Art exhibit tackles tough issue

First Posted: 1/23/2014

PEMBROKE — The “school-to-prison pipeline” refers to the theory that disadvantaged youths, especially minorities, are being shuffled from public schools into the criminal justice system, due in large part to widespread neglect from state and federal agencies.

The pipeline concept is the subject of a new multimedia art exhibition currently running at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke’s A.D. Gallery.

The exhibition is titled “None of the Above: dismantling the school to prison pipeline,” and is centered around a series of monologues delivered by students and faculty members, as well as a number of interactive art installations.

Hidden Voices, a nonprofit based out of Cedar Grove, spent more than three years compiling research and collecting stories from people across North Carolina for the interdisciplinary project. The stories, gathered from school administrators, attorneys, juvenile justice officials, inmates and others caught in the pipeline, inspired the cycle of 18 short monologues performed at the exhibition.

“We’ve never had such an interactive exhibit,” said Carla Rokes, A.D. Gallery director and assistant professor.

Rokes approached Hidden Voices about hosting the exhibition last summer at the suggestion of the daughter of a fellow professor.

“I was very interested because of the area’s high incarceration rate,” she said.

Staged against the backdrop of a live radio broadcast, the monologues convey a range of perspectives.

“You don’t often hear the personal stories in such close proximity. It really humanizes the issue,” Rokes said.

“The exhibition is very moving because hearing the voices of those affected is the quickest way to dive deep into the topic,” said Lynden Harris, director of Hidden Voices.

During the exhibition’s opening reception on Wednesday, Erasto Simmons, a junior Biology major at the university, read an emotionally charged monologue from the perspective of an incarcerated male.

“Working through each part, I could relate to the character. If my life would have turned out a little differently, that could have been me,” he said.

Joan Blackwell, a junior Art Education major, delivered a monologue from the perspective of a law clinic attorney. In the monologue he argued that courts have become dumping grounds for black teens who are the victims of environmental circumstance.

“It was resonant,” said Blackwell, who is a Lumbee Indian. “The average white person does not realize the amount of suffering that black people and Native American people have endured.”

Senior art major Melvin Morris’ monologue was told from the perspective of a legal aid assistant and offered historical context for the pipeline.

“I liked my monologue because it made the point that the pipeline is not something new by reflecting back to a time when it was illegal to educate slaves,” he said.

The monologues are performed live.

The installation portion of the exhibition, which took two days to set up, includes several graphical representations of statistics related to the pipeline, such as classroom desks plastered with charts showing intersections between test scores and incarceration rates.

One piece interprets the number of pre-K and kindergarten students suspended in a single year through the tips of 3,300 multicolored crayons grouped inside the state’s silhouette.

Elsewhere, a series of portraits show students from across 22 counties imitating their worst teachers, and vice versa.

For Simmons, the wealth of information of display at the exhibition was eye-opening.

“It brings to light a fallacy within the justice system,” he said. “It disproves the existence of true justice.”

“None of the Above: dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline” runs until Feb. 7 and is free to the public. For information, call 919-732-9299.