Home News Center Meet the Youth Justice Leadership Institute Fellows: Alicia Virani

Meet the Youth Justice Leadership Institute Fellows: Alicia Virani

November 20, 2013
Zoe Schein

This month we spoke with Alicia Virani, a restorative justice program specialist at the California Conference for Equality and Justice. 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?

Before law school I worked in an alternative high school in New York, and I would see the young folks I worked with—mostly low-income people of color, and immigrants of color—being overly policed and surveilled. A lot of my students got arrested, and I felt very powerless to address things like that that happened. So I went to law school for that reason, and into juvenile justice to advocate for young people in the system. But I also wanted to think differently about the system as a whole. I wanted to think about how we can create systems that aren’t punitive and will help all the people who are involved when a crime occurs.

Fellows are expected to complete a year-long advocacy project. Can you describe your project?

The project is to create a coalition around juvenile and restorative justice in Long Beach, [California]. I decided to do that because while there are people working on different issues around juvenile justice in Long Beach, there’s not a real concerted effort to think about these issues together. The program that I’m working to develop is a restorative justice diversion program. There are other diversion programs in Long Beach, so the goal is really to draw on those resources and get people together who understand what juvenile justice is, what diversion is, and how to spread the word about it.

If all goes well, it will be a group of people who are invested in and knowledgeable about restorative justice and who are doing their part to study restorative justice projects around the country and figure out the best ways to make more of these projects happen.

Part of building this coalition is saying I’m not really sure what will come out of it, it depends on what happens when we all get in a room together, what we decide to do together.

We’ve met a lot of resistance, and I think that’s because there’s not a lot of knowledge about what restorative justice is and how bad the juvenile justice system really can be. I want to have more community buy-in so the program can be more successful.

You mentioned meeting resistance with your project—how has that resistance taken form?

There’s resistance against restorative justice itself, not the coalition specifically. The resistance we’ve been facing has been in trying to roll out our diversion program, since it’s about keeping youth out of the system, which means getting cases before they hit the DA’s office. People like the police department who are supposed to send us referrals are afraid to divert in that way—afraid of liability, but also wanting to appear tough on crime.

Why is the Youth Justice Leadership Institute important?

I think it’s important to learn leadership skills in a new, different way. When I applied to the Institute, I really felt that I needed additional leadership skills. Since the first training I’ve started to think of myself differently as a leader. Prior to the training I thought leadership was really hierarchical—not really my style—and it hasn’t been like that at all and I’ve really appreciated that.  It’s been really helpful to learn to—how does Diana [Onley-Campbell, coordinator of the Institute] say it—“lead from behind.”

The Institute also gives me the opportunity to be more intentional and strategic in my work.  It asks us to think of a project that we can complete in a year—a good boundary—then to really work through how to accomplish it.

It's also really about upholding young leaders of color, and that to me is really important because that’s who’s most affected by the juvenile justice system, and I haven’t seen other programs doing that as intentionally as the Youth Justice Leadership Institute.

It serves as emotional support, too, for those of us in this work who are trying to make our lives out of this work. We need that support to build up this next generation of leaders, and to have that generation of leaders be far more diverse and to really affect the communities involved in the system.

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