Home News Center Anti-Racism Resource: Targeted Universalism - An approach for youth justice?

Anti-Racism Resource: Targeted Universalism - An approach for youth justice?

November 25, 2019
Courtney McSwain

We are all familiar with universal policies or programs, which provide the same intervention regardless of a populations need like public education.  And you have likely heard of targeted solutions that provide an intervention to a specific group based on set criteria, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which supports families with low incomein getting food they need. But have you heard of targeted universalism? 

Like universalism, targeted universalism defines a common societal goal like educating all kids under 18.  But rather than applying a blanket policy for all kids, targeted universalism goes on to identify how different populations may need different resources to achieve that common goal.  

Targeted universalism suggests that everyone in society should aspire towards the same universal goal, but each group in society may require a different policy strategy to help them reach it.  

Consider if society agreed on a universal goal that, “Everyone should have access to resources needed to live in good health.” One strategy to reach that goal might be to provide everyone with health insurance regardless of ability to pay, so that they could afford to see a doctor. However, giving everyone health insurance wouldn’t address the isolation from health care facilities experienced by people living in rural areas – rural communities would need policy solutions that bring them in closer proximity to health clinics. Even still, neighborhoods that exist as food deserts, with no access to fresh healthy foods, would need solutions that bring more healthy food choices to their community. These different strategies would work toward the same goal of ensuring everyone could live in good health. The inclusive nature of targeted universalism invites buy-in from the whole of society because everyone is included in the ultimate vision of where we want to go.  

Targeted universalism offers a useful tool for the youth justice advocate’s toolbox, especially adding value in three ways:  

  1. Proactively Framing the Conversation: Because targeted universalism starts with the important step of setting a universal goal, this process gives youth justice advocates the opportunity to set the narrative around the bigger picture of positive youth development. Setting youth justice advocacy around the frame that, “All youth have the right to positive development and pursuit of their talents towards their life goals,” sets the stage for identifying areas where this right is impeded by the youth legal system.  

  2. Identifying Inequity and Pursuing Anti-racist Policy: Targeted universalism requires drilling down and understanding how particular groups are impeded from reaching the stated universal goal. Again, if our stated goal is that, “All youth have the right to positive development and pursuit of their talents towards their life goals,” we can identify areas where the youth legal system inhibits young people from pursuing this goal based largely on race and its intersection with other identifiers, such as ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability, demographic location or proximity to concentrated poverty.  

  3. Coalition Building: Targeted universalism provides the opportunity to create a broad coalition of partners that are committed to the universal goal. Groups operating outside of youth justice advocacy can provide meaningful partnership based on their agreement that, “All youth have the right to positive development and pursuit of their talents towards their life goals.” Broader coalitions may be especially necessary when going against strong opposition to an important policy proposal  

Like any policy framework, targeted universalism is not a panacea. The concept itself does not address the inherent racism that NJJN acknowledges the youth legal system is built upon. Thus, certain members of society may reject the idea that positive youth development is an inherent right of all youth based on unconscious bias or racist beliefs about the value of youth of color. It may also be possible to agree that supporting a particular subset of youth is important based on economic or geographic indicators without acknowledging that the youth legal system operates from a foundation of white supremacy – which deserves specific and targeted attention. These limitations are important to understand, and as an approach we believe targeted universalism is stronger when coupled with discussions of how our legal system is built upon centuries of racism.  As NJJN pursues an anti-racist, youth justice agenda, this unique policy framework may offer value as a thought or operational exercise, especially when it comes to analyzing which policies are most likely to reduce racial and ethnic disparities, creating a communications plan, or coalition building strategy.  


Read more about targeted universalism:  

Do you think targeted universalism is something you will try in your work? Email us and let us know how you plan to apply it!   

<- Go Back