The Language of Dance: 

Building Bridges in Juvenile Hall

"I walk into the gym the same way every week at 8:55am. I place one foot lightly and cautiously in front of the other as though I might offset the frequency or disturb the order of the place if I walk with greater weight. I'm nervously rehearing the movements and mistakes from last class as [students] file in. I don't want to mess up again. But inevitably the next couple of hours find me shuffling clumsily, trying to keep up, on the rubber floor - there are new things to learn this time."

Written by a Stanford University student, this quote references a dance class set in an unlikely classroom - juvenile hall. He is reflecting on the Dance in Prisons class taught by Professor Janice Ross. Dance in Prisons takes students out of their typical classroom environment, placing them instead at San Mateo Juvenile Hall's Hillcrest School. The class brings Stanford students together with incarcerated students, using the common language of dance to build bridges of understanding.

The student continues: "This was my experience in San Mateo Juvenile Hall, learning to dance with two left feet - but I don't mean hip-hop. The movements I was rehearsing were the body language of bonding, the mistakes I was watching out for were ways of failing to create a positive space, and the stage fright I never overcame was the fear of not connecting. I wholeheartedly attest to the power of art in the justice system at the end of these ten weeks, but the art I felt we offered was not the choreographed hip-hop, but rather these movements we exchanged when choreography paused - the dancing between the lines. This class has taught me more about the world and myself in ten weeks than I would otherwise gain from four years of my core course list. As I continue exploring my personal and professional future, these are the lessons I will carry forward."


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During the course, students from a range of majors - including engineering, education, and computer science - are introduced first-hand to the power of art as a tool for transformation. A safe space is created in which Stanford students and Hillcrest students can share the experience of dance as a means of self-expression and communication.


The Stanford students who participate in the class are also given the opportunity to consider the growing inequality gap present in Silicon Valley that keeps incarcerated youth in a cycle of poverty. One student reflected: "It is my hope that as an employee of Google, I can continue to think about and work with the students of Hillcrest. These students are struggling to stay afloat in Google's backyard, and we as a company have a duty to think about, protect, and support them in being able to make the right decisions. I hope to continue working with this population to build critical hope."


The class has an impact on the incarcerated students as well. Hillcrest teachers, staff, and probation officers all report that the behavior of the youth improves during the course, because the penalty for misbehaving is being kept out of dance class.


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Inspired by this grassroots effort to effect change, PVF has provided discretionary grants to Professor Ross to help fund the Dance in Prisons class. These funds have helped pay for fingerprinting and clearances as well as provided a stipend for a hip-hop teacher. The generosity of our donors allows us to give small, immediate response discretionary funds to community projects like this. 


Professor Ross recently told us: "Over the fifteen years that I had the pleasure of offering the dance in prison class at Stanford I have continued to be amazed at just how forcefully dance can serve as a blueprint for thinking about, and rehearsing, social insights and transformation. Each year through the remarkable students who take this class, and the extraordinary support of Bill Somerville and Philanthropic Ventures Foundation, we have the opportunity to see how dance creates a special zone where it is possible to work on and redefine the boundaries of art, politics and life."


PVF is proud to find and fund initiatives like the Dance in Prisons class that have an immeasurable impact in our community.

Second Chances for the Formerly Incarcerated: An Interview with a Bay Area Inspire Awards Grantee 

In 2014, PVF awarded grants to six young Bay Area residents for coming up with fresh ideas

for building better communities. These awards were made possible through the  Bay Area Inspire Awards, which provides grants of up to $10,000 to 18-30 year olds living in San Francisco or Alameda Counties with an innovative idea. PVF interviewed each grantee to give you a sense of what these amazing individuals are doing to change their communities for the better. Below is our interview with Kori Chen, who is using his award to conduct a 40-hour employment training program for formerly incarcerated Alameda County residents.


PVF: Tell us about your project and working with formerly incarcerated individuals. Why did you decide to work with this population?


KC: After graduating college I was very passionate about social justice issues and went to work for various organizations who worked in the community with people directly affected by the prison system. I learned how the United States has the largest prison population of any developed country in the world, and saw how it mostly imprisons low-income people of color. A few years ago I decided to change course and began working in the coffee industry, but with a goal of exploring how small businesses could create opportunities for people coming out of prison.

About PVF
PVF is a demonstration foundation practicing unique forms of grantmaking and innovative philanthropy. Our primary interest is in the creative and significant use of the philanthropic dollar.
About the Editors

James Higa, Executive Director 

James Higa brings 28 years of executive experience from Silicon Valley, working with Steve Jobs to change the face of technology. He was at the birth of the personal computer revolution as a member of the original Macintosh team and was deeply involved in the creation of many products and services at Apple over 3 decades. He has a long history of public service as a board member of Stanford's Haas Center and in grassroots relief efforts.
Bill Somerville, Founder

Bill Somerville has been in non-profit and philanthropic work for 50 years. He was the director of a community foundation for 17 years, and in 1991 founded Philanthropic Ventures Foundation where he serves as President. Bill has consulted at over 400 community foundations, on creative grantmaking and foundation operations. Bill is the author of Grassroots Philanthropy: Field Notes of a Maverick Grantmaker.