by Dena Stewart

“What is a crime?” we asked groups of youth.
They answered in language to shock, some uncouth.

Youths, six though teens, said they’ve stolen from vendors.
We’ve done it all, bragged young repeat offenders.
Rape, arson, robbery, computer hacking,
kidnapping, trespassing, murder, carjacking,
Drug dealing, drunk driving, theft and strong arming,
use of a weapon intent upon harming.

Why risk the chance for a future in jail?
Why commit crimes? We wanted detail.

“Pressure from peers. To belong in the ‘hood.
To get back at parents. We’re misunderstood.
We want all the things advertised on TV,
But we have no money. These things aren’t free.
Like everyone else we want what we need.
We think of the moment, not where it will lead.”

Because of these crime waves, people are scared.
Victims have asked that their stories be shared.

“My hands were bound, my home was robbed,
Then I was raped,” the woman sobbed.

“A knife was held up to my throat.
He took the wallet from my coat.”

“I was knocked down, my purse was grabbed.
My car ripped off, my best friend stabbed.”

The streets are a gauntlet the innocent run
To reach a safe place ’til the crime war is won.
Fear keeps our neighbors imprisoned at home,
Giving the criminals freedom to roam.

What steps can we take to eliminate crime?
To reclaim our lives before there’s no time?
Return to your families, give love and hugs,
Is like telling an addict to “say no to drugs.”

Rhetoric spoken is not a real answer.
The crime problem’s spreading faster than cancer.
Families don’t have a solid foundation.
Schools don’t provide the right education.
Youngsters in crisis have nowhere to turn.
There are so few role models from whom to learn.

It’s now up to US to impress upon youth
That their future depends upon morals and truth.
Teach them skills, give them praise, help guide their way.
Build their self-worth so high, that crime doesn’t pay.


As CFCA program facilitators, we (Dena and Stewart) initiated ALL ABOUT CRIME in 1996 when, at an Elder Affairs conference, we heard that crime was the top concern of the elderly, especially crimes perpetrated by youth.

Ida, a small, white-haired woman in her early 80s, said her purse was yanked from under her arm with such force that she fell, and the young thief ran away. Annie said her apartment was robbed by two neighborhood gang members. Rose, a frail 80 year-old was held at knifepoint by a young man wearing a stocking cap as his accomplice forced her to give him her diamond ring, gold watch, and the cameo pin her mother left her. mugged crime

Most of the stories by the elderly were similar, so we turned to youths to hear what they had to say about crime. Our plan was to use our “Telling Stories Through Visuals” program – have them write about their experiences with crime and then do artwork based on their stories. We wanted honest narratives, so we advised our participants to use a tag name or initials. We assured them that nobody will know who wrote the story and that whatever they said to us would be kept confidential.

We first went to elementary schools, some in inner-city neighborhoods and some in upscale areas. A group of first graders talked about swiping a stick of gum or a piece of candy from the store.  One six year old girl wrote that she took money from her mother’s wallet when her mother was out of the room but then felt bad and put the money back. She said she knew she was doing something bad and would get into trouble if her mother found out.

One ten year old wrote that he went to Walmart with his mother and his mother put a party dress under her coat and walked out of the store without paying for it.  It was for his little sister. We asked him how his mother’s actions made him feel. “I know my mom was stealing. But I didn’t say anything to anyone because if she got arrested, who would take care of me and my sister?”sol gersh hardcopy

We brought our project to middle schools where we worked with very at-risk youth in after school programs. These 11, 12 and 13 year-old youngsters aspired to being gang members. They were noisy. They screamed at each other. They couldn’t sit still for more than five minutes at a time. One youngster walked across the top of the desks to get to the other side of the room. They threw erasers at each other. They were bundles of energy at the end of a long school day, indoors with us instead of being outdoors with their friends doing sports. It was up to us to get them to do the work.  We made a deal with them.  Five minutes at the beginning of each hour they could stand up, stretch and make loud noise. They could walk to the front of the room where the supplies were each time they needed a new color. They were permitted to talk to each other quietly, and at the end of each session, they could play music. In exchange, they settled down.YMP at work

When they bragged about their toughness, we asked them to tell us about the petty crimes they’ve done to build their reputations in the ‘hood.

“How did you feel when you were doing the crimes?” Stewart asked. Most of them said it felt good and was fun.

“But what happened afterwards? How did you feel when you got home and you were alone to think about your actions?” Stewart asked.

“I felt bad. Sad,” they responded.

“So, what do you do about that low feeling?” Stewart asked.

