With unprecedented access to youth serving their sentences in the Juvenile Justice System, DETERMINED 2 MAKE IT features African American, Latino and White teens engaging in innovative art projects in which they express themselves and reflect upon their life experiences. With the collaboration of artist activists from the outside, these young people not only reshape their local landscape and defy labels attached to them by the system and society, but also share their hopes and dreams for a brighter future.

Youth Painting, Jackson County Youth Center

Through their interaction with art, these teens search for ways to tell their stories through hip hop music, visual arts and public murals, all created in workshops organized by Youth Arts Alliance!, a non-profit organization that provides alternative programming for youth in the Juvenile Justice System. Youth Arts Alliance! is the brainchild of Heather Martin, whose heart and soul is devoted to giving boys and girls in the Michigan Juvenile Justice System opportunities to grow and flourish. Martin does not want “these kids to go to prison” and understands that their chances have been subverted for a multitude of reasons: poverty, abandonment, learning and developmental challenges, family and social pressures. Youth Arts Alliance! creative programs aim to help the youth to shake things up, learn something new, imagine a different path and carve out a new perspective.


In 2014, Youth Arts Alliance! launched its Music, Mural, Mosaic Project! to create public art in workshops facilitated by established artist/activists in the region.  The programs were offered to youth serving their sentences in the Juvenile Justice System. The youth painted murals and created mosaics that are installed in juvenile residential placement centers and courts for the public to see. All the music in the documentary was created in the Youth Arts Alliance! workshops and performed by the participating youth. According to one of the participants “I never thought I could do something so big … it’s outside the box,” and many were surprised by their ability to work together to make something beautiful. All were proud of their accomplishments and thrilled to be recognized for something good instead of “the other stuff” that is documented in their legal records.


After completing the project, the artwork was transported to Ann Arbor, Michigan for a big splashy event showcasing the artistic work of the youth engaged in Youth Arts Alliance! programs. Their poetry, paintings and artwork covered the banquet hall as they celebrated their music and performance pieces with their friends and families. Martin beamed with pride the whole evening and made sure to roll out a red carpet at the entrance to the party space, “I want the youth to feel like celebrities.”

A final note: It is important to mention that most of this documentary was filmed inside residential and court facilities of the Juvenile Justice system. It is very unusual to have an opportunity to showcase at-risk youth in this particular environment to get an honest view what life is like for them. We are grateful to Heather Martin for her perseverance, vision, heart and enthusiasm and for her ability to break through bureaucratic and institutional barriers in order to make this project come to fruition.