By Rita Musello-Kelliher, Program Associate at the Institute for Educational Leadership
This year President Obama proclaimed October to be National Youth Justice Awareness Month. He described it as a time to “reaffirm our commitment to helping children of every background become successful and engaged citizens” and “hold youth accountable for their actions without consigning them to a life on the margins”.
It was a fitting month for the Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL), NCWD/Youth’s host organization, to hold an annual meeting for its Right Turn Career-Focused Transition Initiative. The program engages juvenile justice involved or at-risk youth in obtaining meaningful employment opportunities and positively reconnecting to their communities through an individualized, three phase process of 1) Self-exploration, 2) Career exploration, and 3) Career planning and management.
The program is rooted in the idea that youth can build themselves a positive role in society when they are empowered to do so. Right Turn provides opportunities for education, training, work experiences, mentoring, and restorative justice service learning projects that highlight participants’ personal strengths and ability to be change agents in their communities. “One of my favorite parts of Right Turn has been when we volunteer and actually interact with the community. I really like giving back,” Eunice, a Right Turn participant from Lansing, said at the meeting.
Given the rising racial divides and instances of police-involved violence across the country, program sites have been grappling with how to keep their youth from feeling alienated from any sense of justice in the United States. IEL’s Right Turn team chose to theme the meeting “Civil Rights, Juvenile Justice, and Opportunity” to show youth that their voice matters, and their perspective can inform progress.
The event brought youth participants, coordinators, case managers, and mentors from five different states to Washington, D.C. During the first day, staff shared best practices and lessons learned, while the youth took part in leadership training. It culminated in an exciting trip to the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened less than a month before the annual meeting. The deeply moving exhibits, which feature artifacts from a wide-range of historic events, including the middle passage, slavery, reconstruction, lunch counter sit-ins, protest marches, sports, entertainment, and President Obama’s inauguration, allowed youth to analyze their own experiences of race and justice within the context of the country’s entire history of civil rights.
On day two, everyone pitched in as part of a restorative justice project. Restorative justice is a critical tenet of the Right Turn program, as it allows court-involved youth to give back and form a constructive relationship with the community they are a part of. While visiting DC, Right Turn participants gave back to the city’s homeless population by putting together care packages that contained hygiene products and nutritious snacks. Each person included a handwritten note as a personal touch, and the youth were particularly passionate about finding the time to hand out each package themselves.
In terms of elevating youth voice, a particularly salient moment came during a discussion panel held on the topic of civil rights and justice. The panelists came from a policy background and passed around a fact sheet that used data to lay out the uneven treatment of African Americans by law enforcement. The Right Turn youth, many of whom had experienced this first hand, felt that the data underplayed their lived experience. Earl, a young man from Los Angeles, shared that, although the data said that young men of were two and a half times as likely to be stopped by the police as their Caucasian peers, he had once been stopped and searched by police officers six times in one week.
This revealed an interesting disconnect between the research that informs law and policy, and the day-to-day experience of citizens affected by it. All of the youth agreed that they did not like to look at the statistics because they felt that it was about them, but was not doing anything to help them. After the panel, the group took part in a discussion about what changes they want to see in the criminal justice system, as well as how they could use their perspective to promote these ideas and their stories to bring life (and reality) to the statistics.
On the final day, each youth shared their Right Turn story, discussing their accomplishments, goals, and favorite memories about the program. Karina, a participant from Houston who will be entering college in January noted, “They helped me to graduate high school, which I never thought that I could. Then they helped me get a job through every step of the way. Honestly, I was a completely different person before I joined Right Turn and I am proud that I came so far.”