Courtnie Wolfgang: Sparking Dialogue and Action with Arts-Based Curriculum on Mass Incarceration

On ongoing series of feature stories in the 2017-18 academic year highlight faculty members at Virginia Commonwealth University who are involved in community engagement and service-learning.

Read the story on the VCU Service-Learning website.

“I believe, fundamentally, that the epidemic of mass incarceration affects us all as a community, either directly or indirectly,” said Courtnie N. Wolfgang, assistant professor and undergraduate program director, VCUarts Department of Art Education and 2017-18 Service-Learning Faculty Fellow. “And that most people, especially youth – who have the most to lose from mass incarceration – either don’t have all the information they need to advocate for change or they don’t know where to begin.”

Mass incarceration. What does it mean? It means that one of every three black men will be incarcerated in their lives. It means that each year, Virginia incarcerates more than 10,000 youth, most between the ages of 8 and 15. Virginia refers children to the juvenile justice system at a higher rate than any state in the country, and the commonwealth spends 15 times more on incarcerating youth than on educating them.

So how does this relate to Wolfgang’s work as a professor in VCUarts?

After earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Georgia, Wolfgang taught visual arts for five years in Atlanta’s public schools. “I know how powerless one can feel when trying to support and advocate for their students.”

After earning her Ph.D. at The Ohio State University and teaching at the University of South Carolina, Wolfgang came to VCU in 2014. She now focuses on justice-oriented practices of teaching, curricular development and advocacy, specifically in spaces of incarceration (youth and adult) and with public schools. She is a faculty member with Open Minds, and her current and previous service-learning courses include:

  • ARTE 502: “Secondary Methods,” with community partner Binford Middle School. The course focused on the development of arts-based curriculum for multidisciplinary classrooms.
  • ARTE 670: “Technology and Art Education,” with community partner Richmond City Justice Center. The course focused on collaborative poetry and video collages with VCU art education students and residents at the city jail.
  • ARTE 491/591: “Community Arts,” with community partner Richmond City Justice Center. The course focused on curriculum development and teaching opportunities for art education students at the city jail.
  • ARTE 600/800: “Art Education and Restorative Justice: Combatting the School to Prison Pipeline,” with community partners Performing Statistics and ART180. The course focuses on curriculum development around issues related to the school to prison pipeline.

Most recently, Wolfgang’s work with Performing Statistics has allowed her to develop arts-based curriculum aligned with Virginia teaching standards in an effort to spark in-school dialogue and action. The project, a partnership between Art180 and the Legal Aid Justice Center, connects incarcerated teens with artists, designers, educators and Virginia’s leading policy advocates to transform the juvenile justice system through school engagement, police training and a traveling art exhibition.

“The purpose of the curriculum is to make it easier for teachers to fold in content related to mass incarceration of youth in the state of Virginia to their existing curriculum,” Wolfgang said. “We hope this curriculum, and the teacher workgroups we plan to initiate this academic year, will help provide resources and ideas, as well as a cohort or fellowship of caring teaching professionals.”

Wolfgang credits VCUarts Art Education graduate student Tesni Stephen ’16 for helping get the curriculum off the ground, and she will continue to involve her Art Education students throughout the process.

“Some of my students already have teaching experience and others will start their professional teaching careers after graduation – I’m excited to involve them in this project,” she said. “Schools are community entities. Teachers have been part of a sharing economy since before it was part of our lexicon. Community engagement requires listening, adapting, knowing when to speak and when to let someone else fill the room with their ideas. That’s what I try to instill in my students studying to be educators. That is what I try to model in my own practice.”

For more information, visit or contact Wolfgang at

Photo credit: VCU, courtesy of Courtnie Wolfgang