Tuesday, June 25, 2013


Another amazing spirit who is the project manager of Mix IT UP!, Joe brings the voices of incarcerated youth from behind bars and cement walls; empowering them through creative writing, connecting all of us through written word. I have had the opportunity to read and review some of these works and they are absolutely astonishing, beautiful, heart-breaking and inspiring.

Joe Coyle
Project Manager- Mix IT Up!


 Adults rarely listen to the voices of young people when it comes to important social issues, policy, or art. Young people in detention centers are especially ignored. Of course, young folks in custody have a lot to say and are producing important work on these topics everyday. There are many writing programs across the country serving young people in detention centers that bring these voices into the public.

I run a writing program out of the Champaign County Juvenile Detention Center in Urbana, IL.  Each week, the writers and I hang out, talk about social issues and our lives, and write.  We also read and discuss literature, essays, and poetry together. The general structure of each meeting tends to be pretty loose because each writer has a different purpose and project. Currently, two of the young people I work with are busy editing a collection of poems and prose on parenting and DCFS, one is working on a zine about the education system, some are writing poems to help process their relationships to family members, and others are producing visual art and entering their work into contests.

            Every two weeks, the writers who are interested publish their work in The Beat Within, a magazine that features the writings and art of young people in custody across the United States. This magazine is always a high circulating item in the detention center library. For some, reading other writers’ words in The Beat Within can help them process their own experiences. For others, reading their own published words can bring a sense of validation of their experiences and is a step in the process of developing an identity as a writer.

            One of the most exciting parts of the writing program is the communication that happens between the writers and their readers. Every week, I digitize the writings and e-mail them to a group of volunteers who provide feedback to the writers. The volunteers come from a variety of backgrounds. Some of them have never known anyone who has been in a detention center. Others are incarcerated, serving prison sentences. The reviewers are yoga instructors, preschool teachers, city council members, activists, stay at home parents, lawyers, counselors, high school students, and so on. The writers at the detention center highly value these reviewers’ feedback. Every day that I run a writing program or provide library services, writers ask me how many pieces of feedback have arrived for them. However, it is not only the writers who benefit from this kind of communication. The reviewers are often receive an education, and are inspired or changed as a result of participating in this program. Plus, they get to read great writing.

            To me, one of the greatest values of this kind of collaboration is that it facilitates intercultural, interclass, and intergenerational connection through the act of writing. It is through these kinds of connections that the voices of young people in custody can continue to be brought from margin to center.


If you are interested in becoming a reviewer, or just reading weekly writings from the writers at the Champaign County Juvenile Detention Center, e-mail Joe Coyle at

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