Youth-led Solutions for a More Just SocietyJanuary 25, 2023 Category: Column, Feature, Featured, Method
According to the Pennsylvania UCR, nearly 14,000 youth under the age of 18 were arrested in 2022. While there are a number of factors that lead to youth coming into contact with the justice system, many have faced and continue to face oppressive systems that prevent them from overcoming the mistakes they have made. Since 2008, the Juvenile Law Center has promoted youth voice and expertise through its Youth Advocacy Program, which gives youth ages 15 to 22 involved with the justice and foster care systems the opportunity to develop, propose, and advocate for effective solutions to long-standing systemic problems and to effect policy change.
Building on their impact, last month, the Juvenile Law Center launched a Digital Youth Advocacy Toolkit based on a 2021 report entitled Building the Field of Ethical, Authentic, and Youth-led Advocacy: Key Components of a Youth Advocacy Program.
Based on findings from the 2021 report, which also builds on feedback and input from Youth Advocacy Program participants and alumni via focus groups and youth reflections, and outlines a model for developing youth-led advocacy efforts and programs, this toolkit was developed in collaboration with youth advocates with lived-experience.
“When you include youth voice, and when you include youth perspective and lived experience, often the recommendations are far more targeted, and therefore the implementation is far more successful. You have young people identifying this is what I need in order to be successful, this is what I need you to see that you’re not seeing for this change to happen.” ~ Cathy Moffa, Youth Advocacy Program Senior Manager
The recently released toolkit supports organizations nationally and internationally to advocate for youth rights, dignity, equity, and opportunity, and to prioritize youth inclusion, as Juvenile Law Center has done in developing and implementing strategies throughout the 15-year history of the Youth Advocacy Program. It expands upon the tactical pieces of youth-led programming, such as how to support youth in telling their stories, how to run a youth-driven program, and building a curriculum, all of which is incredibly valuable to youth-serving organizations in our community who may not have as many avenues for seeking feedback from the youth they are serving.
While this youth-led toolkit is valuable, a key piece that is applicable no matter what audience you’re serving is the “Program Values” document. Program members outline the program values that are developed together with staff and program members and highlights how the group will interact with one another. The Youth Advocacy Program’s current values include things like consent, confidentiality, and privacy, as well as race, equity, inclusion, and language to avoid. However, the document also specifies that the values evolve annually as new staff and members enter the program and provide new perspectives.
In its 15-year history, Juvenile Law Center’s Youth Advocacy Program has influenced national and statewide legislation, as well as City budget funding and policies here in Philadelphia. According to Moffa, “One of the reasons that we have such a strong impact is that when you when you couple youth experiences and stories with advocacy efforts, it humanizes the issue, it’s a catalyst for the issue, and makes it move a little bit faster than it would have previously done.”
Moffa tells us, “The field of youth-led advocacy and advocacy in the juvenile justice and foster care system has changed. It’s shifted for us towards work that is less about mending the systems, and now completely transforming them, abolishing them, and thinking of something completely new. How can we look at this differently? And that is really possible when you have young, exciting minds at the forefront leading the work.” Young people are experts on their own lives, and their lived experiences should inform policies that affect them.
Respect a young person’s lived experience
Building a program like the one led by Moffa and several program staff is harder than it looks. A key takeaway is that more organizations can do this work in a way that respects a young person’s experience, culture, trauma-related learnings, and history. More people and organizations can provide funding, more elected officials can advocate on behalf of, and more individuals in our community can support this kind of work. Solving a current problem may seem like the ideal first step, but taking the time to investigate the roots of the issue and the ways in which we can invest time and effort into addressing the root causes.
“It’s not just about the kid. It’s about everything that’s impacting them, including their families, their neighborhoods, and their communities,” Moffa told us. She encourages funders, key decision-makers, and policymakers to look at these intersecting issues and how we can address all of them before we try to develop a solution just to mend a system that is broken.