It has only been a couple months since I took part in the Juvenile Lifers Summer Camp retreat. However, during this pandemic, time has somehow seemed to have slowed a bit. I was a little bummed because my friend Walter had informed me that he could not attend the latest Metal Health Art Workshop because he was packing up all his belongings. Walt’s landlord did not want to renew his lease. He shared the apartment with his nephew, and regardless of being great tenants, Walt’s conviction has come into play. We talk, and I cannot help but hear the desperation in his voice. Let us not forget Walt did more than 40 years of incarceration.

The Metal Health Art Workshop was born from the process at 555 Arts. Jay Elias of Evolution Arts/555 Arts described it like this: “We collect broken and thrown away metal from all over the city and use it to express the brokenness in all of us through the creation of art from that same metal.” As I collected my thoughts and was inspired to create art, I rode an emotional rollercoaster. Part of my healing is sharing these experiences with my community — a community that wants to give more than it takes.

It was great to see some of the faces from the summer trauma retreat and to see some new faces as well. It was great to see a couple folks stop by on their way to work or out running errands just to check in and say what was up. In those moments, I understood that these retreats the Youth Justice Fund hosts have so many layers to them.

I started saying hello to some of the early arrivers and then got to work on my metal art. I choose to etch my children’s and grandchildren’s names in random ways and at the end of the day have metal poured into my mold. As I worked on my art I would find myself having various memories of them as I etched their names. Some were funny, some were sad, most of them made me smile. One memory made me smile and shed a silent tear as I worked in my corner of the shop.

Safe & Just Michigan Community Engagement Specialist Rick Speck (left) and his friends at the Metal Health Workshop (photo courtesy of the Youth Justice Fund).

I also heard so many conversations going on around me. Conversations that were centered on who was home from prison, how they were doing — things that family and friends want to know when they have been disconnected from folks they love. In one exchange, I witnessed Lo greet one of the participants that had a mask and a hat on. Once the masked man made himself known, Lo was so excited to see him. It had been years since they last connected. Again, more inquires to the status of men that had come home and how they were doing.

Lo is a former juvenile lifer that I met at through State Appellate Defenders Office (SADO). Lo is always willing to lend a hand or a voice to folks that need it. As I was working on my art, I heard him speaking with his Mom, this playful banter that for so long was measured in 15-minute increments — the length allowed by prison phone calls. Now he can say, “Mom, you hungry? I will bring something from…” He says with this smile in his voice. “You know I bring the best plates to you.” Some of the simplest things, like bringing your Mom some food, was never an option for folks like Lo and myself. How could something so simple mean so much?

Some people may look at these folks and never get past their worst moment. They will only ever see us as an armed robber, a drug dealer, murderer and the countless other crimes that do not define us as human beings. To me they are Lorenzo, Mario, Lawanda and countless more. For me in that moment inside the art studio, I have never been so proud of my community. What society often looks at as the dregs of society to me are a beacon of light for change, Transformation is possible, like the flower that grows in the cracks of concrete.

Men and women of the numbers also grow through the cracks, as beautiful and resilient as the flower.