by Desiree Coleman
Long before I had the pleasure of reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, I understood firsthand what disproportionate minority contact meant. I spent close to 10 years working in the nation’s capital, with some of the most vulnerable communities, including incarcerated youth. I worked in a juvenile justice system that was largely populated by young men of color. And although I was a part of a cadre of committed advocates who were driving for system reform, positive youth development, strength-based programming, and alternatives to incarceration, the challenges were many.
Resources in any public system are always a challenge, but I was grateful that about halfway through my tenure, we were selected for a competitive federal grant. I was able to implement a cohesive strategy focused on education and workforce development for youth in the juvenile justice system. Those years were transformative because I designed programming to improve educational outcomes for “opportunity youth”. This work was personal for me because the alternative was that kids wouldn’t have opportunities to make a different set of life decisions… which might lead to reincarceration. I clearly understood how fragile families, under-resourced communities and underperforming schools created a tangled web that could easily lead young people down the school to prison pipeline. So, I carry those experiences and the faces of “my” kids with me. Here are some of the life lessons that I’ve learned from them.
Always Give Grace
In Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson reminds us that “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done” and we shouldn’t judge others that way either. Some of the most talented, creative, sincere, inspiring, and motivated young people I’ve encountered in my life were in a juvenile detention facility. I think it’s important to not only give the benefit of the doubt to those who have had a run in with the law, but to everyone we encounter. We should actively try to find the good in all people.
Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover
If learning about the impact micro-aggressions has taught me anything, it’s that we can make split second decisions, and unfairly size someone up in less than a few seconds. That’s unfair and also leads to incomplete impressions.
The young people I worked with were everything from high school graduates to college students to certified apprentices. But because of a single label, they were most commonly often simply referred to as youth offenders. That left them subject to ostracization and stigmatization. I think we should make people more than a box to check. Can you imagine a world where equity is front and center and a society with equal access the opportunity for all? I know many of you are working towards realizing this reality. And we owe it to these young people in doing so we must ensure that all people are included in that conversation.
In the midst of the Hurricane Katrina clean up effort, I had the pleasure of leading a group of court-involved kids on a month-long service learning project to the Gulf. During our service, the kids worked long hours, in an unfamiliar place, and a world very different from their own. After three weeks away from DC, they were tired, homesick and weary. But right before our trip ended, we met an older, African-American woman who had lost everything in the storm. She gave those young men hope and resolve to persevere and finish strong.
It was astonishing to see the kids rally to overcome obstacles for the purpose of serving others. Although these young people had faced seemingly insurmountable challenges in their own lives, they rose to the occasion and came to that old woman’s aid – hanging sheet rock and staying late until the job was done. Their perseverance inspired me and reminds us all to dig deep and keep pushing.