Unlock Knowledge of Those Impacted by the Juvenile Justice System

What happens when authoritative energy is replaced by authentic intergenerational symbiosis.

“The real crime lies in how society views us.” 

This indictment by a young individual cited in a report by the Shelby County Youth Council in Memphis stings because it is true. 

Activists of all ages in Shelby County have no illusions about dislodging deep systemic racism but they demonstrate increasing impatience about how minors are mistreated in the largest county in Tennessee. 

Salina Shamsuddin with the Youth Justice Action Council did not mince words with me when talking about how grownups need to behave.

 It’s oppressive to call us children and kids because it has a negative connotation that is not empowering to us so we’d like to be referred to as youth … Catching them [adults] and standing up for ourselves is one of the biggest things that work and people really understand they cannot treat us like this anymore.  

The Youth Justice Action Council (YJAC) centers its work on those impacted by the juvenile justice system in Memphis. At age 14 Crystal Oceja, whose “brother didn’t get treated with humanity,” helped develop 10 legal demands in its “Break the Chains” written petition and rap version. YJAC used these specific demands in its campaign to defeat the District Attorney and Juvenile Court Judge who tried many Black and Brown youth as adults.   

Following this victory, the Youth Justice Action Council hosted a forum for the newly elected Judge,  DA and law enforcement.  In small groups, two YJAC members shared their firsthand stories about the juvenile justice system and one of the other Council members facilitated. Adults were told not to interrupt or interrogate.  Another one of the facilitators, Milana Kuma emphasized

… the need to center on the experiences of systems impacted youth as opposed to just recommendations. It’s harder to invalidate when they [DA and others] are faced with the trauma they have caused and cannot distance themselves.

Marshawn Jenison, 16, summed up: “I feel good about actually being heard. Nothing negative back. They are trying to understand how we really feel and what is really going on.” 

One Youth Justice Action Council representative serves on the five-member Shelby  Countywide Juvenile Justice Consortium, all appointed by the Mayor. This is not a token position. In fact, this rep and the YJAC have credibility and clout plus strong rapport with the adult members.

I don’t think we’ve ever made a decision that has not had a youth voice…They are our checks and balances. We are really led by them.

Rebecca Davis, Chair of Countywide Juvenile Justice Consortium

The Youth Justice Action Council is sponsored by Stand for Children Tennessee, which advocates for racial justice and improving public education. A 100-year-old organization in Memphis, appropriately named Bridges USA, lives and breathes by its deep commitment to youth-adult equity. Crystal, now 16, captures this rare intergenerational symbiosis. 

The adults approach you with no authoritative energy. They are very open. They are cool. They check in. They don’t force you to do anything.

There’s a bit of disbelief that systemic change can actually happen. Even with the horrific murder by police of Tyre Nichols, the recent election fuels the determination of these young advocates erase the superpredator view that Mike Males debunks in The Terrifying Plunge of Youth Crime published at YouthFacts.org.


Bridges USA

Countywide Juvenile Justice Commission

Shelby County Youth Council Youth Voice Report

Stand for Children Tennessee 


Youth Justice Action Council

Photo Credit: ABC24

Do You Have These 10 Critical Character Traits?

Building a collegial partnership with teens is altogether different from the traditional power dynamics so common with a parent, educator, or authority figure.

When introducing the concept of infusing teens into various organizational operations, the flood of reactions from most adults is predictably negative. 

My nephew is obsessed with online gaming. 

My friend’s 16-year-old daughter is so lazy and clueless. 

These kids don’t want to have anything to do with us. 

This crime wave . . . I’m scared of them. 

Adults must take off their hat as a parent, aunt, educator or other authority figure to see each young person as an individual. To unlock the minds of the rising generation to imagine a better society, analyze problems, and develop strategies to pursue real change together, the responsibility rests with adults to demonstrate authentic respect and build genuine rapport. A collegial partnership is altogether different from the power dynamics so common with a mom or dad, teacher or principal, etc. 

  Encourage us. Build on our ideas. That gives us the confidence we need.  – Melissa K.

