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SIX WORD MEMOIRS CREATED BY YOUTH INCARCERATED AT THE ONONDAGA COUNTY JUSTICE CENTER
The Six Word Memoir Project was launched in 2006 by Smith Magazine as a creative writing platform for expressing the essence of an idea or thought in only six words. The Grace Project is a ministry of Grace Episcopal Church, Syracusethat works with youth incarcerated in the Onondaga County Justice Center, bearing witness to their lives and offering programming to help ease the immediate stress of incarceration, and the process of re-entry.
The Grace Project introduced the six-word writing form to the youth in the Justice Center program to provide an avenue for them to express themselves. Our primary motivation was to share with the wider Syracuse community what we have experienced working with these youth. They are intelligent, thoughtful and creative kids who have something to say. The writing process was not easy. The writing exercise, which took place in the jail unit, had to be completed in under an hour, requiring intense focus in a stressful environment. The six-word sentences are a distillation of their writing streams, which are printed on the cards placed by each work on the wall. After the initial time period for writing, there was a second and then a third to condense the word streams. The final piece of the process was the creation of a six-word sentence, based on their writing, which captured the essence of what they had written about themselves or the world in which they live.
After the young men completed the writing assignment, we intended for them to create a collage of their memoirs. Unfortunately the Justice Center would not allow us to bring in art supplies. This roadblock turned the project into a collaborative effort with members of Grace Church, who were invited to take a poster home and fill in the letters using only magazines and glue. The original thought was that they would use only what the youth would have been able to use had they been able to complete the art portion of the project at the Justice Center: no glue and scissors.
The parishioners described the experience as transformative, bringing them closer to the youth we serve. Once completed the works were brought into the Justice Center to share with the youth. The young men were incredulous that strangers would take the time and care to bring their words to life. The collaborative exercise lifted their spirits as well as their feelings of self-worth. Their pride of accomplishment and admiration for one another’s work was amazing to witness.
Grace hopes to exhibit the works at various locations around the county to give the wider community an opportunity to consider these at-risk children from a different perspective. They are beloved by God, redeemable and worthy of our community’s investment in their future.