities, including a juvenile detention center for boys and girls in Miami, the Homestead Correctional Institution, and the South Florida Reception Center. They were also doing work with young girls in foster care and in homeless shelters.

At the Homestead Correctional Institution alone, ArtSpring had programs going on seven days a week that included dance, theatre, music, songwriting, visual arts, poetry, and creative writing. Programs spanned from the prerequisite Inside Out class to beginner, intermediate, and advanced classes.

“We had expanded quite a lot based on the funding we received,” Neal says. “I kept training artists, then they would go in and work [under the ArtSpring mantle] and begin their own programming that we would support.”

Inside Out was the first course participants would have to take to show a commitment to the arts before they ventured into different disciplines and moved into separate, more focused classes based on their own artistic interests and increasing in levels of advancement.

ArtSpring’s more specialized programs included singing/songwriting workshops, theatre workshops, classes in visual arts, classes in writing and poetry, and classes that explore the Afro-Cuban culture.

Each class was a 10- to 12-week commitment that ended in some kind of formal presentation of students sharing their work, singing songs or dancing or performing a play.

“There had to be some kind of formal presentation at the end,” says Neal. “Exhibiting visual arts was important for us to culminate in that kind of event so that they had something they could share with the rest of the prison population and staff and be proud of something they accomplished.”

Neal says they saw a tremendous shift in the students who took ArtSpring’s classes, though “success” is hard to define by metrics.

“We tried quantitative testing which was very challenging; it did not work for us,” she explains. “We did qualitative testing through own questionnaires. We videotaped all the presentations that were ever done to serve as a documentation of their work, and they would share on that video what the work means to them. There was a measurable increase in their self-esteem and sense of accomplishment. They demonstrated a better ability to communicate with others and had fewer disciplinary reports. It was a better use of these incarcerated women’s time spent in prisons.”

ArtSpring was a successful organization. If anything, it suffered from being too successful.

“We struggled a lot to raise money to offer courses,” Neal says. “This population is not an easy one to raise programming money for. There are so many grants specifically focused on programming but very few resources for organizational support. We grew so much that we really struggled administratively; we just didn’t have the staff. It was just my Executive Director and me and we were getting burned out.”

She explains that dealing with the correctional system is extremely complicated. “Everything has to be approved in advance, which took a lot more administrative time than it normally would. Also working in the prison environment itself was very challenging.”

ArtSpring had reached its capacity in the number of programs it could offer. The next step would have been to extend programming to transitional housing once the women were released, but, Neal says, “We didn’t have the resources to start such a program.”

She explains, “Many of the women need to stay engaged in this creative work; when the rubber really hits the road is when they get out of prison. We have an amazingly low recidivism rate; only one person returned to prison because of a parole violation after participating in at least one year of our programming. It became apparent that transitional housing would be the next step but we didn’t have the resources, and there is nothing like that in South Florida.”

The recidivism rate is an important thing to note: the recidivism rate in Florida – referring to a person’s relapse into criminal behavior that leads to reincarceration – is close to 30 percent. In the two decades that ArtSpring worked within correctional institutions, roughly 100 women who were enrolled in their programs for at least one year have been released. Again, only one has returned.

She says there are a few independent transitional homes that house around six or seven women each in South Florida, but these houses aren’t providing programming or support; they basically exist just to give the women a place to stay as they reenter the workforce and the community. There is no real “transitional” programming.

“The reality is they’re getting out and they need to get out with a much better sense of purpose than they are going in with,” says Neal. “It’s therapeutic, as art is, and that’s why so many people go back to prison: because they’re not prepared and don’t have the tools for successful reentry. I believe very strongly we were saving taxpayers money.”

After 21 years, Neal was simply just burnt out. So she decided to take a break.

ArtSpring still has four classes running at Homestead. The organization had money in reserve to keep the programming going, but Neal stopped writing grants and just last month moved to Vero Beach, Florida to be with her husband. (The two had been commuting back and forth on weekends, approximately a three-hour drive each way, after his company transferred him about four years ago; such was her commitment to the work she was doing.)

Neal will now work with elderly populations at the Center for Memory and Motion, a Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s center in Vero Beach, through a partnership with the Vero Beach Museum of Art. Neal’s pivot away from the prison system was necessary: there are no prisons in this area, just jails, which have much higher turnover rates, making it much more difficult to institute three months of immersive programming.

“We’re going to reexamine where our talents can be for different populations,” she says. “Originally [the goal of ArtSpring] was just about bringing arts to underserved communities. There is a lot of potential with arts and healthcare in the elderly community. This center has got a lot of potential for arts programming, which I will always do. I can’t not do it.”

The pivot also presents something of a needed respite for her. The recidivism rate for ArtSpring students might have been incredibly low, but ArtSpring served about 1,200 inmates and juveniles per year at its peak. This means that many of the women they served over their 21 years remain incarcerated.

“I love the work but working in a correctional facility is incredibly challenging,” she says. “I had some incredibly talented women who didn’t want to stop learning. It started to feel so overwhelmingly sad that there was so much talent that would never get outside the prison walls. But the incredible change and shift in that prison environment that happened through ArtSpring brought more humanity to it.”

She went through what she says was a rough year of grieving after making the decision to move ArtSpring out of Miami-Dade County and out of the correctional system. “Then I realized I can keep doing this in a different population; I don’t have to give up what I love. ArtSpring is going to redefine itself in a different way, and I’m really excited about it. I’m unhappy when I’m not teaching.”

She adds, “We’ve left a good legacy there. What we’ve learned from ArtSpring is that you have to engage your community and make it better place.”

Long-time ArtSpring supporter the Kalliopeia Foundation is currently second place in the running for a people’s choice Webby Award for their new website, Beyond Prisons, in which ArtSpring is featured along with several other organizations that have had a transformative impact in the prison environment. Voting ends at midnight on April 22, 2016.