“What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or does it explode?”—Langston Hughes
A few months ago I visited a local youth detention facility in Lansing, Michigan where I met a young girl being held there; I’ll call her “Michelle” (not her real name). I asked her about her future career plans once she was released. She paused for a second, and then confidently stated that she wanted to become either a photographer or a dancer. Minutes later, however, she matter-of-factly explained how she didn’t really expect to realize either of those career goals. “No one in my family ever ends up doing what they set out to do,” she rationalized. Sadly, Michelle believed those careers were out of reach for her. Just like in the Langston Hughes poem above, Michelle had seen too many of her family’s career ‘dreams deferred’ and never realized.
Michelle’s story reflects why finding a job can be such a challenge for incarcerated youth. In addition to determining what careers are available, what their interests are, and what skills they have or need to develop, youth in the juvenile justice system too often have the extra burden of having little to no exposure in-facility—or upon relea
Peckham Right Turn youth and staff pose for a photo after a restorative justice project with Habitat for Humanity.
se to the community—to career development activities as most youth incarceration settings by and large tend to lack adequate education and training programming. Add to that already challenging set of circumstances the over-representation of youth classified as having an emotional disturbance or learning disabilities in the juvenile justice system, and it’s easy to see why youth unemployment rates post-incarceration remain high.
But matching youth in detention to jobs on the outside only addresses part of the equation as research demonstrates that employment alone is no silver bullet for juvenile incarceration. Youth must also be motivated to change in order to lower their risk of recidivism. Successful transition from juvenile detention settings back to the community occur where personal motivation meets quality employment opportunity. The day before we met, Michelle committed to taking part in a youth transition effort operating inside her detention facility, the Right Turn Career-Focused Transition Initiative (Right Turn). Right Turn is funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration and led by the Institute for Educational Leadership. Right Turn in Lansing is being implemented by Peckham, Inc., a large local nonprofit community vocational rehabilitation organization, and is one of five Right Turn sites nationally. In keeping with the Right Turn framework, Peckham enrolls and begins working with many youth participants while they’re still incarcerated to provide them with individualized education, training and workforce development opportunities. Additionally, Peckham, like other Right Turn sites, is committed to an integrated employment work environment where individuals with disabilities work and participate in program activities alongside those without disabilities, performing the same or similar work for equal compensation.
Michelle was part of Peckham’s first Right Turn youth cohort. With only a short time in the program to date, it’s still too early to gauge whether Michelle’s story will be one of success with her furthering her education, finding and retaining work, or yet another bleak juvenile justice narrative. We can only hope.
“In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity”—Albert Einstein
It is at the intersection of youth workforce development and the juvenile justice system that all five Right Turn sites offer hope to hundreds of youth like Michelle in the form of career preparation and work-based learning experiences. By engaging youth in a three-phase career development process of self-exploration, career exploration and career planning and management, Right Turn staff empower youth to identify personal strengths, interests and values; learn skills associated with various careers; and develop career readiness skills and life-long positive employment behaviors. Most importantly, Right Turn youth receive ongoing support from caring adults serving as career coaches, case managers, and mentors whose overarching goal is to have young people exercise agency over their career development. Research shows that youth who have participated in career exploration, transition services and other developmental activities are more diligent in their career search efforts. These developmental activities are outlined in NCWD/Youth’s Guideposts for Success.
It is this opportunity for participants to exercise youth voice, self-efficacy and personal agency that can change the trajectory for youth in the juvenile justice system, like Michelle, from having yet another employment ‘dream deferred’ to actually achieving their career goals. It is one thing to tell a young person that they can become anything, like a photographer or a dancer—it’s quite another thing for that young person to understand what becoming a photographer or dancer fully entails in terms of the required skillset and work capacity associated with that particular choice of career.
“I am not the exception, I am someone who was exposed to exceptional opportunities.”—Glenn E. Martin, President and Founder of JustLeadershipUSA
Career success is right around the corner for some youth. For others, especially those leaving incarcerated settings with physical or intellectual disabilities, career success is going to take some work, but is still something that can be achieved. The hallmark of any quality successful youth workforce development initiative is not just providing young people with job skills but also instilling them with the confidence to explore their career interests with passion and the belief that their career goal is not just a dream, but a goal that is truly attainable.
By Byron Kline, Project Manager for the Right Turn Career-Focused Transition Initiative at the Institute for Educational Leadership’s Center for Workforce Development.
- Right Turn Career-Focused Transition Initiative—Institute for Educational Leadership
- Making the Right Turn: A Guide About Improving Transition Outcomes for Youth Involved in the Juvenile Corrections System—NCWD/Youth
- “Guideposts for Success for Youth Involved in the Juvenile Corrections System”—NCWD/Youth
- “Understanding the New Vision for Career Development: The Role of Family”—NCWD/Youth
- “From Jails to Joblessness: Why Juvenile Justice-Involved Youth Need More Than Just a Job”—NCWD/Youth Blog, June 9, 2014