Home News Center YJLI Fellow Racquel Henderson Works to Disrupt the Prison Pipeline and Instill Belief in Young People

YJLI Fellow Racquel Henderson Works to Disrupt the Prison Pipeline and Instill Belief in Young People

February 26, 2021
Courtney M. McSwain

hat got you into doing youth justice reform work? 

I have lived experience in the system, [and] it was always hard for me to see peers who had advocates supporting them, because I never did. The decisions that I made were my own, but there were situations and circumstances led me to make those decisions and I always used to think maybe if I just had someone to reach back and pull me up...pour into me...things would have been different.  

Post-incarceration, I enrolled at the university to get my degree and I stumbled upon job at a teen center connected to a predominantly black high school. There were a lot of like the students with behavioral issues, and almost everyone was system-impacted in some wayI started to help them navigate the issues that they were dealing with, and I saw the effects of someone being there for them. 

co-worker and I applied for a grant to start a program within the teen center, and I started to dig deeper - changing my major from psychology to criminal justice 

You talked about helping teens navigate issues related to being system-impacted. What were some of those issues and how did your help impact the young people you were working with?  

Self-esteem was a big one, especially for young ladies. They had a lot of anger, resentment, and a lot of family issues. We started to do programming around self-esteem building and anger, getting them connected to tutors and things like that. We started to see great changes 

Tell us about the advocacy project you're working on for YJLI.  

My advocacy project is a healing, research, and system change project that works to center the lived experience and voice of youth and families that have been impacted by the youth justice system using research design and strategies. Currently, I am interviewing youth and families that have been affected by the system to gather their voices and assist with making sense of their own experiences 

We then use the information we gather to try and reform the system. For instance, we go into places like the Juvenile Assessment Center and let them know what we discovered through our interviews and research so that can lead to systems reform. We also hold workshops, teaching the youth and their families how to heal from system trauma so that it doesn't become generational and so that they can discover their power and become stronger 

What motivates you in this work?  

My hope for things to be different. You know all my lifejust saw people surviving and I was taught that that was enough...that's what we were supposed to do, because that’s what we as people have always done – survived. But in educating myself, I became aware of the possibility of thriving 
I want to push my people to thrive, and to let them know that surviving is just the first step in the journey. 

What would be your dream youth justice vision? 

That [the system] is actually about rehabilitation and helping youth becombetter, not worse because of touching the systemthat we empower youth to empower themselves and empower each other. 

I want I just want a place where one mistake doesn’t have to mean a young person’s life is thrown away. Some kids go into the system for something smalland they just are stuck in the pipeline...they just follow it right through until they're dead or in prison.  

How do we disrupt that pipeline your talking about?  

I truly think it takes instilling belief in young peopleThere's so much power in knowing somebody believes in you and your ability to do good – sees your potential.  

We must connect young people to something that they enjoy and believin them along the way. There's huge power in that, and I think that's where the mark gets missed. That's so important for us to think about and remember when we’re advocating for specific changes in the system; we have to give young people the opportunity to believe.  

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