Essential Soft Skills for Sustained Collaboration

  1. Optimist – Hold onto hope as the antidote to cynicism
  2. Listener – Develop a “Third Ear” to be open to new thinking
  3. Learner – Keep your imagination faucet open
  4. Advocate – Share your own pragmatic idealism 
  5. Communicator – Text or talk 1:1 outside of meetings 
  6. Comedian – Joke and laugh
  7. Infomaniac – Explain relevant organizational efforts and future plans
  8. Choreographer – Connect teens with other staff and organizations
  9. Honest Broker – Establish feedback loops to respond to ideas
  10. Catalyst – Implement proposals as quickly as possible to show change happens

The passing of my very dear friend and wonderful colleague inspired this list of character traits. Pat Moore Harbour, PhD possessed them all. She served as the catalyst for my involvement with one of the Kettering Foundation’s Research Learning Exchanges that builds off her book, Community Educators: A Resource for Educating and Developing Our Youth

Contagious Curiosity

Given my dogmatic and persistent nature, I challenge the prevailing mindset of adults doing “to” and “for” youth. Pat and I had dozens of conversations where she showed such respect and curiosity about my approach that young people be recognized as wise community educators, influencing their peers as well as adults and the community at large. Instead of viewing youth as “under construction,” we often talked about our kinship with older colleagues who are committed to anti-ageist multi-racial collaboration. 

When discussing the concept of youth infusion – especially those under age 18 – in adult-run nonprofits and government agencies, Pat always was intrigued and honest. Her sense of possibility led her to emphasize the role of young people as “co-producers.” She embraced collaboration “with” youth – the key preposition and title of the recent book by David Mathews, founder of the Kettering Foundation (read more about WITH  here).

I was eager to discuss with Pat these two studies that conclude most adults lack her curiosity and interest in intergenerational interdependence. She would have shared her contagious optimistic outlook. 

Every conversation with Pat was a joy. Children laugh 300 times a day and the average for adults drops to only 15. She had me laughing and rethinking all the time.

Many of my closest friends and colleagues are not open to this concept of engaging with teens as genuine thought partners but I will not give up because of Pat’s spirit that will endure. How fortunate I am to carry Pat in my head and heart!

Photo credit: Dr. Pat Moore Harbour

Boost Your Org’s Talent Pool

Two film clips will challenge your thinking about the impact of intergenerational teamwork!

Xiuhtezcatl Martinez was in his mid-teens when his speech in Washington, DC to protest construction of the Keystone Pipeline XL captivated my attention. Now age 21, he has built his own leadership pipeline, as youth director of Earth Guardians and acclaimed hip hop artist. It is no surprise this multi-talented activist is one of the youth plaintiffs in a landmark climate lawsuit.

This pending case claims the federal government’s actions “violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty and property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources.”

This is a trailer for Youth v Gov, a documentary on Netflix.

In the new documentary Youth v Gov on Netflix, you will meet 20 other plaintiffs who joined this case back in 2018. Each individual has gained a repertoire of talents, for example, the youngest plaintiff Levi, now 14, appeared on 60 Minutes

Many teens get involved trying ‘to right a wrong’ as very young children. Many start volunteering in their community or do a service-learning project which can lead to what I describe as the pistachio nut habit: once you get a taste for activism, you want to do more.

Idealism and impatience — traits that fade with age — lead young people to test dozens of ways to recruit diverse allies, promote their cause, build coalitions, present effective testimony to elected officials, etc. Real world hands-on learning is remarkable and fast.

Truly a Win-Win

Civic spark plugs like Xiuhtezcatl Martinez (pictured above at the podium outside the US Supreme Court) have mind-boggling skills. But each of the other plaintiffs contribute unique talents that accrue at a phenomenal clip. Each experience, including legal setbacks, fuels new learning and strategic thinking that benefit the cause.

The impact of intergenerational interdependence on older people deserves more attention. Youth v Gov reveals how younger minds oxygenate and augment adult-run organizations. Watch these two short clips from the documentary.  

