Young People Are Using Musical Theater to Heal Their Trauma — and It’s Working

On the drive home from Priya Shah’s first Storycatchers musical, she pulled over. She was teary-eyed and emotionally moved by the musical she had just watched.
Shah, who now serves as the executive director of Storycatchers, had just seen a musical at the Illinois Youth Center, a juvenile facility in Warrenville, Illinois. She watched girls tell stories of sexual abuse, battery and neglect. She also saw stories of hope and resilience.
“It struck me that these characters I had just watched struggle, joke, grieve and triumph on stage, that they’re not just characters,” she told NationSwell. “They’re based on real people with real stories.”
Shah left a corporate career to work with those girls and similar young people at Storycatchers Theatre
Storycatchers Theatre — also known as Storycatchers — is a nonprofit musical theater group that works with justice-involved youth in Chicago. Through programming both inside and outside of the justice centers, children and young adults turn their life stories into musicals.
The young actors and actresses perform for a wide variety of audience members, including elementary school students, community members, judges, legislators and police officers. Last year, the nonprofit worked with 228 young people and hosted 127 performances inside and outside of juvenile detention centers, for over 5,000 audience members. 
“It’s kind of a dual-purpose program, these young people have a place to tell their story, to be heard, to be validated, to find coping mechanisms in order to move on from their trauma,” Tory Davidson, Storycatchers’ community engagement manager, told NationSwell. “But then also we organizationally find platforms for young people’s voices to be heard and for them to inform people of power.”
Storycatchers has two programs: one that engages 13- to 18-year-olds inside three juvenile detention centers in or near Chicago, and another program called Changing Voices, which works with young people who are between the ages of 17 and 24 and are justice-involved, typically on parole, probation or post-release.  
Changing Voices employs 21 young adults for 30 hours a week at Chicago’s minimum wage. Through that, they receive wraparound services, such as resume building, conflict management, financial literacy and job acquisition. They work with case managers and artist educators, who help them develop the musicals. A single day may start with a morning workshop on how to secure a job interview to an afternoon choreography rehearsal to a lesson on keeping calm in moments of crisis. 
A cohort of four or five people work together to write their individual stories, create a group script, add music to the script, practice and then perform the musicals. Individuals typically stay in the program for about eight months, but some stay longer.
The Storycatchers team believes that trauma is the core reason that individuals end up in the justice system. Researchers have found a link between crime and unresolved trauma. So by telling and performing their story, they learn from the trauma and overcome it, said Shah.
“We believe that if we give diversion programming and arts programming and mental health support … it drastically changes the trajectory of their life because they understand what the actions are and what the consequences are,” she said.
The goal is to leave Storycatchers prepared for success, which may mean enrolling in higher education, landing a steady job or rekindling family bonds. Each story of success is different, said Shah. 
For Quincy, success means pursuing a degree in theater. “I love acting, and I’m going to try and pursue it,” he said. Quincy, 19, learned about Storycatchers after his own encounter with the justice system. He had grown up watching Disney Channel, so acting was always a passion. He said Storycatchers felt like a great opportunity to prepare for a job and gain training as an actor. So Quincy applied, interviewed, auditioned and was accepted to the Changing Voices program.
A year and a half later, he’s performed close to a hundred shows and worked with dozens of fellow actors and actresses. 
“We are all human beings, so we’re all going to make mistakes,” Quincy told NationSwell. “It’s called life experience, so you just have to live through it and think beyond the point where you shouldn’t have made that decision.”
Thanks to Storycatchers, Quincy has overcome trauma and created a foundation for a career. 
For another Storycatchers actor, it meant accepting male role models. Shah shared the story of a young man who had been abandoned by his father. The actor wrote a story about his dad leaving his home and never coming back.
The life event led to a lot of anger and challenges, but by writing and performing his trauma, he worked through it.
“We saw him overcome [his trauma] and have a positive relationship with male role models in his life,” Shah said.
The playwrights, writing about their own experiences, perform in their shows but never as themselves. They assume the role of their mothers, their grandfathers, a police officer or friend, for example. The idea is for them to experience their own situations from a new perspective.
“So by role-playing, you’re having people imagine a world that’s different from what they’d imagined before,” Shah said. “From the time they start writing their stories, to the time they perform it … they’re validating their stories.”

