“Creating gives me a sense of freedom,” says Alyssa Lopez. “When I’m DJing or choreographing, I can express myself without saying words. It makes me feel like I’m on top of the world. And when people are enjoying what I do, that makes me happy.”
Lopez’s sense of freedom knows perspective. She is a musician, dancer, and choreographer, and she is a graduate of Keshet’s M3 (“movement + mentorship = metamorphosis”) program for incarcerated youth.
Founded in 1996, Keshet is an Albuquerque-based arts organization with a mission “to inspire and unite community by fostering unlimited possibilities through dance, mentorship, and a creative space for the arts.” M3 brings every facet of this mission to New Mexico’s juvenile detention system. The organization’s dancers and teaching artists facilitate daily classes. Incarcerated participants engage with academic subjects and conflict resolution through dance and choreography. Students continue their work with Keshet mentors through post-release transition and reintegration. To date, M3 has a 0% recidivism rate.
“Our curriculum is about connecting artists to artists, not inmates,” says Shira Greenberg, founder and artistic director of Keshet. “We use the arts to cultivate a healthier community that integrates more voices for the better. The peer learning system empowers these young artists to become community leaders.”
Keshet began expanding and codifying M3 in 2016. Pilot programs in cities nationwide formally gave rise to the Arts and Justice Network (AJN) in 2020. The comprehensive and ambitious AJN extends M3’s reach to include direct services and professional development, research and evaluation, and youth-driven policy/advocacy initiatives for local and nationwide juvenile justice reform.
Co-created by youth in detention and post-release with Keshet artists and youth leaders, Movement for Mercy is a performance installation that embodies the ideals of M3 and the AJN. A living work in progress, Movement for Mercy premiered live in February. The pandemic forced programming online, but the second installment was performed virtually in July.
The choreography of Movement for Mercy is based on poems, paintings, and movement vocabularies made by all of the participants. “That’s part of what’s so powerful about it,” says company dancer/choreographer and M3 teacher Lara Segura. “These youth come from different backgrounds and have different experiences, but they support and learn from each other: ‘You’ve never had my lived experience and you are advocating for me and people like me.’ ‘I’ve never had your experience, but would you be willing to tell me about it so that I can be better informed?’”
The collaboration facilitates a total body version of “walking in somebody else’s shoes” to cultivate empathy. “There were times during rehearsals and discussions that were deeply emotional. The subject matter can be intense, like recurring cycles in the [juvenile justice] system or addiction,” says 18-year-old dancer, youth leader, and justice advocate Emani Brooks. “There are movements that recur throughout the piece that symbolize things like picking your head up, picking somebody else’s head up, working through it. Sometimes, not everything is okay and we go crazy for a minute. It’s a lot to go through that process together and question if the audience will understand.”
They do. The work is profoundly impactful. “You feel what it’s like just to be a human being on both sides,” says Brooks. “It’s not about race, not about gender. It’s about fairness. It’s about being a person and being treated like less than that.”
Those deeply felt messages delivered by Movement for Mercy make it a powerful tool for advocacy. “Art has a way of reaching people whose minds are closed off. It makes me feel empowered, like we are able to make a change. We are worthy of being at tables with people who make the big decisions, worthy of making those decisions.”
The program advances this year despite the challenges of interacting in quarantine. In many ways, the creative relationships it forges are more important now than ever. “It’s a scary time to be disconnected,” says Greenberg. “Our role is to say to these kids, ‘You are supported. People on the outside are thinking about you, paying attention, love you, and are not going away.’”
Lopez, now 23, is a youth advisor with Keshet and co-teaches dance classes in a reintegration center. “I want to be a mentor and role model,” she says. “I want to help as much as I can. Being in the system, the only thing that I had was Keshet. That’s why I am so passionate about working with them. They helped me when I needed it. I want to do what I can to return the favor to somebody who needs it now.”
One of her music tracks was just signed to a record label, too. She goes by XbLyssid on all the music platforms and the song is called Beat Drop. If you like to dance, it will move you!