WESTSIDE LIFE MAGAZINE, September-October 2003
Giving It The J.U.i.C.E. Where It Matters: The Unspoken Rule of “Respect” is Truly Maintained
Justice by Uniting in Creative Energy has been operating for two years and has helped more than fifteen hundred young people.
Breakdancing itself wasn't Dawn Smith's passion, but when three hundred breakers from around the globe piled into the hall of the 8th St. Unitarian Church where Dawn holds J.U.i.C.E. every Thursday, onlookers may have thought otherwise. J.U.i.C.E., which stands for Justice by Uniting in Creative Energy, is a youth center focused on skill-building in the arts of the hip-hop culture: word, music, art, and dance.Smith, founder and executive director, is a counselor and community organizer with a background in working with high risk youth through the arts. It was theater work with minors in L.A.'s Central Juvenile Hall that inspired the creation of J.U.i.C.E. About four years ago, Smith began volunteering with a program that enabled her to conduct improvisational comedy and writing workshops with the young people in the 'highest-risk' unit at the lock-up: all had been arrested on charges of murder or attempted murder. Virtually every kid in the program was facing a life sentence in adult prison. It wasn't that these youngsters’ communities lacked youth programs, Smith discovered, but that the programs in place were either run by well-meaning adults who didn't offer programming respected by youth, or were excluding those who would most benefit from their services. Thus emerged J.U.i.C.E., a center run primarily by young people for young people with no dress code, no fees, and only one ground rule: Respect.
Every Thursday, about 100 young people from neighboring Rampart and Koreatown, and others from all over Southern California, come together to breakdance, DJ, emcee, paint murals, and learn music production and recording. Special events, like last summer's "Round for Round" breakdancing 'battle,' can draw hundreds from all over the world.
Smith is often asked whether the unspoken rule of “respect” is truly maintained, especially in a program geared towards a culture that mainstream media portrays as violent, misogynistic, gang-affiliated, competitive, and almost surreally disrespectful. “Sometimes,” she explains, “when we do special events, and youth who have never before been to the program and may not yet understand who we are and what we offer, we may find a small tag in the bathroom. But those who come once always come back. And the tags never happen twice. For our last big event, I put a sign in the bathroom, hoping that if someone with a fat marker didn't understand the nature of our program, they would at least recognize the sanctity of the church. The sign read, ‘This is a church, Please Respect.’ At the end of the night, the walls were bare – not a mark in sight. But there, on the paper, under what I had written, was scrawled, “No Problem. – Jesus’ ”.