NEW YORK—Making collages and hosting art exhibitions are not things you usually associate with young men in trouble with the law. But for the past few years they’ve been helping turn around the lives of teens who might otherwise have faced time in jail.
Daniel Aguilar was one such teen. He was arrested for a misdemeanor and faced the prospect of having a criminal record before he turned 18. When offered a second chance through a restorative arts program, it was the turning point he needed to rise above his mistake.
In 2012, the court mandated that the 16-year-old from Staten Island attend a program run by Young New Yorkers as an alternative to incarceration. The young man just wanted to move on with his life as quickly as possible. He knew if he did what was required of him he could have his case dismissed and sealed.
But when he embarked on the eight-week Brooklyn-based program, he had no idea just how life-altering it would be.
“I went from being this kid who was kind of troubled but also entering a time in my life when someone grabbed me by the hand and said, you know what, follow us, we’ll help you [succeed],” the now 23-year-old Aguilar told Humanity.
Walking into the office on his first day, he was nervous but that feeling soon subsided. He knew his family felt disappointed with what had happened and were worried about his future. So he was determined to prove that he was not a bad person.
“The only doubts I had [going into the program] was just knowing if my parents would still look at me the same, if my friends would still look at me the same, if my society would still look at me the same. Just because there’s a stigma that comes along with being arrested and being in the system,” he said.
“I just wanted to complete the program to let people know that [though] I did this, this is not who I am.”
A Second Chance
Before Young New Yorkers, Aguilar didn’t have the type of support system the program gave him.
“I think that’s the first time that I had someone intervene in my life and say you’re more than your mistake, and that we see you for your future and what you can contribute to society and your life going forward, and not per se what happened in the past,” Aguilar explained.
For three hours each week, the classes encouraged Aguilar to examine his choices, and how he was influenced by his peers and social setting. He looked at his actions, the repercussions, and how he could make empowering choices going forward.
“Daniel is an extraordinary young man,” Rachel Barnard, founder and executive director of Young New Yorkers, told Humanity.
“I think one of the biggest things he got out of it was that we have a strengths-based curriculum, and so he was able to have a conversation about the choices that he’d made that wasn’t based in the context of this is punishment and you’re a bad person, but these are all of your strengths, and what can we do so that your life isn’t defined by this one moment,” she said.
As he pasted photographs of himself into a collage alongside pictures of a lion—chosen to symbolize strength, persistence, and resilience—he started to see his true identity.
Just traveling in to Brooklyn from Staten Island—a journey he had to document for a videography project—also profoundly altered his mindset.
“I never came to downtown Brooklyn,” he said. “[Now] I was in a whole different setting, so my mind kind of expanded and my perspective on my life had changed.”
The class also went on a number of excursions to learn about public art, and how to convey their voices through art to address social issues that mattered to them.
“That was something that was just amazing, and something I was never a part of before,” Aguilar said.
It culminated in an art exhibition in a courtroom. The prosecutor, defense attorney, and judge that had sentenced each participant attended the exhibition to view the artwork, but more importantly, to converse with the program participants.
Each person was able to speak about what the program had done for them.
The purpose was to humanize the process of the criminal justice system and for the participants to get to know each other on an emotional and personal level. And it worked.
Aguilar remembered that one participant decided his community-themed art project would have everyone write down their goals and aspirations onto a piece of paper, fold it into a paper airplane, then launch it into the air.
“I remember we all just ended up standing, maybe 80 of us, just throwing a bunch of airplanes in the sky and letting them all soar throughout the exhibition hall. It was awesome,” he said.
Those soaring aspirations proved to be a fitting metaphor for Aguilar’s transformation over the eight-week process.
“It just made me a more conscious and aware individual, and someone who looked at the impact of his choices beforehand,” Aguilar explained.
“Most of the time before that I was very impulsive, and so I would just do things without really understanding the consequences of my choices.”
Later, he was invited to speak at a Young New Yorkers event. Legal professionals and his mentors in attendance were all impressed with his attitude—as were his family. He knew he could move on from his mistake.
“It was amazing, I got this sense of joy,” he said upon realizing that.
Aguilar went on to graduate from John Jay College of Criminal Justice majoring in forensic psychology, and now he’s a peer mentor at Young New Yorkers for good reason.
“I don’t think I would be the person I am today if it wasn’t for them,” he said.
He knew that he had something to give back that could help kids going through the program now.
“I was someone who went through the system, who’d been through the program, and I’m just a testimony to the impact of what the program had on me and my life,” he said.
If you have an uplifting story you’d like to share, write to Andrew Thomas at [email protected]