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Meet the Fellows: Natalie Collier

March 24, 2014
Zoe Schein

This month we spoke with Natalie Collier, a regional youth organizer at the Children's Defense Fund's regional office in Jackson, Mississippi. She 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?

Working at the Children's Defense Fund (CDF) is my first job outside of the field of journalism, so this was a career shift for me. One of the reasons I left journalism is that I grew weary of simply reporting stories about people. That’s important, but it got to a point where it wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to be involved in some capacity with some organization or entity where I could help facilitate change in the areas where I spent a lot of time reporting. That’s why I came to work at the CDF.

One of the signature programs of the main CDF is the cradle-to-prison pipeline. I knew things about the disproportionate rate at which young people of color are put in the detention system, but I didn’t have an intimate knowledge of it. In the neighborhood where I grew up, there’s only one guy I can think of who didn’t spend time in prison. So I saw it, but I never had a personal experience with it. A lot of the young women I work with have family members and peers who have experienced juvenile detention centers or been in contact with the court system. I knew I needed to know more.

That’s how I came to be involved in youth justice reform—to learn more and figure out what I could do to help. To give the young women I work with some hope that there’s something that they can do, too.

Institute fellows are required to complete a year-long advocacy project. Can you tell me about your project?

The project I’m working on—I’m calling it video diaries. I’m going to involve some of the young women from the [Unita Blackwell Young Women’s Leadership Development Program] to come with me into juvenile detention centers to interview young people there. We want to hear firsthand accounts of what it’s like being in juvenile detention centers, and for those who are no longer there or have spent more than one stint there, how they were prepared, or not, to be reintegrated into their schools or communities.

What I’d like to do with those interviews is to create a short film that will premiere during the legislative session of 2015. The goal is not only to hear the voices of these young people, and to let legislators and other people in the community hear these voices, but also so we can find from these stories potential issues that will drive policy.

For example, here in the state of Mississippi, detention centers are run by the counties. I’m looking to hear from these young people what it’s like being where they are. What I expect is that, depending on where we are, their experiences will be vastly different. There’s one county that’s known in this state for treating the young people like people. At least on paper they have programs and all these things that should benefit young people. That’s not the case in all the detention centers. Some are notoriously bad. We want to point out those disparities. We want to bring attention to these issues—attention from the public as well as from legislators.

What drove you to apply for the Youth Justice Leadership Institute?

Well, I thought it was an opportunity to learn what I didn’t know—to see what I’d never seen. But I also liked the idea of learning not only from people who had been doing this on a level that I’d never done it before, like with NJJN, but also I liked the idea of doing this with people who were like I am. By that I mean people who are basically in the same age range, people of color. I think just as we see disproportionate incarceration, there are not spaces for people of color doing this kind of work. More often than not when you see people of color doing work like this, it’s in programs—and that’s wonderful and needs to happen—but systemic shifts happen via policy, so it’s important to have people of color working on that as well.

I was also interested in the leadership development aspect [of the Institute], but I didn’t expect it to be such a huge part of it. For that I’m really grateful. It’s been amazing to me to see my shift in attitude about my own leadership and leadership styles just in the months that I’ve been in the Institute. From the readings that we’ve been required to do to the monthly check-ins, those things have positively affected how I look at leadership through the lens of my job and in talking to the young women about leadership. Typically when we think of leaders, we think of gregarious personalities, they step out and take charge—it’s a societal view of what a leader is: someone who likes to be in front of people. But in the shifting of my thinking about leadership, I am constantly reminded of the fact that even though society may not validate other kinds of leadership, those strengths and characteristics are still essential in making revolution happen.

Why is the Youth Justice Leadership Institute important?

It’s important because I think it affirms the fellows professionally and it also affirms us personally. While it feels good to be patted on the back by other people, it is especially important to be lifted up by people who look like you, who do the same types of things you do, have the same passions that you do. They know if you’re genuine or not. They know if you’re doing it for the pat on the back or if you’re doing it to make a change. You get that in the Institute.

What do you do when you’re not working on youth justice reform?

A lot of my time when I’m not at work, I’m spending time with the young women that I serve. A lot of them come from unsupportive homes and so this is the first time they’ve had someone consistently showing interest and caring about them. My phone rings a lot, or I’m texting a lot. They want to talk about everything. A lot of what we talk about doesn’t have to do with leadership or community development. I’ll talk to them about what college classes to sign up for in the spring. Or [they’ll say], “My mother is doing XYZ, what do I do now?”

Other than that, I still write, even though I left journalism. I never really considered myself a journalist, but I consider myself a writer. That’s how I process things. Besides writing, I like to spend time with friends—I like to host a house party [laughs].

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