Morpheus Youth Project (MYP) in Portland, Oregon, strives to create a safe space both inside and outside of youth correctional facilities that supports growth and opportunity through the arts and humanities. We interviewed Founder and Director Carlos Chavez, a Chicano/Hip Hop activist, radio journalist, and local leader in cultural identity training and community building for youth populations. Chavez and other MYP volunteers donate their time each week to facilitate a variety of creative and cultural workshops into youth correctional facilities in Oregon, and in the greater Portland area.
Juvenile In Justice: How did the Morpheus Project get started?
Carlos Chavez: Phil Stockton and I were both teaching classes at MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility in Woodburn, Oregon in 2010. He was doing an improvisational theatre group and I was doing a radio journalism group. We didn’t know each other at the time, but were put in contact with each other by a friend because we both had the idea of starting a creative organization for incarcerated youth. It was our idea that we would build relationships with incarcerated youth through our creative programs and then to connect those same youth to opportunities outside of corrections when they were released. Both of us had already been doing youth advocacy work in the community and we saw the huge void that needed someone to step up and fill. We decided to be those individuals who would step up.
JinJ: What is the most important issue MYP is working on today?
CC: This is a good question. I think that all of the work we are doing is important, but if I was to narrow things down I would have to say that exposing young people to something larger than themselves and of an often narrow framework that they tend to conduct themselves through. The creative outlets help to exchange communication through a mutual language. Once that communication is established, the next stage is trust. Once a young person is exposed to new creative ideas they become vulnerable in ways that allow them to see things larger than themselves and their immediate surroundings. This is the perfect opportunity to sprinkle seeds of awareness through stories of past and present. This is when you can reach them in ways that allow their conscious mind to grow. It helps them to understand more clearly what their place is and how to get where it truly is that they want to be.
“One thing that all of these youth have in common is that they all have some kind of traumatic story that they carry inside of them.”
JinJ: I’m sure in your work you have encountered people with amazing/heartbreaking stories about their experience with the juvenile justice system. Can you share one with us?
CC: I often encounter heartbreaking stories from the youth that I work with just for the simple fact that they are young people facing the situations that they are. When they were involved in whatever it was that brought them to youth corrections, they were working from a very youthful and naïve perspective. One thing that all of these youth have in common is that they all have some kind of traumatic story that they carry inside of them. These stories range from poverty to abuse, which made each of these young people victims to begin with. They are victims of traumatic situations that they are often still working through. Their crimes were often acts of passion and snap decisions that went too far. One story is of a young man whose father was never there and whose mother was hooked on drugs. He grew up in foster care without ever being adopted. He held two jobs to support himself, while earning A’s in his studies and honorable mention as a linebacker for the high school football team. He was an adult at 17 years old and carried a heavy load. When his grandmother passed away his mom was relying on him to cover a train ticket to the funeral. His mother became very upset with him when he didn’t come through on that arrangement. Being the sensitive person that he was, he was overwhelmed not only with grief due to his grandmother’s passing, but because of falling short on his promise to his mother. He then took it upon himself to gather that money by robbing a grocery store. He fired shots in the air while many customers were there, hitting none of them. Long story short, this young man wound up in youth corrections with a 7 and a half year sentence for having a broken heart.
JinJ: How does MYP envision the juvenile justice system in 10-20 years?
CC: I would love to see MYP as a robust program in a wide number of facilities with cutting edge creative workshops being conducted by passionate and skilled facilitators. I would like to offer a variety of creative and educational outlets that the youth can draw from to create healthy identities and skills for when they are released. I would like to see those youth being able to continue to lean on and learn from MYP outside of corrections and to be connected to a network of professional creative outlets and services that will allow them to stay healthy and continue to grow. I would like to see MYP with a creative center in the Portland metro area (and within corrections) that allows young people to find mentors and for young people to become mentors to the next generation of youth entering our programs.
JinJ: What are MYP’s goals for the future? What issues do you want to be tackling?
CC: I want to break down negative stereotypes that have been so damaging to youth growing up today. I will work toward the goals that I’ve mentioned in the last question, but for now I want this organization to get off of the ground with some traction for growth. I’ll be working to raise money to properly cover administrative and office related expenses, while covering expenses for our programs and staff members. I’ll be working on setting up an office / arts and cultural center where we can provide consistent programs in the community. I’ll be working on securing contracts with juvenile detention facilities in the area to continue and spread out our programs inside of the system. I think those in the area and who we work with are realizing the value of who we are and what we do. I just want to see that grow. There are too many young people being thrown away and forgotten about. This kind of thing is irresponsible of us adults who are supposed to be leaving some kind of positive legacy behind for them to build on.
“Just being there shows them that someone cares and that they are important.”
JinJ: What is the best thing that a concerned citizen can do today to get involved in the juvenile justice system reform movement?
CC: Just being there is a large step in the right direction. Many of these young people have been cast away by family and friends. Many of them have learned to survive without knowing that they can trust someone or that they are worth something. When you show up regularly and are present when these young people grapple with life, you are most of the way there. Just being there shows them that someone cares and that they are important. Then once you’re there, figure out something that you and the young people you are working with are passionate about. Listen to their concerns and wishes, while being stern with them on building positive values and actions.
Thanks Carlos and MYP!
Connect with the Morpheus Youth Project here:
All photos courtesy of the Morpheus Youth Project