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Meet the Fellows: Garien Gatewood

January 13, 2016
Zoe Schein


Recently, we spoke with Garien Gatewood, re-entry advocate at Children’s Law Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. Garien 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-trained and well-prepared 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? 

I wanted to get into this work for a long time, and it starts with the communities I grew up in. I moved 30 times from the time I was five to 14. There was a recurring theme in these communities: people who looked like me were getting in trouble—both in school and with the law. For a lot of us that meant that we couldn’t get out of the neighborhoods we were in. No matter how many times I moved, it was the same thing, and I got tired of seeing those results. I wanted to help these communities to try to address those problems with someone who has a face that looks like theirs.

How did you get started in youth justice reform?

Actually, I started when I was working at a restaurant. The kids who worked there were mostly in high school. We’d have dinner at the restaurant after their shifts, and we’d try to help them work through the problems they were facing at school or at home—like mentorship. So I was familiar with the kinds of struggles young people were facing.

Then, when I was doing my master’s, I was studying poverty in the Mississippi Delta, where I’d see families of four working on a $14,000 per year income. So there was terrible poverty, and no opportunity to move up. Seeing that showed me very clearly how the problems I saw with poverty overlapped with education, criminal justice, the school-to-prison pipeline, and all of these other related issues. That experience helped me decide that I wanted to get into this line of work. So I knew that before going to law school.

Fellows in the Institute are expected to complete a yearlong advocacy project. Can you tell me about your project?

My project is a re-entry guide for the state of Ohio, though I hope it will be disseminated beyond the state. The issues I’ve seen in Ohio are more or less identical to what I’d experienced back home in Mississippi: a lot of kids come out of the system and there’s nothing set up for them. They go back to toxic environments, and that often leads them back to the facility. I wanted to set up a re-entry guide so state agencies and stakeholders would know what these kids need when they come home—so they can stay home. We’ve done a lot of research to see what’s working and what isn’t. We see a lot of racial disparities, especially here in Hamilton County [OH]. Recidivism rates are through the roof. We want to curtail that. We want to work with agencies to make sure these kids get what they need when they get out, so we’ve started to build a network of agencies and community partners as resources.

We also wanted to think about re-entry broadly. People typically think of re-entry as primarily about kids coming out of the youth justice system or adult facilities. But we also wanted to focus on the foster system, kids in local facilities, and kids who have issues with truancy, for example. These are markers. We want to get to kids before they go to the facilities, and then figure out how to help them in the long run.  The ultimate goal is to have a resource we can give to judges and facilities throughout the state that outlines a range of options for youth.

Throughout your research for the project, what findings struck you most?

What struck me, though I had a sense of this coming in, is that these aren’t the cute kids. These are the kids who are a little too old to be cute, a little too close to adulthood, and nobody wants to give them a break. Communities don’t want them back, but the kids want to be wanted back.

When they come out of a facility, they can’t get jobs, high schools won’t let them back in, so they’re in alternative schools, and if they have trouble there, they don’t have help. So of course they get swept back into facilities. It’s important when we work with our partner agencies to get communities on board, to welcome these young people back with open arms. I tell people, the only thing different about these kids is that they get caught. Why are you in a place of judgment when this is happening all over the community?

Can you tell me a little about your experience in the Institute?

My experience in the Institute has been outstanding. Prior to even applying, when I was in Mississippi, I clerked at the Southern Poverty Law Center with [YJLI alumni] Jody Owens and Elissa Johnson, so I had heard great things about the Institute even before I came. Once, Elissa and I were coming back from a client visit, and I remember telling her, you know, “You’re like a superhero.” She goes out and fights these fights every day—some that can’t be won, but she fights them anyway. That’s another big part of my motivation to do this work. Working alongside Elissa was impactful, and I wanted to share that about her and her work—how she helped to mold me and my work from that point forward.

Now that I’m in the Institute, it’s been life-changing. Meeting other people who are fighting great fights around the nation, you don’t realize in your day-to-day battles that there are people fighting the same and related battles across the country. It’s refreshing to see people from so many backgrounds doing this work. Diana [Onley-Campbell, the Institute’s coordinator] has done a fantastic job. She connected me with my mentor, Erika Stallworth [YJLI alum and board member for the Children’s Policy and Law Initiative of Indiana, an NJJN member]. We’ve had a really positive relationship. She’s been so helpful. The experience has really been outstanding.

Why do you think the Institute is important? On an individual level? On a movement level?

On the individual level, the Institute is important to me because it’s showed me a broader scale on which to attack problems. The Institute gives you tools, enhances certain qualities about you, and gives you the opportunity to learn so much—to be a sponge. And friendships! People who can help you with your work, but also with your life in general.  It’s really important. You bump into someone from the Institute and they welcome you with open arms. You have a problem, you can count on them. It’s so important, especially for someone who moves a lot, to have resources everywhere you go. It makes you feel really comfortable.

On the movement level, the work the Institute does is astonishing. So often you can go into a courtroom and the only person who looks like you is the defendant. The Institute is important because it gives you the skills to change that, and to show the kids in that position that they can turn their lives around. We need leaders of color in prominent positions. It’s central to the growth of the nation as a whole. We need a culture change. The Institute does a great job of building up leaders so we can see more diversity in those leadership positions.

What do you do when you’re not advocating for youth justice reform?

I am typically chasing my three-year-old around and taking care of my daughter, who was just born in November. That’s how I spend my time—with my family.

Learn more about our YJLI Fellows here


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