Even with my busy schedule and never-ending to-do list, I always take the time to browse my binder stuffed with handwritten letters, stories, and poems from the incarcerated young people I work with. As program coordinator at the University of Washington’s Division of Public Behavioral Health and Justice Policy
, and co-chair of the Youth Committee for the Washington State Partnership Council on Juvenile Justice
, I help ensure youth have a voice in the juvenile justice system. Through the Youth Committee, court-involved young people have the opportunity to help bring about meaningful change to the juvenile justice system—for themselves and for their peers—for generations to come. As a part of the international youth voice movement, the Youth Committee empowers young people to change the minds of those who doubt the potential of troubled youth to turn their lives around, and to be able to make a difference in today’s society.
It is absolutely heart wrenching to read the youths’ autobiographies, hear their stories, and ponder their poems. I feel their struggles, their pain and trauma, the wounds of abuse and neglect, their sense of abandonment by so many people. In fact, their lives parallel my own. As a young person I spent five and a half years in the justice system, during which time I fought for my education and for a way out from a path of hopelessness. So the challenges these youth face today are close to my heart.
But the stories are also inspiring because these youth believe that if they can change themselves, they can change the world. They need meaningful educational opportunities in order to break the cycle and make a positive change in their lives. But during my hard-fought battle to obtain education while in detention, I learned that such opportunities are often kept from them. Even the minimum requirements for education are not offered in most juvenile facilities. Gaining an education should not be a struggle blocked by arbitrary policies. We need to increase pathways for learning so youth are able to achieve.
I advocate for these youth and give them the means and training to create public “youth panels.” These panels are an opportunity for young people to convey the needs and perspectives of youth in front of detention facility managers, community-based groups, and policy makers. They share their life experiences, ideas for positive life missions, and concerns about achieving better outcomes for all at-risk youth. They represent the many at-risk youth who are willing and able to demonstrate how they can exceed society’s low expectations for youth in the juvenile rehabilitation system.
Listen to the stories of youth. They deserve the opportunity to correct their mistakes and be treated as human beings with feelings, intelligence, and pride. We have all made mistakes in our lives, and we have all heard stories of troubled youth who have risen above their life circumstances and are now wonderful adult leaders in our communities. Behind each of those success stories is someone who was willing to reach out and give them a second chance and a hand up, not a hand out. I could give you the list of the hands up I received along the way.
Youth voice has become my special mission, part of my purpose in life. My challenge to you is: Help me in the fight to give voice to our youth.
Help give an education to our youth. Give youth pride in their accomplishments. Are you willing to join in?