August 6, 2012
Reflections from the Institute Coordinator
At the end of the inaugural year of the National Juvenile Justice Network’s (NJJN) Youth Justice Leadership Institute, I’m happy to report that the year was successful. From the first — it began with a call to boost the sustainability of the juvenile justice movement by fostering leadership from the most directly-affected communities — the Institute has been a shared effort by the entire NJJN membership. The Public Welfare Foundation stepped forward early on, and its support has been pivotal to the Institute’s success.
Goals for the Institute Include:
- Support the leadership of communities of color, system survivors, and family members.
- Offer a year of learning activities to provide emerging leaders with knowledge and skills to enable them to lead with confidence.
- Conduct effective evaluation of the curriculum and structure to inform the intentional evolution of the Institute.
How the Institute is Structured
Through a competitive process, we identified ten participants to serve as fellows for the 12 months starting in June 2011. And they fulfilled their promise: the professionals of color who completed the first year of the Institute epitomize the ground-shifting leadership that we envisioned when we launched the Institute. During the program year, the fellows engaged in learning activities, including:
- small group discussions;
- in-person sessions; and
- hands-on skills building.
We matched each fellow with a mentor familiar with juvenile justice advocacy to support and encourage them during the year. Throughout the year, each fellow carried out an advocacy project of their own design. The entire NJJN community contributed to their success: by serving on the planning committee; publicizing the Institute; recruiting applicants; reading and evaluating the applications; and mentoring the fellows for the year.
What We Learned
We gained invaluable knowledge about leadership development for juvenile justice advocates and organizers; knowledge that will serve the movement for fair and equitable treatment of children and youth in trouble with the law.
In reviewing the year, one of our first realizations was that even though the majority of fellows came into the Institute with a primary goal of gaining more information about juvenile justice reform, what they ultimately valued most in the curriculum was the part directly related to leadership. We discovered that once we identified many of the great information sources for the fellows, their own initiative was all that they needed in order to make use of them. But the opportunity to investigate and consider the dynamics and complexities of leadership was uncommon for them, and required real guidance.
We gained important confirmation of the significance of relationship building to the durability of new and emerging leaders. Almost all the fellows noted the positive impact of one-on-one mentoring and multiple in-person sessions. The relationships the fellows developed among themselves, too, are rich and provide meaningful support. Lastly, the relationships between Institute staff and each fellow also serve to connect the fellows to NJJN and the broader movement.
Our mentors were steadfast throughout the year and the fellows unanimously identified them as a major benefit of participation. Most of the mentoring pairs were separated by distance and often time zones. But having a mentor, no matter how far away, was a huge positive. This was especially true as the fellows navigated changes to their advocacy projects.
What They Did: Advocacy Projects
While fostering the “soft skill” of leadership is the fundamental goal of the Institute, fellows also get experience in developing and carrying out meaningful projects in advocacy. And our first cohort of fellows took on a great variety of projects. They ranged from starting a legal clinic for youth in Detroit (Michigan has no public defender system) to training criminal justice staffers in Minnesota’s rural counties on how to work with Somali youth and families; from analyzing data and promoting a Skokie, IL program where youth receive citations for certain offenses as an alternative to formal court involvement to tackling the school-to-prison pipeline in Little Rock, AR; and from improving services for justice-involved girls in California to reallocating 1% of Los Angeles law enforcement funding to underwrite summer jobs for youth, youth centers, and neighborhood intervention workers. While not a complete list, this gives a sense of the scope of the fellows’ ambition and commitment.
The Biggest Challenge
The fellows succeeded in the Institute despite the obstacle faced by all activists: lack of time. They have also prevailed in the face of life’s more profound occurrences: birth, marriage, death of family members, illness, and sudden unemployment. That they prevailed is a testament to their strength and commitment to the movement for true juvenile justice.
Looking to the Future
As we enter the Institute’s second year and a new group of ten fellows joins us, I’m excited at the thought of what the extraordinary people in both cohorts will accomplish, and the change they will bring to the lives of youth in trouble with the law and their families across the country.
Photo: Idit Knaan