As part of the Art & Power conversation series of 2019, we have asked an artist from each panel to expand on their experience based on the discussion topic they participated in. These “essays” are critical companions to each Art & Power and are meant to move the conversation beyond the spaces that hosted them. They serve as another storytelling platform to further illuminate the ways in which arts and culture intersect with critical social issues through the eyes of these artists.

Art & Power: Restorative Justice was hosted at KSMoCA on February 21st. The panel was moderated by Anna Vo and included local artists Janessa Narciso, Elijah Hasan, and Jesus Torralba. We are pleased to share Janessa’s perspective with the RACC community.


By Victoria Janessa Narciso (Ms. J)
Art & restorative justice : the impact, the intersection of it, why there’s a need for it


I revisit the page in my journal where I wrote all their names. First and last. Etched them into the pages. Remembrance.

Pages later, next to my sketch of fern leaves and swirls, I write:

“they’re stretching me
molding me. Flowers.”

That was over a year ago. I find myself turning the days over in my hands and sifting through the soil it sure is muddy, sure is rocky – there’s a lotta fertilizing that takes place – but when you witness these buds form that you’ve seen grow from the start … the rainstorms are all worth it.

I fully began my revelation with the word ART at the tender age of 24.

Still unearthing my relationship to it.

See, the thing is, I’m actually not artistically-inclined. At least not practically speaking. You’re talking to a D+ to C average Pictionary player. Everything changed when a world of art showed me that an artist doesn’t have to exclusively work on paper. Scribbled lines, conversations, dance moves… my artform can be as subtle as the pant-sock-combo I sport for the day. Art transformed me. Accessibility to artists and their work kicked my creative spirit into gear.

Once I felt inspired to express my own thoughts and feelings, my whole life started flourishing. I felt connected to my happiness and harnessed an attachment to my own ability to create.

One may consider my line of work a field of landmines and forest fires. Perpetual grays and tears of betrayal. Clouds of confusion and a myriad of misunderstandings. Welcome to The Land of Middle School – Enter If You Dare.

Eleven through thirteen year olds are on this brink of pure genius colliding with their downright absolute need to do whatever they please – that makes for this ironic calamity of a reflection of life right-in-ya face.

Aren’t these the adolescent years in particular where we felt the most confused? These years, in which students rebel against rules the most? Isn’t it a wonderfully gritty, beautiful mess? Challenging power dynamics alongside this uncanny, innate reflex to commit emotional arson.

All this shaken and stirred, right along with the larger oppressive system that is traditional school discipline structures, and we’re in for a spicy, conflicting cocktail.

Working within the confines of an institution brings me pain and persistence. Stepping into work each day is a day behind enemy lines.

I teach my kids about how vital it is to have critical social-emotional skills. We break down our connectedness to each other through our dilemmas. “Why can’t this be a core class that everyone has to take, like math or science, Ms. J?” they ask. When low-income, underserved schools across the nation are suffering harrowing school cultures, this poses a serious, unanswered question. Inadequate funding and large class sizes decapitate the pressing need for community building amongst students and their authority figures alike. Extensive data proves the unequal disciplinary treatment of marginalized students within our country, including disproportionately high suspension/expulsion rates for students of color.

Students are not only challenged within their educational environment, we have to consider the injustices they and their families face outside the realm of school: generational poverty, discrimination, food scarcity. Gulp down the last sip of this toxic tonic and what we’re really left with is historically severe inaccessibility to resources.

People with money have access to EVERYTHING and ANYTHING. People with money can afford, create, and offer an assortment of opportunities for themselves and their kin. We’d like an order of JUSTICE, served straight up – and hold the White, please.

I wrestle with the term “restorative justice,” because it implies the need to return, or bring us back to something.

I also wrestle with the word “art,” because one’s very existence is the making of a masterpiece itself.

We need, rather, transformative connection. Rethinking our practices and reinvention of the wheel. My mission is this. Connecting with myself, my mistakes, my abundances, my learning – thereby better connecting with my friends and family, my students.

Art is a vehicle for these connections. Expressing ourselves in whatever fashion suits us. Seeing real-life examples of all creative forms of expression. Doing so allows us to open up, discuss, share our (disagreeing) thoughts and ideas. AND THE KIDS HAVE SOMETHIN’ TO SAY. Outlets must be created for our youth to have more non-confrontational opportunities for dialogue – accessibility to art does this.

I know someone who wears a pin that one of their friends made, depicting my belief in all this perfectly.

In bold, black letters it reads, “Can’t Blame The Youth.”  Can’t we – even as adults – still be the very same, “problematic” youth never given the outlet to fully calibrate our pitfalls? What happens when we lack expressive direction?

Our circumstances and opportunities (or lack thereof), directly influence our pathways. As someone who has the capacity (the privilege) to dig up adversaries, weed out discrepancies, and by nature tend to and nurture the souls around me, I find it futile to direct our attention to anywhere but ourselves. WE gotta do the work.

Our fruit will be the future for our children.


Janessa Narciso is a dot connector, magic believer, and Mama to an 9 year-old ninja warrior. Currently living and working in N Portland, she is a middle school mentor and teaches a life skills and leadership class after-school. In 2015 she joined an arts and open mic collective, Deep Underground (DUG), formed and led by three other women of color. Their work is dedicated to creating spaces that provide a sense of safety and freedom for the black and brown community in this city. Since their formation, DUG has thrown concerts, film screenings, and large scale events. Together, they have also developed youth programming for student-centered groups: “The Freshest Kids” and “Crucial Bonding.” Janessa firmly believes in the strength of sisters and community; sees the representation of yourself as art; art as activism; and especially stresses the importance of learning outside of school walls. Eventually, she’d like to bring her daydreams to life and turn her journal(s) into a book while having a home base for youth-driven projects.