  • Can you imagine this level of intergenerational camaraderie at a future retreat of your organization? (Cue to 10:30 – 13:26)
  • Can you visualize the senior leadership team being so energized by their collaboration with a solid cadre of young colleagues? (Cue to 1:27:39 – 1:28:18) 

No Attrition or Burnout

One common concern is that it’s not worth collaborating with young people because they will move on within a few months. Often the opposite is true. Genuine respect, authentic collaboration, and new dynamic opportunities increase the odds for long-term commitment.

It’s been seven years since filing Juliana v. United States by Our Children’s Trust. The staying power of these 21 plaintiffs persists. Adversity often strengthens resolve.

Recently the four plaintiffs from Florida initiated a statewide petition for renewable energy that resulted in a proposed regulation that was announced last month at a news conference with two of these activists. Many of these individuals are building their own leadership pipelines that will last a lifetime.

UPDATE West Virginia v. EPA decision:

Our Children’s Trust issued a news release on 6/30/22 that the US Supreme Court’s ruling to limit the Environmental Protection Agency regulatory authority over carbon dioxide pollution does not affect its federal or state youth-led climate lawsuits.

If anything, today’s ruling further demonstrates how important these children’s constitutional climate lawsuits are to address the deadly effects of our government-sanctioned fossil fuel-based energy system.

Photo Credit: Our Children’s Trust

Please share your thoughts and also let us know how your organization is infusing the youngest generations in its work. Call 301-785-1702 or contact us!

You Might Like…

Elsewhere Online

10 Reasons to Work with Young Researchers to Generate Solid Data

This survey and analytical process provide a stellar example why young people are needed to help evaluate existing programs as well as shape policy deliberations and decisions.

Post-millennials, who never have operated in a world without the internet, are pros at using an array of social media platforms. Less recognized is that many are adept with various online options that promote collaboration. It is second nature for many Gen Zers to use Google Docs, Slack, Zoom, etc.

One skill-set boosted by these digital tools is Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR). It is no longer rare to see sophisticated data collection, analysis, and recommendations generated by this youth-led process. One driver of this trend is young people – especially minors –who know this advocacy strategy improves the odds that they will be taken seriously by the powers-that-be. 

Organizations, coalitions, and think tanks could benefit enormously by incorporating a YPAR strategy. Here are just a few reasons and the first one is the most valuable.

10 Reasons for YPAR

  1. To produce data that reveal potentially more honest responses from the most diverse generation ever; 
  2. To augment the expertise of professional researchers;
  3. To rethink typical survey questions and refine the language; 
  4. To deepen the qualitative and quantitative research skills of everyone involved;
  5. To use innovative dissemination strategies to reach target constituencies;
  6. To gather pertinent data to evaluate the effectiveness of programs, reassess priorities, and develop new initiatives; 
  7. To use data to strengthen the overall work and impact of your organization;
  8. To garner attention from the news media and policymakers;
  9. To save money since most employees and many consultants cost more than part-time young researchers; and
  10. To infuse young people – often the primary stakeholders – into the heart of your organization for the benefit of everyone

Formidable Skills Produce Pertinent Data

A first class example is Race to Learn by the Kentucky Student Voice Team (KSVT) based on 10,725 responses from 114 of Kentucky’s 120 counties. It was released during debate on state legislation to curb what is taught about race and ethnicity in the classrooms. 

Two excerpts reveal the integrity of their methodology, including an intentional strategy to include the most underrepresented students.

We designed our methods in consultation with our “Research Advisory Dream Team,” a group of adult allies with expertise in youth participatory action research (YPAR). We generated and refined our survey tool over the course of both asynchronous and synchronous sessions soon after the start of the 2021- 22 school year, and we did so in consultation with young people outside of our membership and with school and community-based educators throughout the state. 

The qualitative team analyzed the 23,094 responses to the six open-ended questions…the quantitative team analyzed 21 scaled questions. Our analysis included the identification of patterns in the data as we disaggregated it in order to compare the experiences of students of color and those of white students and make connections to what students were expressing in their open responses. From there, we were able to come to group consensus and prioritize some key data points and themes.

Race to Learn: Findings, Recommendations and Reflections from the Kentucky Student Voice Team’s Race, Ethnicity and School Climate Student Survey (March 2022)

Interspersed with the presentation of data are quotes by students that reflect a wide range of views but reinforce one finding that “46% of students report that their school needs to do more to confront racism.” Each of the recommendations drawn from the analysis deserves to be read in full (see page 13). 