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A young actor rehearses for a performance with a Storycatchers actor-educator.

Storycatchers began performing life stories in 1984 when Meade Palidofsky founded the organization. She started working with young people across Chicago to transform their personal stories into musicals. 
She ended up workshopping and creating a show in one of Chicago’s juvenile detention centers. After the performance and workshop were over, the juveniles were aching to start their next musical, Davidson said. Their eagerness led Palidofsky to continue to work with justice-involved individuals. In 2016, Storycatchers decided to focus solely with justice-involved youth.
Twenty-nine years later, the program is still strong. The leaders at Storycatchers hope to deepen their impact in Chicago by expanding its outreach. 
Storycatchers currently has plenty of anecdotal stories pointing to their success, but there isn’t evidence-based research to support their work — yet. The University of Chicago Urban Labs is currently looking at Storycatchers’ rates of recidivism and employment among its graduates to track their success. That data will be released in 2022. 
“We believe in strong collaboration. We believe in strong relationships,” Shah said. “And a strong ecosystem to be able to provide an equitable platform for our youth.”
More: The Broadway Theater Company Giving Troubled Teens a Second Act
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Illinois Youth Center is a juvenile detention center. It is a juvenile facility. Storycatchers Theatre also realigned its mission in 2016, not 1990. NationSwell apologizes for the errors.

Restorative Justice Programs That Work

This past July, two men were brutally beaten while heading back to their hotel in New Orleans’ French Quarter. Four men were charged with the attack, but instead of pushing for a harsh jail sentence, the two victims proposed something else: a face-to-face meeting with the perpetrators.  
The idea is based on a process called restorative justice. In a country where criminal justice often involves harsh penalties like jail time and steep fines, restorative justice asks everyone impacted by a conflict or a crime to develop a shared understanding of both its root causes and effects. Restorative justice considers the harm done and strives for agreement from all concerned parties on how to make amends.
In the U.S., restorative justice takes a number of forms. In many cases, offenders and victims face one another and discuss the reasons underpinning a crime and also work on potential solutions. But other models of restorative justice might include roundtable discussions or community involvement.
And it’s not just for courts: Restorative justice programs are also being used in schools to keep students from being suspended, which many say is ineffective and more like a vacation than anything particularly edifying.
Here are a few examples of restorative justice programs around the nation.

A Jury of Your (Teen) Peers

In the isolated waterfront neighborhood of Red Hook, in Brooklyn, teenagers are trained for 30 hours before being given an opportunity to help fellow teens, as part of a program administered by the Center for Court Innovation in New York.
For offenders between the ages of 10 and 18, low-level offenses such as bullying, assault or theft — cases that could easily land in a family or criminal court — are heard by a youth judge, a peer jury, a tribunal, an adult judge or some combination therein.
While the model is a flexible one, the end goals are much the same. According to the court’s training manual, “Youths have a primary role in presenting and hearing cases and the youth court’s fundamental approach should be restorative in nature, focusing on positive peer interactions, allowing the respondent to redress any harm done to the community and providing opportunities for positive youth development for both members and respondents.”
The success of the program has led to the introduction of youth courts in every NYC borough. Mayor Bill de Blasio endorses the program. “Young people must have confidence in the criminal justice system,” he said in a recent press release. “That starts by understanding how it works and by seeing themselves as a part of the administration of justice.”

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Men As Peacemakers facilitates open conversations between men to acknowledge that “[abuse] is a male problem” and encourage healthy behavior for youth offenders.

A “Whole School” Approach

Three years ago, in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, a young black student threw Skittles at another student, landing him in jail.
His arrest was just one of many such incidents within the Jefferson Parish public school system that penalized black youth more frequently and more severely than their white peers, and it resulted in a complaint filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center against the school district.
As a result of the arrest and subsequent national attention, the school district decided to implement a new discipline plan featuring restorative justice, where students have the right to request a restorative circle before they are suspended. This is called a “whole school” approach, where anyone who is impacted by an incident — teachers, students and even parents — sit in a circle and express themselves in a nonjudgmental forum. At the end, participants come up with a way to address the problem or harm the incident caused.
At a school in Marrero, a city inside Jefferson Parish, suspensions in one school dropped by 56 percent, according to CityLab. Other schools in the district that have embraced a similar approach have also seen declines in suspension rates.

