Home News Center YASP Proves the Importance of Youth-Led Advocacy

YASP Proves the Importance of Youth-Led Advocacy

January 30, 2020
Courtney M. McSwain




NJJN member Youth Art & Self-Empowerment Project (YASP) puts youth voices at the forefront of decision making and storytelling in a way that doesn't exploit their story but instead empowers their leadership. As a result, YASP can authentically reach the hearts and minds of those who have the ability to change youth justice policy.  

YASP, which was created by young leaders, focuses on policy goals, including:

  • Ending the practice of charging and incarcerating youth as adults;
  • Repealing Act 33, which allows youth 15 and over to be automatically tried as an adult in some cases; 
  • Ending cash bail and the use of locking youth up pre-trial; and 
  • Push the state and city to fully comply with the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) by removing all youth under 18 from adult jails and prisons. 

One of YASP’s key advocacy strategies to build widespread consensus for its policy goals has been to use youth-centered media and storytelling to humanize youth who find themselves caught up within the justice system. 

"We support young people in telling their own stories and being their own advocates in pushing for these changes," says Sarah Co-Director and Leadership Team Member at YASP. "Two of our staff have recently gotten op-eds published that have been successful at helping policymakers understand the urgency of keeping youth out of the adult system. We've also had our youth organizers featured in multimedia projects like a documentary we produced a few years ago that shows the impact of incarceration on young people and the fact that it does little to reduce violence. We need an overall shift to think about healing and transformation, and we use a lot of different kinds of media to move that narrative.”

One of the cautions of youth-centered storytelling is that young people may feel used for their story. YASP avoids that pitfall by ensuring youth organizers are paid employees and central to all aspects of the organization's decision-making – not just the media strategy.

"We have a fairly unique structure in that we were founded by a group of mostly young people who had been incarcerated. All of us who were here in the beginning were under 22 at the time. We're pretty non-hierarchal, and we all make decisions together," Morris says. "We also create time to check in with every staff person and make sure they have the support they need in their professional and personal lives. We recognize that if people aren't good in their personal lives, that's the first thing that needs to happen before any work can get done. We're cognizant of supporting everyone's goals inside and outside of work."

Helping youth organizers tell their stories in empowering ways, rather than exploiting them, has helped YASP galvanize local momentum to keep youth out of the adult justice system. Just this month, youth advocate William Bentley spoke at a “People’s Hearing on Bail and Pre-trial Punishment,” resulting in a standing ovation and prompting one of the city’s council members to directly call on the District Attorney to stop charging young people as adults.

In addition to policy advocacy, YASP helps young people who are impacted by the court system through community youth bail-out programs and coordinating Philadelphia's youth participatory defense hub. The YASP participatory defense hub is the first in the nation focused specifically on youth and provides a resource center for anyone with a family member or friend going through the court process to receive information and support navigating the system. As part of the participatory defense hub, YASP also produces social-bio videos to submit as evidence showcasing a young person’s humanity and fills the courtroom for support during court dates.

Most recently, YASP was selected to host the city's first pre-charge restorative justice program, which will help young people avoid the court system and go through a restorative practice of healing for themselves and the person harmed in a given scenario.

“We want to help find solutions outside of the criminal justice system to bring about healing,” Morris says.  “There’s a lot happening in Philadelphia that has the potential to transform how young people are treated, and we’re making sure that organizations like YASP stay at the forefront of those conversations to keep moving things forward.”

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To learn more about YASP, visit their website, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. You can also read op-eds from YASP youth organizers My Le and William Bentley; and check out a recent profile in the Philadelphia Citizen.

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