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NYC Department of Probation partners with Carnegie Hall to reimagine community justice through NeON Arts program

Arts & Culture, Human Services

“If we don’t do something to reform our probation and parole systems and turn them into systems that are actually designed to support people’s meaningful re-entry in society rather than simply ensnare people once again into the system, we can continue to expand the size of our prison population simply by continuing to revoke people’s probation and parole and keep that revolving door swinging.”
Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow

Grounded in the belief that there is a better way, the New York City Department of Probation (DOP) established the Neighborhood Opportunity Network (NeON) in 2011. The network is comprised of community organizations, government agencies, local businesses, and community residents focused on connecting probation clients to opportunities, resources, and services.

DOP’s NeON program is centered on infusing resources into disinvested neighborhoods, establishing authentic relationships with residents and key stakeholders to address the root causes that contribute to justice involvement and to have a positive and transformative impact in people’s lives.

NeON is based on a systemic, person-centered, and holistic approach to investing in communities impacted by mass incarceration and dedicated to addressing racial inequity and trauma wrought by unjust policies. Neighborhoods that have persistently high concentrations of youth on probation, including East New York, Bedford Stuyvesant, and the Brownsville sections of Brooklyn, Jamaica, Queens, the South Bronx, Staten Island and Harlem, are where the NeON program is focused.

NeON Arts 2019 Summer Showcase. Photo credit: Fadi Kheir.

NeON Arts: Creating New Futures

In 2013, DOP established a partnership with Carnegie Hall to create NeON Arts, a tested alternative to support justice-involved youth navigating reestablishing themselves in their local communities. NeON Arts is a free program developed by the NYC Department of Probation and Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute. It offers young people in New York City communities the chance to explore the arts through a variety of creative projects to help them further develop positive peer relationships and important social and career skills.

Watch a video on NeON Arts approach to creating new futures.

NeON Arts is one of five grantee partners in Kresge’s Culture of Justice initiative. Launched in 2019, this national program – a joint effort of Kresge’s Arts & Culture Program, the Boys and Men of Color Working Group and the Human Services Program – is centered around a  cohort of five community-based organizations that use arts and culture to reimagine justice in their local communities.

“We see a lot of what happens in the justice system as things that sometime prevent creative expression,” says Ayanna Cole, Carnegie’s Director of Social Impact Programs. “So, part of our focus is being able to partner with agencies and organizations to help overcome that barrier.”

Cole adds: “And when you combine Carnegie’s longstanding commitment to serve the widest audience possible, including in justice spaces, this partnership makes sense.”

“Art has created ways for the Department of Probation to engage people on probation in very unexpected ways,” says Catrina Prioleau, who directs NeON for the New York City Department of Probation. “You walk in and it’s about the art that’s happening. We have probation officers working alongside people on probation and they’re both focused on creativity as a part of the process. Art is the bridge allowing us to make that connection and to create relationships that are not always so authoritative. It’s very, very unusual but it’s building community and changing some of the negative perceptions.”

A group of students show off their uniquely designed t-shirts during a NeON Arts event. Photo credit: Fadi Kheir.

Creatively shifting the narrative

Each NeON neighborhood hosts free workshops throughout the year at community-based satellite offices. The offices look and feel like art centers. Young adults ages 16 to 24 are eligible to participate, the bulk of whom are beginning or completing probation terms. For participants on probation, program involvement usually lasts three-to-five years. Since the NY Department of Probation opened the NeON centers, Prioleau says more than 15,000 New York City youth have access to their services and supports.

As the Covid-19 Pandemic unfolded in 2020, NeON Arts was forced to move its programming online. The team was pleasantly surprised to have increased interest and participation. The NeONs reopened this spring in 2022, for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic.

“Covid was a lesson in being willing do the work in different ways,” explains Cole. “The young people clearly wanted to be engaged which may mean thinking of new ways to offer hybrids, whatever it takes strategically to help them meet their goals.”

The primary goal behind the program is to destigmatize probation through a process of direct human-centered and neighborhood-based engagement in communities historically distrustful of the justice system.

“The NeON Arts partnership continues to explore ways that art and other creative solutions can help keep justice-involved individuals from reincarceration while addressing the issues within the system itself,” says Regina Smith, managing director of Kresge’s Arts and Culture program.

Prioleau explains: “The Department of Probation, in developing the NeONs, was interested in thinking about ways that we could work with people that are justice-involved in settings that allow them to work alongside their neighbors without the stigma.”

As the city’s arts partner, Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute (WMI) facilitates grantmaking for the local artists who lead the youth workshops. WMIalso supports celebrations across the city showcasing the songs, poetry, and other art forms that are created by NeON Arts participants.

Cole says the partnership has proven beneficial for Carnegie Hall by deepening its connection to youth, especially those in communities of color, and as a way of extending its support of smaller independent local artists.

“We’re trying to create opportunities for artists that are from the communities that we serve,” she says. “The NeON Arts model means a lot of community voice, a lot of community leadership, a tremendous amount of youth voice, deliberately, so it means Carnegie Hall is not the end-all-be-all in the decision making.”

In fact, NeON Stakeholder Groups from each NeON neighborhood make the final decision on which artists and arts organizations are awarded grants. “That’s a huge power shift that lets us truly be in the community,” Cole says. “So, we don’t decide, and probation doesn’t decide. The community decides who gets the grant, which is one of the best parts of the NeON model.”

The result is a probation experience that offers a safe platform for youth to express their thoughts and emotions and take creative risk; nurture the development of positive relationships with both peers and adults; promote joy, creativity, and community pride; and connect participants to education and employment opportunities.

“Before NeON Arts, being on probation; nobody wanted to go,” explains Jeremy Smith, a NeON Arts participant in the Bronx. Smith, a poetry participant, credits the approach with shifting his view of being on probation. “…You’d go there (to probation office), you’d see your probation officer, maybe you take a test and then you’re out. Nothing like what NeON is doing, as for coming up with programs and a lot of creative ideas for us to get in touch with our creative side.”

A NeON Arts student uses a stylus to draw a portrait. Photo credit: Fadi Kheir.

Lessons of Reform

By listening to participants like Smith and implementing their ideas into the program, the NeON Arts team is consistently thinking through new ways to help the program evolve.

For her part, Prioleau is eyeing a new creative goal that she hopes will add yet another creative dimension to the ways NeON Arts is working to distinguish itself as an alternative model of social justice engagement.

“I want to remove the desk,” she says. Though she chuckles slightly as she explains, she is serious, and insists her vision would remove physical barriers and make the NeONs even more welcoming. “Generally, when people come in to see their probation officer, one person is sitting on one side of the desk: one person sitting on the other side of desk. I just want to move them so that there are no barriers to organic interactions and conversations.”

Prioleau is quick to caution that she’s not naïve or dismissive about the NeONs main objective. “None of this is about trying to hide the fact that probation is law enforcement or that the NeONs are part of the law enforcement ecosystem.” Yet she insists that the model has a message and lesson of reform to pass onto law enforcement too.

“We’re supposed to be about helping people who did something wrong, but have gotten another chance, get on with their lives in positive and productive ways. Law enforcement doesn’t have to stigmatize people in order to do its job. The right environment and the combination of art prove a less threatening way is possible.”