“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.
Countywide Juvenile Justice Commission
Shelby County Youth Council Youth Voice Report
Photo Credit: ABC24