There’s no doubt that the careful creation and wording of questions plus the dissemination through both formal and informal networks were what resulted in over 10K responses during only a two-week time frame. 

Model and Motive

The Kentucky Student Voice Team outlines its overarching goal on the first page of the report:

By operating as a transparent, inclusive, and collaborative team, and by documenting our process, we hope to provide a model for how young people and other stakeholders can act as citizen researchers to ensure more just and democratic schools and communities.

This research is a labor intensive undertaking, but young people like these Kentucky citizen researchers prove that the effort is worth it.

As you read about this impressive work, please share with us how your organization might infuse young people as interpreters of the grievances facing their generation and pragmatic solutions.

Additional Resources

For more information about the impact of intergenerational interdependence, contact us.

Attn Non-Profits: Five Recommendations for Anti-Racist Representation

Significant Youth Infusion is happening at this United Way in Seattle that is advancing beyond ‘youth voice.’

Back in 2002, I collaborated with United Way of America and co-authored Youth as Equal Partners which didn’t get much traction. Two decades later, there’s real reliance on young experts by the United Way of King County in Washington State. 

This prioritization of BIPOC youth can be traced to some tenacious Gen Z leaders who know firsthand that their grassroots organizations cannot compete or survive with the “Non-Profit Industrial Complex.” For over a year, the King County Youth Commission identified how voices of the historically excluded continue to be “devalued, dismissed and disregarded” and demand “a paradigm shift to dismantle this system that is so exploitative.”

We are tired of fighting for representation. It should be a given that the most impacted members of our community be given access to opportunities that are not only compensated but have actual decision-making power. 

Organization Seized the Opportunity to Collaborate with Youth

Typically young change makers guard their autonomy because they are distrustful and impatient with established institutions. In this case, these experienced young advocates are demanding systemic organizational transformation and fortunately, some equally committed staff at United Way share the same vision. An extensive 8-month research project by a team of young experts, who were paid about $25/hour by United Way’s Reconnecting Youth Initiative, generated Youth Tell All: Youth Centered Analysis on Youth Development in King County. 

Urgent, unequivocal, and uncompromising is how I would describe the eloquent young researchers who presented straightforward recommendations based on their in-depth interviews with nearly 40 Black, brown, Indigenous, and queer youth. 

Recommendation 1: Make young people integral to all decision-making, implementation, evaluation, and feedback processes.

Recommendation 2: It is vital to develop healthy and safe, as well as honest and consistent, relationships with young people.

Recommendation 3: Our decision-makers should represent our communities.

Recommendation 4: Build authentic relationships with our communities while centering the experiences of the people most affected.

Recommendation 5: Pay us for the ideas, time, labor, and leadership we contribute to your organization.

At this online presentation, the research team invited the executive director of the Seattle-based organization FEEST that lives by these five recommendations. High school students are involved at “a high level in strategic planning,” compensation is above $15/hour, and cardboard pizza has been replaced with nutritious Indigenous food in school cafeterias along with other significant wins.

Youth Tell All is not another report gathering dusk.  This spring, United Way of King County will begin a youth-led participatory grant process where youth will directly decide $100,000 funding to youth-identified priorities. 

When you work with young people, they provide feedback, and we realize they’re the product of the society we built. They have yet to be jaded and yet to be trained to mask what they’re feeling, so they are brutally honest. And when they’re brutally honest, they can call out where the discrepancies are in our work, so that we can listen to exactly where we need to and must make changes to better support youth.

Ruel Olanday, Jr. with United Way of King County

Influence is Inadequate

Read Youth Tell All  for a deeper understanding on how mainstream institutions, headed mostly by white adults, have the power to intentionally infuse young people into structures with real power to help produce lasting community change that benefits everyone.

These recommendations mean nothing if they are not acted on. The power of this report is that we did the research for you. From our Methods, all the way to our Glossary, which even includes related readings for you to deepen your understanding, the data is there. We interviewed the youth, we read the countless studies supporting our findings, and the youth led this project from the start to the finish.