“I went out and did another crime,” one punky 12-year old retorted.

“Are you a drug addict?” Stewart asked.

“No way,” the punk shot back. “My brother died from an overdose.”

“Well, it sounds to me like you are. Sounds like you’re addicted to adrenaline,” Stewart said.

“What’s adrenaline?” the punk asked.

“Adrenaline is the body’s natural fight or flee drug that’s even more addictive than heroin or cocaine. Your body pumps adrenaline when you commit a crime. The adrenaline gives you the feeling of super strength and power. It’s exciting. But afterwards you come crashing down. That’s why you feel good when you are doing the crime and so bad afterwards,” we explained. The youngsters understood.

We went to an alternative school to work with older teens who had minor scrapes with the Law, and to a last chance school for adjudicated teens located on the grounds of the Juvenile Justice Center.

“We need your knowledge. YOU have had the experiences we want to share with the rest of the community, along with the reasons for your actions,” we told them. One teen wrote about a robbery he and his friends did.

“Four of us stole a car and drove to the mall near the metro mover. One stayed in the car and three went into the store. While one of the three loaded up a shopping cart of the things we wanted, the other two walked around to make the guards suspicious. The one with the stuff walked calmly out of the store. The driver was there waiting and they pulled away real quick, drove to the metro mover and abandoned the car. Then the other two, empty-handed, left the store and walked to the metro mover.  I won’t say which one I was, but we all met at someone’s house where we divided up what we took.” He drew a detailed, step-by-step diagram, comic book style, of how to commit the perfect shopping mall heist. shoplifting crime

We got to know the teenagers. We never challenged the authenticity of their bravado nor did we judge their ethics. They appeared tough, but they enjoyed doing the art once they knew that whatever they did, as long as it represented what they wrote, would be okay. We showed them how to put meat on their stick figures. We showed them how to draw a car they stole and a house they robbed. We showed them simple, basic techniques on depth and perspective. They experimented with high quality colored markers, colored pencils, pastels, and charcoals, on canvas.  They talked to us, to each other, and among themselves the whole time they were creating. They played rap music and sang along. They loved the attention and the opportunity to tell their stories. We came back every week for six months. At the end, each teen had written a story that we edited on the computer and printed out in large typeface. And each teen had an accompanying painting on canvas that they proudly signed, with their real name.DiseanJackson

As luck and good timing would have it, the nationally syndicated television show Hard Copy was doing a feature about crime around the country and our project came to their attention. They wanted to interview us and some of the project participants. We selected several of the teens from the last chance schools, as well as some of the senior citizens who were crime victims. On camera, one of the teens told of a shooting in his neighborhood. Another teen who had been in jail said that if he could make money doing art, he would rather be doing art than crime. Then a well-dressed gentleman in his late 70s said that his Jaguar was vandalized repeatedly and he had been mugged for his jewelry. “I believe I’ve earned the right to enjoy what I have and not be afraid that I’ll be robbed or worse,” he said earnestly. The teens laughed. They said he was the perfect target because of the way he dressed. The warm and fuzzy end of this was that the senior citizen ended up as a mentor to these teens. purse snatch

A Professor at Bluffton College (Bluffton, Ohio) saw us on Hard Copy and called.  They needed a program to help tackle the crime problem in their small town and neighboring Lima, where BP had an oil refinery. With funds from the Lyon & Lamb Peace Foundation, they paid our way. Forty youngsters between the ages of 12 and 14 participated. One of the older girls wrote:

“It was my 10th birthday and some of my friends were in my house for a sleepover. We were in my room listening to music and doing our hair when my dad came home, late and drunk. My mom yelled at him for forgetting to pick up my birthday cake. My dad got mad at her and dragged her into their bedroom. They screamed at each other for a while, then he hit her, she bit him, and he cut her throat with a knife.  My mom died, my dad went to jail, and my younger brother and I went to live with my grandmother.”

This story took my breath away. I talked to the girl’s teacher to see if she knew anything about this incident. She didn’t. It had happened in another city. But now she understood why the girl was so withdrawn and indicated that she would give her more attention.crime mural

More than 300 participants wrote stories and created artwork describing their experiences with crime and how crime has affected their lives. Discussions took place regarding the reasons for committing crimes, the feelings involved, and the ramifications, to gain better understanding of motives, actions and reactions. The 46 running-feet long “All About Crime” mural was debuted at a national Crime Watch event for then Attorney General Janet Reno. And our program, “Telling Stories Through Visuals” was selected by the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities as a national model that effectively uses writing & art to address social issues.