While sitting in a small office of the Student Desk of the university, employee Bart tells me that his heart lies in South America. ‘I like it here at the university’ he says ‘but if you ask me where my passion lies, that is much more with the volunteering.’
Three years ago Bart accompanied a friend of his to Colombia on a two-week visit to one of the projects of an organization named ‘Young in Prison’. Currently he is the project manager for this project in Colombia, as a volunteer.
As captured well in the organization’s slogan ‘Create to Liberate, ‘Young in Prison’ organizes cultural workshops for children in prison in the so called ‘partner countries’ of Surinam, South-Africa and Colombia. They do this in cooperation with local associations on the ground.
In Colombia, the organization ‘La Familia Ayara’ came out of a hiphop movement of rappers, breakdancers and graffiti artists that decided that they wanted to do something back for society. Together with this group, Young in Prison goes into prison to offer workshops to the imprisoned children. These are for example rap workshops, breakdance workshops, graffiti, in the past also kapoeira, media training. These workshops function both to offer children a day activity, which is often lacking, while they also try to prepare the children for a future outside of prison.
Bart describes the special method they use when entering the prison: Every workshop we give is an entire cycle in its own right. When we go two hours into the prison, and we start with a rapworkshop, we start discussing with the children about the theme of the day, every day has a theme. Then, we look at what they want to write down and what kind of rap they want to make, then they practice them. At the end of the two or three hours everything is recorded together with the children, so that they can see that they can achieve something within three hours, which gives them a sense of self esteem, they realize that they can do something, something good. ‘Yes’ he says ‘this works so well, for me that is so good to see.’
‘To be there, even just for a day and see how everything goes, is for me enough inspiration to continue my volunteering work here in Holland, yes, it just gives so much energy, and I felt really proud after being there in the prison, to be able to be a part of this was so amazing for me.’ He did find it hard however that he could leave to Holland again after two weeks, while those children stayed there, and the fact that he would probably never hear again from any of these children that he had gotten to know quite well. ‘But’, he reflects ‘we do a very good job’.
He describes the following anecdote to me as something that amazed him during one of his visits to the prison, an event that showed him, wow, this approach we have here, it really works. This is the anecdote:
At a certain moment, after dividing the children over the different workshops, he walks through the prison with the head of the organisation, a man called Don Popo. They encounter a little boy with a sad look on his face, not feeling like participating in anything. Don Popo, who is a famous rapper himself, notices the boys’ sad look and approaches him while ‘free-styling’ [so rapping], he sits down next to the boy and starts to rap at him. Don Popo saying texts like ‘come on’, ‘together we can do it’, ‘we are going to rap together and you are going to rap too, and together we are going to change the world’. And you saw that on this boy’s sad face, slowly, a smile started to appear. And within half an hour he was participating happily with the others in the rap workshop.
‘For me’ bart says ‘this is just, this approach works. We put, the people in Colombia put so much energy in that, they operate with so much enthusiasm.’ ‘It is the Colombian people that make the difference.’ They are an important example to the children, since many of the artists come from the same circumstances and backgrounds as the children do.
Another anecdote of something that moved him deeply while visiting the prison, is the following:
Everybody in that institution has its own story. At a certain moment we talked to a girl, Liliane was here name, and I remember that that really impressed me. Once a week there was the opportunity for family members to visit, so we asked her if her family was coming as well. Then her story came. And it became clear that she did not have any relatives anymore. Her mother, she didn’t know where she was, her father had probably died and she has no idea where her two brothers are. She was raised by her grandma, but she passed away when Liliane was eight years old. Then she was placed with a foster family, who mistreated her, and she flew away. She told us: “I still have the hope that someday someone is going to pick me up from here”. But, who could come, there was simply nobody for her. She was actually all alone. That I found hard, I really felt like, come, I’ll adopt you, but that is not possible of course. Those are indeed difficult stories to hear. But on the other hand I think, if we can mean something for her, I find that perfect. And she said: “the workshop teachers here, for me they are my family.” As father figure, mother figure. “And if I get out of here, I would really like to join La Familia Ayara and my dream is to give rap workshops myself.” Those are the beautiful stories, says Bart.
Because art and creativity are a significant aspect of the organization’s work on location, using creativity as a means to help children, ‘Young in Prison’ finds it important to also let that come through here in the Netherlands in the way they raise their funds. One example of that is the photo auction organized every two years, which Bart refers to as a win win win situation. ‘The photographers like to donate their work, and besides the photo’s are also being exhibited, so that is free publicity, and the people that want to buy the photo’s like it as well. Because a) they buy a photo and b) they support a good cause. And for us, Bart says, it is fantastic of course, since we can raise funds and invest it in the project.’
Another way they use art to raise funds is through a project called ‘Fence Art’. Bart explains: ‘Fence, on the one hand symbolizes the bars that hold people at a distance, it is a rather empty concept actually, just a fence. But everywhere you go there are fences, especially at festivals here in the Netherlands. Everything is surrounded with fences. What we do is ask artists here in the Netherlands to turn the fences into a piece of art. So making something out of nothing, and that kind of symbolizes the work we do. Children in prison are often seen as ‘not really anything’ or worthless actually, something that is not being paid attention to. What we show is actually that this too, you can turn into something beautiful. If you just pay attention to it, it can grow into something beautiful.’