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Meet the Fellows: Dustina Gill

February 18, 2016
Zoe Schein

Recently, we spoke with Dustina Gill, Project manager at Aliive Roberts County in South Dakota, an organization that serves Native youth in the area. Dustina is a fellow in NJJN's Youth Justice Leadership Institute, a year-long program that aims to create a more effective foundation for the juvenile justice reform movement by developing a strong base of well-equipped advocates and organizers who reflect the communities most affected by juvenile justice system practices and policies.

 What motivates you to work in youth justice reform?

The kids motivate me to do this work. I work with Native youth, who come with many forms of historical trauma as their woven thread. Historically, Native people have been taken from their families and put in boarding schools against their will and much trauma happened there: sexual abuse, physical abuse, you name it, it happened. Our young people, their parents and grandparents are still suffering from the effects of those abuses. For my generation and younger, we never had a chance to know what a healthy life is that can be considered similar to our non-Native neighbors. Removing our kids from their families and communities today for a low-level crime is seen and felt as a continued atrocity because such actions are embedded so deep with mistrust and fear.

This past winter, there have been a lot of kids from these communities whose lives were lost to and affected by suicide. As an adult, that’s hard to comprehend, and it’s hard to move forward from. And if it’s so hard for us, as adults, imagine how hard it is for these kids to focus on the positive parts of life without feeling guilty for living. They don’t trust authority—how could they? But school systems can be a form of authority, so often kids will skip school out of fear. They don’t understand the justice system, and feel they have nobody fighting for them. There are kids who take their own lives because the system is unknown, and so entwined with these existing traumas.

I’ve realized over time that the system itself is broken. Kids are falling through the cracks and nothing has been done to prevent that. Knowing they come home worse than when they left is hard to swallow because they never had a chance at life. Finally, at a certain point, I thought, “I need to try a totally different approach, something new that hasn’t been tried yet.”

What does that new approach look like for you?

Right now, there are no services available for these youth to stay at home, in their communities, with their families, when they get in trouble with the law. A better approach is one that involves the entire family. A lot of the time, when kids are sent to treatment—behavioral, mental health, or addiction treatment—they’re forced to leave their families and communities, which causes all kinds of problems. They get behind in school, they have a hard time adjusting when they return without that needed support. They have this set of tools that they’ve learned, but they come back to a community that doesn’t know how to help them, so they relapse.

There’s a reason these kids are doing whatever it is that’s getting them in trouble. There’s something in them that isn’t being addressed. The Young Ambassadors’ Program, which I run, tries to address those underlying issues. It’s a year long, and the first six months are geared toward healing and rebuilding. We try to help families understand the different tools that the young people are learning so they can heal together. Usually their moms, dads, grandmas—they’re also dealing with trauma.

The second six months is leadership-focused. We partner with different community leaders—Native and non-Native —to develop relationships with the youth so they can grow to become leaders among their peers and to also change the perception they may have once carried. To know you are trusted and seen as valuable to your community is vital for these kids.

Fellows in the Institute are required to complete an advocacy project. Can you tell me about your project?

Well, every state has a State Advisory Group (SAG) that deals with juvenile justice. The Department of Justice requires each state to have a tribal advisory group to address the needs of Native youth. Right now, in South Dakota, we don’t really have one. So the first part of my project is to create the tribal advisory group and make it active.

It’s definitely an uphill battle. There’s not one Native American on the SAG, so they’re not familiar with Native issues, Native people, Native youth. It’s hard to get my ideas heard. The governor asked the SAG to come up with a list of recommendations, and one of them was to create a pilot project geared toward Native youth—which is the second part of my project. As of now, though, there hasn’t been much movement. The SAG recommended exactly what I’m proposing, but I just need to get the idea in front of the right people. Everything comes down to funding and that's always the hardest part of making things reality.

What has your experience in the Institute been like so far?

I love the connectedness we’ve developed, both with the other fellows and with my mentor, who really keeps me on track. Everybody in the Institute is so supportive of each other. This work can be mentally and emotionally exhausting, but it’s easy to reach out to other fellows to talk about it. Everyone is really encouraging and supportive. It’s comforting to know I have this group to go to if I ever need support.

Why do you think the Institute is important?

When I came across the fellowship at NJJN, I couldn’t believe it. I sat there and read over the information for days. I thought, “Wow, someone is really addressing these problems that the justice system has with youth of color.”

Working on issues that affect Native youth in South Dakota, you feel pretty isolated. To find support for youth of all colors on a national level blew me away. The fact that NJJN has a database of resources—policies and laws, the history of juvenile justice—it makes the work we do so much easier. At our first gathering for the Institute we were looking at [NJJN’s] website, and I was like, “This is all available?”

I also really appreciate how the fellowship stretches you toward realizing your potential. In the Institute we do a video journal—it never occurred to me to do that. When I do the journal, working on my leadership goals, it’s a way to hold myself accountable and watch myself grow. I see myself growing in my journals. It’s cool to see how many people are here for that. The Institute really helps us to become the leaders we’re capable of being.

What do you do when you aren’t advocating for youth justice reform?

I do a lot of volunteer work with youth. I teach cooking classes, and right now we’re doing a class on gardening. Pretty much everything I do is trying to create happy memories for these kids—to offset the bad memories they pick up. I hope one happy memory will help to keep them from making a bad decision.

When I was growing up, I was always told, “You have a responsibility to your community, not just to yourself and your family. You have to give back to everyone—all Native people.” I felt like I was in a race against time, there’s so much to do. I try not to miss any moments. 

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