Home News Center YJLI Fellow Porsche Phelps Works to Put Youth at the Leadership Table

YJLI Fellow Porsche Phelps Works to Put Youth at the Leadership Table

July 28, 2022
Courtney M. McSwain

Photo of Porsche Phelps and quote that reads ""[Young people are] the ones that have the ideas, the ones that are the closest to the problem are the closest to the solution."

What got you into youth justice reform

When I was a child in Seattle, I dealt with the foster care and juvenile justice systems and then, as a teenager, experienced homelessness. Being someone who grew up in those systems and understanding how they impact youth sparked a desire to make a difference in young people's lives. In 2010, I decided to go back to school and get a paralegal degree with a desire to work with youth. That led to me eventually getting on board with Team Child in 2018.   

Working with Team Child, I started to see the need for youth to have opportunities to speak about the things they are dealing with for themselves. I began shifting my mindset around "making a difference" to focus on addressing systemic issues and ensuring youth have a platform to speak directly about what they experience. I believe if you can impact one young person, you've made a difference, but creating that domino effect that affects multiple people and multiple systems allows for more significant change.    

Did that shift change your work?  

Before, my work was about case management, supporting the youth, and connecting them to resources. I transitioned from a paralegal position to the community and engagement manager, doing a lot of support getting youth engaged in community. Many young people were coming directly out of the youth legal system or being pushed out of the education system, so I was trying to get them re-engaged. As my relationships developed and listening to my own children's experiences, I realized that these are the young people that need to be making the change - they're the ones that have the ideas, the ones that are the closest to the problem are the closest to the solution. Youth often aren't sought out for their opinions because it's assumed they aren't able to come up with things. We fail to realize that as adults, we lose our creativity the older we get. We could lose that vision and creativity because we've been beaten down by life. When we think of something creative, we automatically count it out because we think of all the reasons it won't work. Youth don't have that same experience. They come up with an idea and run with it.   

Developing those youth relationships allowed me to step back and ask, "Who are we listening to? Who are we talking to? Who are we engaging with in these conversations?"    

Can you tell us about your YJLI advocacy project?   

My advocacy project started as the development of a youth policy coalition. It evolved into a Youth Advocacy Board working with a team of legal aid organizations. We support the Youth Advocacy Board in hosting listening sessions around the state to hear from youth about the issues affecting them. We then use that information to guide the legal aid organizations in our legislative advocacy. The listening sessions help us understand what types of policies we are advancing. They also help break down the gatekeeping that happens in the legal community regarding youth rights. We examine the information we provide the community to ensure youth have the resources and knowledge to address the issues they discuss in the listening sessions. The Youth Advocacy Board also helps us identify what types of legal cases to take to help make systemic changes in the education system.   

This all ended up being funded by the Office of Civil Legal Aid in Washington State. We now have the money to compensate the youth we are working with and establish partnerships with organizations like the Northwest Justice Project and Seattle University School of Law.    

Are there any lessons you've learned about youth coalition building?   

My biggest lesson has been don't think too small. I say that because I had no idea that this program would become a state-funded program. I was initially looking for funders willing to give my youth stipends; that's all I was looking for. I ended up with a whole program partnering with five other legal aids.   

Other lessons include giving young people all the necessary information and preparing them to sit in certain spaces. Don't just introduce young people to meeting spaces without explaining who is in the room and what's expected of them. Make sure to understand what they need to be their best. Also, be mindful of tokenism. I'm a firm believer in ensuring youth are compensated for their work. However, tokenization can still happen if you don't acknowledge their work. We can say, "youth were involved, and we've paid them." But if the youth voice is not coming through in the program, that's still tokenized. It's about making us accountable to them.   

What motivates you?   

My kids, my family, my community - the people I'm in relationships with. My daughter shared that her teacher mentioned me as a real-life woman hero during Women's History Month. That made me smile because my child got to sit in that space and know that her mom is doing something that would impact her and her classmates. Hearing her mom being recognized makes her proud, which makes me proud.  

What is your dream youth justice vision?  

My dream is to see young people redraft the Bill of Rights. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights were drafted by revolutionaries of that time. Now, times have changed. We've learned and grown, so what would be better than taking a collective of young people to come up with something revolutionary for this time but with the understanding that it's not set in stone; this is a living document that's ever-shifting because we're in an ever-shifting time. It would be something that would be drafted, monitored and maintained by young people. That would be revolutionary, and I would love to see it in my lifetime.  

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