Agencies: Diversity Essential to Maximizing Outreach Potential

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When the National Juvenile Justice Network (NJJN) held its annual meeting three or four years ago, a representative of one of its 41 member organizations in the juvenile justice advocacy field stood up and pointed out that just about everyone in the room was white and had a professional degree.

A groundswell of response and interest in addressing that issue of diversity led to the formation of the network’s Youth Justice Leadership Institute, which identifies people of color who have had personal experience with the juvenile justice system and who want to become leaders in the reform movement. At a recent gathering of fellows, 10 of whom are selected each year, the value of recruiting people from diverse perspectives and backgrounds hit home during a discussion about sentencing, said Sarah Bryer, director of NJJN.

“Many folks had, within their own family, people who had been in the juvenile justice system,” she said. “When we spoke about the rubric of sentencing, they were speaking from a place of really deep knowledge about the system. … If we don’t have people who understand it from a personal or community perspective, we will always slightly miss the mark. We will do good work, but not the best.”

Whether in juvenile justice, out-of-school time or other corners of the youth-work field, agencies that serve predominantly African American, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, poor, urban or rural youth can hire a certain contingent of white, middle- or upper-middle class staff from suburban backgrounds and succeed in their missions. 

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