The only thing that is left to do:

  • Pay the Youth who make it so your organization can thrive. This means Paying them with more than just experience, opportunities, or minimum wage. 
  • Give them decision-making power, not influence. This means making your decision-making processes so seamless that youth are already included from the start, and not when it’s time to “bring in the youth for feedback.”
  • Ensure that your organization, from staff, to board, represents the communities you serve.  Yes, this means hiring the same youth from your programs into these roles when they are ready! Yes, this means stepping down from a role that would best be served by a BIPOC community member. 
  • Mentor the Youth and develop safe, healthy, and honest relationships with them. This means giving them honest guidance, and not projecting your own trauma, or paternalistic feelings onto them and what you think they should be doing. 
  • Build authentic relationships with the communities you serve. This means all-year-round support, not just when your organization needs to check off a box for a grant deliverable.

Devan Rogers, Anti-Racist Community Organizer, and Abolitionist

Tracking Progress

More updates will follow here @ YouthInfusion.org on how United Way of King County is leading the way on authentic intergenerational interdependence to represent all constituencies in a county with over 2.25 million people.

Photo Credit: FEEST: Making Justice Irresistibly Delicious 


You Might Like…

Avoiding Roadblocks with Youth

Teens join an academic research team in creating survey questions that so far have generated over 350,000 responses.

Intergenerational Symbiosis?!?

Check out this innovative organization that succeeds at circumventing roadblocks that stop many nonprofits and agencies from pursuing substantive and sustained collaboration with those under age 18. 

One of those onerous challenges that I personally dealt with in graduate school was to get approval by the Institutional Review Board (IRB) to interview students about their experiences participating and advocating for restorative practices. An effective way to avoid this obstacle is to be explicit that young people are sharing their opinions, perspectives and ideas, not revealing their personal experiences. Because activities are determined to be of minimal risk to minors, no parent/guardian consent is required as in the case of this powerhouse organization.  

Associate Professor Tammy Chang at University of Michigan founded My Voice National Poll of Youth, a text-message platform that surveys youth and communities typically “invisible” to researchers. 

Dr. Chang includes teens on the academic research team to develop questions through an iterative writing and piloting process. “A reason why you have youth is because adults – including me as a physician – might think it is totally normal to ask a question but it could be really disturbing or damaging.” Her team is intentional in its participant pool: “We are not trying to get all student council presidents and valedictorians and that is why we use SMS that’s accessible to all.” 

One of her colleagues, 17-year-old Abby Frank, describes her role. 

I’m involved in the entire data collection process, brainstorming questions, coding responses, discussing outcomes and implications of research with the entire team…They are flexible and always ask what time frame works for my schedule. If I miss a meeting, I let them know in advance and then get caught up on what was discussed. 

In addition to carefully vetted questions that resonate with Gen Z, participants understand the big picture which is why over 350,000 responses have been generated so far.

  • REAL WORLD PURPOSE.  Clear explanation of why: “Our research team uses your responses to inform policymakers and community leaders in real-time about the needs and priorities of youth.”
  • AUTHENTICITY VALUED. “Tell us what you really think!”
  • CLEAR EXPECTATIONS.  Respond via text to 2-5 questions each week for 12 weeks in a row on a given topic
  • CONFIDENTIALITY.  All responses anonymous
  • COMPENSATION.  Gift cards
  • FEEDBACK LOOP.  Share summaries of opinions and interesting findings
  • NEW EXPERIENCES.  Continually offer unique opportunities

We create lots of opportunities. Get as many young people on our team – the answer is always YES! If they can come to one meeting or 100 meetings, every time they engage we are always learning something new. The secret sauce with My Voice is they understand our whole goal to uplift their voices in the spirit of generosity, trust, mutual respect. 

 –  Dr. Tammy Chang

The ongoing interactions and obvious rapport between this visionary leader and her younger colleagues are part of the magic. Dr. Chang makes intergenerational symbiosis look easy and actually, it is. After all, everyone regardless of age brings unique skills that have the potential to be inclusive, intergenerational and impactful as long as all of us are open and willing to figure out how to circumvent the age-based roadblocks.

You Might Like:

We’d love to hear how you are thinking about infusing young people in your organization.