Home News Center YJLI Fellow Derrell Frazier Uses Personal Experience to Drive Youth Justice Advocacy

YJLI Fellow Derrell Frazier Uses Personal Experience to Drive Youth Justice Advocacy

June 29, 2022
Courtney M. McSwain

Photo of Derrell Frazier and Article Headline

What got you into youth justice reform?

I got involved in this justice work because not only was I directly impacted by the youth legal system at a very young age, but a lot of my peers were impacted by the system. All I saw were our communities flooded with police officers and myself and my peers being profiled. The perception was that if a group of young people were gathered together, they were up to no good. We couldn’t even enjoy our parents’ and grandparents' homes because anytime we were gathered, we were targeted. So, I recognized early in life that the system was unfair and how the system targets youth in our communities. I realized early on that this was a problem.  

My father and older brothers were also impacted by the system. I was constantly targeted and consistently picked on in the community. I thought I was the only one that way. In the Black community and Black families, we’re always being taught that you don’t tell your business to others. The saying “what happens in this house, stays in this house” is common. So, early on I didn’t realize there were other youth who had incarcerated parents or that had experienced traumatic events in their lives. I met Diane Wallace Booker, Executive Director of U.S. Dream Academy where I was involved in the afterschool program. She recognized that I was outspoken and opinionated, and she helped me to channel my voice so that I wouldn’t get in trouble for those qualities as a youth.  

Becoming a youth leader and working with other young people helped to normalize my experience. I learned that because I wasn’t afraid or ashamed to share my story, other young people were inspired to do the same and we were able to support each other through our experiences. I realized that I wasn’t the only one who had an incarcerated parent. These experiences have impacted our communities for generations, and I just knew I had to do something to generate change, so I started out as an organizer for children of incarcerated parents.  

Tell us about your advocacy project.  

I’m creating a cohort-style youth leader program for system-impacted youth to get involved in legislative advocacy. It’s a 16-week program that teaches political education, organizing and advocacy, and leadership. I’m collaborating with two of my peers who have also been system impacted to develop a national model for youth and adult partnerships that addresses how to properly center youth voices and avoid repeating harmful systems. 

What motivates you? 

I’m motivated by my faith in the outcomes and the recognition that a slow progression is better than no progress at all. The opportunity to impact others and share this message keeps me motivated and encouraged. I tell youth and others that have been impacted by systems that it’s okay to take things a day at a time and to allow yourself some grace. It is difficult to integrate back into the community and your family unit and there may be times when you feel that you’re not where you want to be or that everyone else is making more progress than you. The opportunity to remind people that any amount of progress they are making is good and not to compare themselves to others is especially important to me. Knowing that I’m impacting at least one person keeps me motivated. 

What is your dream for youth justice? 

I am an abolitionist at heart. I envision a system without facilities or prisons. Our current system is a punitive one that was created for adults. These are babies and there should be rehabilitation-focused systems that provide the help that youth need when they find themselves in situations in which they have been traumatized. I envision a system that provides healthy responses to youth behavior and support for these young people.

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