Home News Center NJJN Fellow Jeree Thomas: Lessons on Building a Coalition for Youth Justice Reform

NJJN Fellow Jeree Thomas: Lessons on Building a Coalition for Youth Justice Reform

August 16, 2016
Benjamin Chambers

juvenile-justice-reform_Jeree-ThomasRecently, we spoke with Jeree Thomas, a member of the National Juvenile Justice Network, inaugural winner of the 2016 Youth Justice Emerging Leader Award, and currently the policy director for the Campaign for Youth Justice. She was a 2015-2016 fellow in NJJN's Youth Justice Leadership Institute (YJLI), 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-prepared advocates and organizers who reflect the communities most affected by juvenile justice system practices and policies. During her year as a fellow, she was employed as an attorney with the JustChildren program of the Legal Aid Justice Center in Richmond, VA, where she laid the groundwork for the Virginia-based RISE for Youth Coalition, a nonpartisan group that supports community alternatives to incarceration. In part because of Jeree’s work, RISE secured budget language during the 2016 legislative session that could result in over $15 million being reinvested in services and supports for young people in Virginia.

Can you talk about your advocacy project? What were you trying to accomplish?

My advocacy project for YJLI was to launch a statewide coalition to fight for alternatives to youth incarceration, RISE for Youth. The coalition was a brand-new effort for me and my employer at the time, the Legal Aid Justice Center [an NJJN member]. I had no experience organizing grasstops and grassroots groups statewide, so I designed my advocacy project to get feedback from the other fellows in the Institute and from Diana Onley-Campbell, the coordinator of the Institute.

The coalition formed out of a collective desire to see young people become the contributing members of their community that we all know they can be. However, that outcome requires an investment in youth. Several youth prisons have closed in Virginia over the last decade, but the state had not committed to fully reinvesting that money into keeping youth out of locked facilities. So our primary work was to build a groundswell of support around juvenile justice reform and direct that energy toward [Virginia] General Assembly members so that they’d want to reinvest savings from closed facilities into community-based alternatives.

One of the YJLI projects is a mapping project to figure out who the stakeholders are and what their relationships are to the system. I used the mapping project to identify service providers and organizations that work with youth who also had a stake in making sure they are successful instead of being incarcerated. These groups were surprised to hear how much Virginia spent on incarcerating one youth for one year (over $140,000), because they knew firsthand how far that money could go in serving youth in their community. I had a ton of one-on-one meetings, phone calls, and follow-up emails to connect with these groups. One of the ways that I connected with folks was by supporting and attending their events. I’d reach out, introduce myself, let me them know about the work I was doing and talk about how we could collaborate. The relationship-building and efficiency in collaborating to hold some incredible community events was really rewarding. At the end of my tenure, we had over 1,300 individual members and over 20 organizations with significant memberships join the RISE for Youth Campaign.

The week before the General Assembly Session started, we coordinated public comment at state budget hearings in different regions. In Richmond, we had a number of people come out, and we were able to play PSAs written and recorded by incarcerated youth. During the session, we did action alerts, held lobby day trainings, and two youth lobby days to pressure the General Assembly to say they’d reinvest money back into programs that would keep youth in their communities instead of locking them up. In the end, we were successful at getting the Assembly to commit to reinvesting money from facilities’ closures into youth services. Of course, the work isn’t done – Virginia is now in the implementation phase, so there is a lot of advocacy necessary to make sure money isn’t poured into new prison beds before really building out a continuum of community-based alternatives, so the campaign will be working on that.

We also created the Youth for RISE Advocacy Network – youth leaders who could advocate for reform based on their personal experience with the system. The idea started last year – Da’Quon [Beaver] and I wanted to create youth leadership within the campaign. We’d been working with youth in the Richmond Detention Center last summer – and that experience made us realize that we needed a sustained network to keep a partnership with the youth.

This June, we held a block party to launch the network in the community- – we had around 200 people attend. Thanks to that event, we had several youth apply, and we selected a group of youth and young adults who have committed to spending the next year dedicated to learning and advocating for themselves and others.


What Lessons Do You Have for Others on Successful Youth Organizing?

First, youth are not adults – they run on different schedules and want different things, and you have to respond to that. That means finding and using the social media that they use and planning activities that interest them, and aren’t just convenient for adults. That’s why we held a block party, and it's why we had a talent show and a radio station at the event.

Second, if you want youth involved, you have to include them in the planning process. We had youth involved in planning the block party for six or seven weeks leading up to the event. We wanted several youth who’d be already invested by the time of our launch party. So we held meetings with them weekly in the evenings on various things, like how to spread word on social media, how to do outreach, and what should be in the event. That was very important – youth involvement on designing what it should look like, and getting a group of young people invested to spread the word.

You also have to put resources into it. That means things like being able to offer food, help with transportation. Also, hiring Da’Quon – who had experience in the juvenile justice system – was key. He was able to more easily connect with young people, and for many was the inspiration that they needed to become advocates themselves. Any organization that needs to organize young people on youth justice reform should seek out staff members who have that direct experience with the system, and really invest in their leadership development.

When I would attend meetings or talk with staff at the Department of Juvenile Justice, I would always hear the same thing: “Why aren’t parents coming when we invite them?” But youth and family partnership doesn’t just happen with a single invitation. You have to put resources into making it happen – help with transit, provide food, hold meetings at times and places where parents can attend, and provide stipends or full-time positions, so they have the ability to dedicate their time to sharing their expertise. Concerted investment in youth and family members who are clearly the experts, but haven’t been traditionally asked to have a seat at the table, is key. I learned that in my coalition work and as a part of being in YJLI – how much of a difference it makes when you invest in people instead of prisons. 

Learn more about our YJLI Fellows here

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