Opinion

How to Empower Justice-Involved Youth Leaders

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Across the youth justice community, the leadership and expertise of justice-involved youth remains untapped or is utilized in ways that disempower and mirror the exploitative systems that we, as advocates, seek to dismantle.

Diana-Onley Campbell

If we, as a community, do not center and empower justice-involved youth leaders, we will be left behind. Young people are leading and they are not waiting for others to make room for them.

Without justice-involved youth leaders, the systemic change within the juvenile justice system that advocates and organizations across the country are fighting for will not be sustained, nor will it have the impact needed to truly realize justice for youth, families, and marginalized communities.

Here are four fundamental principles for empowering justice-involved youth:

  1. Protect justice-involved youth leaders:
    Providing protection to justice-involved youth leaders requires the organization to identify how it does or does not acknowledge, elevate and support both the humanity and leadership of justice-involved youth leaders. Protecting youth leaders begins with protecting them from adult bias and power abuses within the organization.
  2. Support justice-involved youth leaders:
    Much like the imperative to protect, the commitment to support youth leaders must be rooted in honoring them as whole and complete human beings. As such, their material, emotional, professional and personal needs must be centered as they engage in youth justice advocacy.
  3. Recruit justice-involved youth leaders:
    It is not about just having a community outreach person — there has got to be a deep and profound relationship with as diverse a group of young people as possible. Outreach workers who are on the frontlines and are from the community should receive equitable pay and their outreach should be integrated into other aspects of the organization.
  4. Sustain justice-involved youth leaders:
    Sustaining youth leaders is the most important part of any long-term vision of revolution for system change. Sustaining youth leaders goes beyond supporting their involvement in the “movement.” It is about supporting young leaders in developing the tools and the capacity to continue to move forward in their lives.

Elevating youth leadership in adult organizations requires organizational awareness and willingness to change the very culture of the way the work gets done. Making the commitment to evolve means making real changes, as noted in the toolkit. Justice for youth demands youth leadership.

Diana-Onley Campbell is the coordinator of the National Juvenile Justice Network’s Youth Justice Leadership Institute, which seeks to clear a broad path for people of color to lead toward justice system reform.

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