Speaking as a formerly incarcerated youth, my passion is to educate others on the importance of youth voice. We know it is essential to move juvenile justice reform forward, but we need to start implementing it in every sense of the word. A little youth voice here and a little youth voice there is not going to solve systemic errors, nor will it solve the problems societal pressures present for those who are system involved. These problems range from negative stigmas to the expectations of youths to respond positively in toxic environments.
I have been fortunate enough to have been given several opportunities to have my voice heard at the tables of a state agency, major foundation and national juvenile justice nonprofit. Not only is this important to me, but it is a step forward in the movement of juvenile justice reform to have opportunities for youth available. Not only is my voice valued throughout these spaces, it is necessary for this work to hear what young people need, from the young people. Youth engagement is necessary and who else better to tell you how and why than the young people who are waiting to be engaged.
It means the world to me to know that I have a team of people who wanted me to succeed, and their confidence in me and support led me to believe I will succeed. I am writing this in order to inspire more people to create opportunities for young people, specifically those with system involvement.
The opportunity that kick-started my career was working as a Massachusetts Department of Youth Services (DYS) consultant. I provided input and feedback at agency meetings and participated in speaking engagements and panels. DYS staff trusted me and gave me every opportunity they knew would let my voice be heard and made sure nothing could prevent me from participating.
DYS staff also sent me the application to become a member of the Annie E. Casey Foundation Youth Advisory Council. They made sure I was prepared for all three interviews, and I was selected as one of 12 members of the council. The Youth Advisory Council taught me how to network, dress and act professionally, better my public speaking skills, what self-care looks like in the workplace and outside it, how to create a professional development plan and follow through with it, how to map out a career plan and much more. Coming from a household that does not hold a career made it difficult to understand the basics of obtaining and sustaining one. The Annie E. Casey Foundation gave me the tools to create a successful career.
It just takes one person
The Annie E. Casey Foundation work led me to my most recent opportunity: full-time employment as the first youth coordinator at the Performance-based Standards Learning Institute (PbS). I make sure the youth voice is included in all of PbS’ work to improve juvenile facility conditions and quality of life so youth are better prepared for success when they leave. The position has allowed me to obtain financial stability as well as give me hope for future positions like this one to be developed. I may be the first to hold a position like this, but I will not be the last.
These opportunities allowed me to not only feel supported and cared for by people who believed in me and believed in the importance of youth voice in juvenile justice, but also to gain confidence and experiences to believe in myself. I was given chances to be a contributing member of society and that gave me hope that similar opportunities are attainable for all youths.
All it takes is one staff to believe in us and ask questions that pertain to our passions. Each opportunity I was directed to by staff or exposed to by staff ended up expanding into more opportunities. I was connected in my career because someone took the time to make sure I had what I needed to be successful.
I am honored that the Annie E. Casey Foundation listened to my ambitions and put me in contact with people who can and have helped me acquire a skill set that will allow me to positively start a career in juvenile justice as the first PbS youth coordinator. PbS Executive Director Kim Godfrey played a huge role in advocating for this position. She fought for a youth to have an opportunity to learn and become a part of an organization dedicated to treating all youth as their own in a way that gives me the space I need to continue to advocate for juvenile justice reform.
Curious how you can begin to implement youth voice in your organization? Here are some first steps: Make sure your organization uses hiring practices that do not prohibit anyone with a record from employment, that they reach out to local social service organizations when posting positions and establish relationships with agencies working with young people who have been system involved. Stand with me and PbS as we continue to treat youths as one of our own.
This column was originally written for Performance-based Standards.
Jaclyn Cirinna is a youth coordinator at Performance-based Standards, youth partnership consultant for the Annie E. Casey Foundation and a consultant for the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services.