Once Offenders, Now Volunteers

Instead of locking up bullies, why not try talking to them instead?
That’s the goal of L.A.’s Teen Court, an intervention program which provides selected juvenile offenders with the opportunity to be questioned, judged and sentenced by a jury of their peers.
David S. Wesley, presiding judge for the Los Angeles Superior Court, thinks that having youth offenders plead their case to a jury of their peers, is a much more effective way of preventing future skirmishes with the law than traditional punitive measures.
“Punishment was not punishment,” Wesley said in a Center for Court Innovation podcast, explaining the basics of the court’s SHADES (Stop Hate and Delinquency by Empowering Students) restorative justice program. “It was what we could do to make sure the minor [didn’t] get in trouble again.”
The Teen Court approach differs from that of New York’s Center for Court Innovation, where the victim of the crime might be involved in the restorative justice process. But both models appear to be effective.
“We know anecdotally that our recidivism rates are very, very low,” Wesley said. “What ends up happening is that after their [sentencing], they come back [and volunteer as jurors].”

Men As Peacemakers

It’s estimated that one in three women have experienced some form of violence by a partner in the U.S., and one in four have been severely abused by a significant other.
And despite the fact that domestic violence against women is overwhelmingly perpetrated by men, many men do nothing to stop it.
That’s the goal of Men As Peacemakers: to reframe the narrative of healthy male behavior for youth offenders.
The Duluth, Minnesota-based nonprofit focuses its efforts on reducing commercial sexual exploitation and on domestic violence restorative programs. The group uses a “circle process,” rooted in traditional practices of Native American tribes, in helping facilitate discussions about problems with race, equity and education.
According to Men As Peacemakers, the purpose of their restorative justice program is to give youths a positive male role model to follow and “to acknowledge that [abuse] is a male problem.”

Meet the Delaware Teen Fighting for the Rights of Former Juvenile Offenders

“I could have never imagined that something as severe as incarceration would happen to someone like me, until it did,” said Jane Lyons, recalling the path that led her neighbor to the local detention center.
Lyons, 18, grew up in an affluent Delaware suburb outside of Wilmington. A few miles down the road from her home sits Ferris School for Boys, a juvenile detention center she admits gave her an “eerie” feeling driving past.
It was only when her childhood neighbor was sent to Ferris on drug charges that the center became more than an abstract concept for Lyons. Her neighbor had come from the same affluent background as her, but after experiencing family problems became addicted to drugs and involved in a local gang.
Her neighbor’s incarceration was a wakeup call to Lyons about the difficulties facing former juvenile offenders as they try to rebuild their lives. “[Teens at Ferris] feel as if society is stacked against them,” she explained at a recent TEDxYouth event. “They simply think that our world is waiting for them to make a mistake.”
With this in mind, as a freshman in high school she teamed up with her brother Patrick to launch Youth Overcoming Obstacles, a nonprofit dedicated to lifting up formerly incarcerated youth. The organization started small — gathering donations of books, school supplies, clothes and other essentials to make sure teens’ basic needs were met as they exited the detention center. They eventually moved on to organizing larger fundraisers to send the young men to summer camp, vocational training, and even to provide a down payment on one family’s apartment.
“This started as an act of kindness and now has become a passion project to replace the recidivism cycle with a resilient path to a brighter future for teens who want to continue positive change,” Lyons told NationSwell.
Youth Overcoming Obstacles was so successful at raising funds and awareness to support formerly incarcerated youth that the Delaware Legislature adopted their re-entry fund after a year and a half. Now Lyons is working on a pilot program that offers financial training to these young people to help them transition into the workforce.
Teens have a vital role to play in improving their communities, says Lyons. “My advice to other young people is to follow your heart and have the courage to reach out to community leaders and public officials with your plan of action,” she told NationSwell.
“It may take some persistence, but they really do want to hear your ideas, and they will help if they can.”
Homepage photo via TEDx Talks.