Michigan State University research team awarded grant from the Department of Homeland Security to aid in violence prevention among incarcerated youth

September 20, 2022 - Becky Jensen

(East Lansing, MI) - Drs. Heather McCauley & Joanne Smith-Darden, in the Michigan State University School of Social Work, within the College of Social Science, have been awarded a two-year, $900,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. This project will expand implementation and evaluation of the trauma-informed program, Drama Club, at Rikers Island in New York City. 

Joanne Smith- Darden (pictured left) and Heather McCauley (pictured right) Photo Courtesy of: Matthew Mitchell Photography

“The arts provide powerful tools for violence prevention. This award not only allows us to expand such resources for young people to thrive, it establishes a platform for them to tell their stories. We are eager to get started” said Dr. McCauley, MSU Social Work Associate Professor.

Funded by the Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention Grant Program, this project leverages principles of improvisational theater to shape social emotional skills, non-violent conflict resolution, and hope among incarcerated youth and young adults. Research shows links between crime in young adulthood and later extreme violence; the study team will focus on disrupting that pathway. 

“Drama Club fosters creative agency,” Dr. McCauley explained. “It provides consistent, structured opportunities for youth to learn to use their voices while also creating space for them to lean into the concept of play, and the childhoods they may not have had the privilege to experience. Our team has seen firsthand the impacts of Drama Club on young adults at Rikers Island. It is not uncommon for them to stay involved with Drama Club even years after they leave incarceration. We want to know why,” said Dr. McCauley.

This new award will also support a partnership with Ear Hustle (Radiotopia from PRX), the podcast sharing realities of life in prison shared by those living it as well as stories from outside, post-incarceration. A Peabody Award and Pulitzer Prize finalist, Ear Hustle is also the recipient of a duPont-Columbia Award for journalism and storytelling in the public service. Now in its tenth season, Ear Hustle's episodes have been downloaded more than 64 million times. Together, the team will tell stories to global audiences of young adults currently or formerly incarcerated in New York City, including those who have remained connected to Drama Club. 

This community-partnered project is grounded in the humanity of youth and a shared understanding that violence is not inevitable.

In addition to Drama Club and Ear Hustle , project collaborators include Dr. Adam Brown (Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College) and SPARK4Change project directors and doctoral students, Rouan Salim, Jamie Kynn, and Taylor Reid. 

For more information or to request a news media interview, please contact Becky Jensen, jensenr7@msu.edu or Dr. Heather McCauley mccaul49@msu.edu