Turning Guns Into Roses

Equal parts art class, violence prevention, and job training, Guns to Roses is transforming young lives. Pouring...

Equal parts art class, violence prevention, and job training, Guns to Roses is transforming young lives.

Pouring molten steel into the barrel of a sawed off shotgun. Flattening a Glock nine mm with a welding hammer. Plucking triggers from handguns and using them to decorate steel roses.

What could be more cathartic for a young man who watched his best friend die from gunshot wounds? Or a young man who has caused harm to others at the hands of a weapon?

Every school day, three or four young men incarcerated at the Washington, DC Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services' New Beginnings facility gather in the wood shop to participate in Guns to Roses, an arts elective which teaches violence prevention and metal work skills. The Guns to Roses program was initiated by John Mein, the director of New Beginnings.

A few years ago, Mein, who previously served as a youth pastor and police officer, attended a family reunion at the John C. Campbell Folk School-an adult arts and crafts camp in North Carolina.While at the Folk School, Mein took a blacksmithing course. When he returned to New Beginnings, he suggested to his colleagues that they launch a metal arts program at the facility. Mein had a feeling the flames, heat and steel would appeal to his students. It would be a great elective, because it would foster creativity and there are career paths for students who have skills in metal work.

Mein launched the metal arts program at New Beginnings in partnership with the See Forever Foundation, which runs the education program at the facility. As he suspected, students were eager to participate. One of the materials they used commonly was "tubestock." Soon after initiating the program it occurred to Mein and his colleague from See Forever, Matt Barinholtz: "If we can bend these pipes into shapes, what would stop us from doing it with gun barrels?"

The first thing that stopped them was the Washington, DC Police Department, who they asked for guns. Every year, the Metropolitan Police Department confiscates thousands. After using the guns as evidence, the normal protocol for disposing of them is to ship them to a giant forge where they are melted down and then recycled.

The idea of sending these guns into a juvenile prison initially struck the police department as a colossal security risk. But Mein and his colleagues pleaded their case. Through some internet searches, they came across powerful examples of gun art. Mozambican artists had repurposed over 200,000 weapons that remained in the country from years of civil war. Trading farm tools and other equipment for the weapons, local artists had transformed bazookas and AK-47s into public monuments.

In San Francisco, an organization called, Guns Into Art hosts "Gun Bakes" during which professional artists and teenage apprentices melt down donated guns. The program teaches young people about the dangers of guns, while transforming them into all sorts of objects, from bicycle racks to jewelry.

Following these examples, Mein and Barinholtz set about adding an educational component to their program design. They developed a collaboration with an organization called, ROOT, Inc., which "brings victims of gun violence to speak to kids about the waves of their crimes, so that kids understand the ripple effects."

The police department was compelled by this aspect of the program. Their perception of the initiative began to shift from an art class with dangerous materials to a violence prevention program that was, as Mein put it, "really about kids hearing from both sides of the bullet-people who've pulled triggers and families who've been affected."

The police agreed to give New Beginnings access to its guns. The only catch was that the weapons had to be destroyed at the police station. So, a few times each year, Mein and his colleagues transport an anvil and a forge to the police department to smash a couple hundred guns, which they then transport to the New Beginnings facility.

When students first see all the guns, many rush to the biggest one and pretend it's a functioning gun again. But after meeting with the founder of ROOT, Inc., Kenneth Barnes, Sr., who lost his son to gun violence and being invited to reflect on their own experiences, students' relationships with gun remnants change.

"I don't care much for being around guns anymore, unless I'm making art out of them," says an 18-year-old New Beginnings resident who has participated in the program. "I've learned how to plasma cut, weld, and design stuff made out of steel," he explains as he expresses his desire to continue working with metal after he leaves the facility. A few of the students who have already been released have gone into HVAC certification programs.

While in the program, students work together to come up with a concept for a sculpture they'd like to build and they learn the necessary skills. The first project Guns to Roses completed depicted a young boy running through a field of roses. Since then, they have made a life-size oak tree and a dog for the DC Chief of Police (who apparently loves canines). They are currently planning a park bench to be placed in front of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum where a security guard was shot in June of 2009.

So, in a country that has a deep fascination with violence, where some of our most profitable corporations benefit from manufacturing tools for killing, an unlikely partnership has formed between the Washington DC police and a small group of incarcerated young men.

Guns to Roses is an art class, a violence prevention program, and a job training opportunity. But it is simultaneously a metaphor for change-from violence to peace, from creation to destruction, from ugliness to beauty. Such metaphors are especially powerful for young men who are standing at a precipice of change.

Samuel Steinberg Seidel is a teacher, school coach, nonprofit consultant and author of the forthcoming book, "Hip Hop Genius." He regularly writes about hip-hop, education, and innovation for The Husslington Post. This is his second dispatch for GOOD.

Photo (cc) of a disarmament sculpture at the United Nations via Flickr user WorldIslandInfo.