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Beyond The Bars: Juvenile Attention.

April 15, 2016

Beyond BarsText by Kyle Bagenstose. Photo by Branden Eastwood.

Matthew Kerr is promoting an idea that pushes back against the crushing momentum of modern education policy. That in a time when music and the arts are often the first budget line items on the chopping block for school districts, particularly in Philadelphia, they are in fact one of the most effective tools to keeping youth out of trouble.

“Why music? Because many students in Philadelphia have been exposed to a large amount of trauma in their lives,” explains Kerr, 23. “These students have the same emotions as anyone else… and without arts and music, they’re often denied healthy means to express their experience in a society that continually tells them they’re nothing.”

Through his nascent nonprofit, Beyond the Bars, Kerr is directly encouraging some of the city’s most at-risk youth to express themselves productively. Founded in the fall of 2015, Kerr and the organization’s volunteers head twice a week into the Philadelphia Industrial Corrections Center (PICC) in Northeast Philadelphia to teach music to juvenile inmates between the ages of 14 and 17.

Toting along instruments like guitars, bass, drums and keys, Kerr and other instructors work with anywhere from several to a dozen students at a time. They teach them whatever they want to learn and pack in as much jam time in as possible. Kerr, a 2014 graduate of Temple University’s education program, says he has learned from working with traditional students in schools around Philadelphia that having a chance to play as a group can actually be more important than the learning component.

“A lot of students quit if they don’t get something right away,” Kerr says. “But when they play together, they get instant gratification. And I want my students to feel like musicians.”

Kerr says the program has been a success so far. Many of the students keep showing up and the classes have an influential, inside supporter in Karen Bryant, deputy commissioner of Operations & Emergency Services with the Philadelphia Prisons System.

Bryant’s daughter was one of Kerr’s students when he worked as a music program coordinator at the Charter High School for Architecture and Design, and sung the graces of his teaching style to her mother.

“The youth who participate in Beyond the Bars consider it a lifeline,” Karen Bryant says. “Jail is day after day of the same thing. So, for those who participate, they cannot wait for the two days of the week to get together with someone outside who shows that they care and gives them such a great tool.”

But the program’s success has led to new problems. Some students turn 18 and transfer to adult corrections, and still more finish their time and leave the facility. Kerr says the latter route is a dangerous prospect, adding that 70 percent of kids who leave juvenile facilities are back within a year.

“I had a student that was like, ‘I love this but I’m getting out in two weeks and I don’t have an instrument,’” Kerr says. “And I’m like, ‘Aw shit. I’m just a Band-Aid right now.’ I’m just helping kill time.”

Finding a dearth of music nonprofits that help youth navigate the transition out of juvenile prison, Kerr has established a relationship between Beyond the Bars and The Center for Returning Citizens (TCRC), an organization that provides a variety of services to people leaving correctional facilities. Starting this spring, Kerr says Beyond the Bars will be using space in a TCRC building at Seventh Street and Girard Avenue to continue educating students who left PICC.

But more than just keep teaching music, it’s Kerr’s hope that students will begin utilizing the center’s other services, such as job training, legal aid and counseling, to their advantage.

“Our end game is a very holistic experience,” Kerr says. “We want to hook them (with the music) and then we want to help them get access to careers.”

Jondhi Harrell, founder and executive director of TCRC, says programs like Beyond the Bars are essential in helping to make prison more than just a repressive and punitive place for inmates.

“What Matthew and his staff [are] doing is dynamic, needed and should be part of the model of rehabilitation and restorative justice,” Harrell says. “Prison should be a place of transformation and change. Learning a new skill that can further your ability to move forward in life is critical. Mastering music is a way to give confidence to young people and show them that many things are possible.”

And Kerr himself has completed a personal transformation. The education major and former member of Philadelphia rock outfit Family Vacation has chosen to live the nonprofit life. Last fall, he mostly left the formal world of education behind and took a job with the nonprofit Community Integrated Services. The 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. hours afford him afternoon daylight to meet with stakeholders for Beyond the Bars and free up his evenings for classes at PICC and TCRC.

He’s brought on a handful of other executives to run the business side of the organization and now enlists the services of about a dozen instructors. At the moment, all are working for free as donations and other financial support goes to purchasing and maintaining equipment.

Kerr is looking for support from all levels of the city’s music scene. He hopes to grow a more diverse roster of teaching volunteers – as most of the current volunteers are white – and also seeks donations of cash and gear. He encourages bands to throw benefit shows of any size.

“Even if it’s just a basement show with $50 … hey cheers, that’s great,” Kerr says.

He hopes to soon get his volunteers some pay and has stepped up his fundraising efforts. The Districts will be headlining a benefit show on April 17 at World Cafe Live and Kerr expects it to be a major boon to Beyond the Bars’ coffers. Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Connor Barwin, a growing philanthropist of the arts and disadvantaged populations, along with Eagles lineman Jason Kelce, have thrown their weight behind Kerr’s effort.

“I’m excited to get to meet them and try to hug them but my hands probably aren’t going to reach around them,” Kerr says, laughing. “And I’ll also thank Barwin for sacking Tom Brady.”

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