Home News Center Jemima Abalogu Fights for Her Peers as an Advocate for Justice and Youth Voices

Jemima Abalogu Fights for Her Peers as an Advocate for Justice and Youth Voices

August 27, 2020
Courtney M. McSwain

What got you interested in youth justice reform work? How did you start working with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition (TCJC)?

I got started in youth advocacy in the area of police brutality around the death of Trayvon Martin. My parents had to sit my brother and me down and have that conversation of how, as a Black family and as a Black woman with a Black brother, we have to interact with the world differently - especially with police officers. That was the first time I was aware of the differences in the world. I just became really serious after that, and I wanted to understand why something like this would happen to a kid that was not that much older than me.

I participated in the Equal Justice Initiative's scholarship writing essay contest about economic and racial injustice. After that, I attended a 6-week course at Cornell University, covering the African diaspora and exploring Blackness all over the world. I also participated in some local advocacy around gun violence and the March for Our Lives.

When I was a junior in high school, I wanted to do an internship, so I started sending emails all around to local organizations in Austin, Texas. TCJC was the first one that gave me a chance. I was lucky enough that, after working with them for the summer, we found that we made a powerful team, and they decided to hire me as their Youth Justice Ambassador. In that role, I did a lot of work on school policing, the over-policing of youth, zero-tolerance policies and interactions with the juvenile justice system.

What was it about the work that made you want to stay on throughout the school year?

School policing was one of those issues that affected almost every student in Texas, but there is such a spectrum of who is very cognizant of it and who isn't aware at all. The intricacies of those differences drew me in. For instance, I attended Westlake High School, which is a very white and affluent school. At my high school, the school police were very prevalent to me because, as a Black woman, I experience a different relationship and power dynamic with a sheriff that's in your hallway versus the "typical" Westlake student.

Once I started researching, I realized how detrimental school police are to students of color, and people rarely want to talk about it because school police were being sold as a safety measure.

What were some of the projects you worked on related to school policing while you were at TCJC?

My main project was studying restorative justice as an alternative to zero tolerance. Restorative justice aims to be a more rehabilitative form of discipline. It works to make sure students are at the center of everything that schools do. Instead of isolating the student when they act in a way deemed unacceptable, restorative justice isolates the behavior to get to the root cause of why students are experiencing what they are experiencing. Through that project, I co-authored a report, "Reversing the Pipeline to Prison in Texas: How to Ensure Safe Schools and Safe Students," with Alycia Castillo, our Youth Justice Policy Analyst. While writing that report, we traveled to as many different schools as possible and talked to students who had experienced restorative justice models and those in really punitive environments. We also spoke to policymakers and worked closely with James Talarico, a member of the Texas House of Representatives, to translate our research into actual policy legislation.

It's interesting that you mentioned that you started down this advocacy path when Trayvon Martin was killed, and we find ourselves now in a similar moment as a country. When you see the protest movement that we're experiencing right now, how do you feel?

It is disheartening that these issues are still just as prevalent and require so much attention. At the same time, it reminded me why I do this work: for my family and myself, but it's also for many students who don't think they are welcomed in a lot of these advocacy rooms. When I started at TCJC, I never thought I would be welcomed to sit down with policymakers, school administrators or the Chief of Police in San Antonio - all of these people who seem so unattainable but have so much power and influence over our everyday lives.

It just reminds me how powerful it is to have movements led by youth, and how important it is to use my voice and privilege of having a platform to support other young people who haven't had someone validate their voice. There's a lot of having to balance the act of stepping up and then stepping back. As much as my lived experience and what I've seen is important, a lot of the time, that's not what I like to focus on. I am a very privileged person and have been fortunate enough to have so much in life - my voice doesn't need to be the center of attention. I like to think of myself as an extension of my peers and the youth around me who inspire me every day.

Now that you've been in the room and you've done organizational advocacy work, what are some of the things that you've learned that you think will help you and other young leaders continue doing social justice work?

Before going into this work, I thought someone needed to give me permission or invite me to show up. When in reality, people are waiting for you to take your moment. When TCJC hired me, that was solely because I reached out to them first. I reached out and said, "I'm here, willing, and eager to learn - will you teach me?"

What's the biggest challenge you've experienced as a young leader for youth justice?

I know personally, and I think for a lot of people, imposter syndrome is one of the biggest challenges. Because advocacy folks are often so community-oriented, they are continually asking, "Should it be me? Is it my time to step up? Should I even be in this room?" Especially among Gen Z, we are so powerful, intelligent, and ambitious that we often lose ourselves in thinking, "Is this right? Am I doing the right thing? Am I coming off in the right way?"

How do you push through that?

I think a lot of it is about self-confidence and self-worth, which are things that have to come from within - that's what's so hard about it. I've realized, as I've gotten deeper into this work, that everyone is taking it day by day; no one is doing quite as much as they say they're doing or knows quite as much as they say they know. It's about having that balance of self-care, self-worth and confidence.

Alycia Castillo was my partner in crime throughout the year that I was at TCJC, and I remember saying to her, "I don't even know if I'm smart enough or if I speak well enough. Why am I here? Why are y’all putting all of this time and energy into me because I don't know if I can do it." Alycia said to me, "Jemima, literally everyone feels like this. Everyone has a moment where they think - Why am I in this room? Do I even deserve this?"

The fact of the matter is, if you don't have that self-doubt, then you're not self-aware. And that self-awareness contributes to being able to see the issues in our society, but still, have enough hope and faith that we can make it better. It's about having the balance of being able to question yourself, but not taking it so far that you destroy all of your confidence.

What is your vision of youth justice?

My vision for the youth justice movement is redistributing power and education to the communities that deserve it. That looks like equality and accessibility in education and resources. We definitely need to put more credibility on youth voices. You can understand an entire society by looking at how children are treated, how children react, and how children choose to react in the future. Young people are the biggest reflection of modern-day society. Once their communities have access to the resources they need so that they're not consistently struggling to survive, we can truly take the people's power back. By that, I mean having people hold power to articulate what they need and deserve. Once they're given the resources and the tools to fight for what they know they need in their communities, we could be a world of change. 

Where do you want to continue to grow as an advocate?

I know I love criminal and youth justice work. I also want to continue to explore all different types of advocacy and find the thing that drives me the most. My heart will probably always be with criminal justice reform, and as long as anyone will consider me a part of the youth community, I'll continue to be a youth advocate and fight for my peers.

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