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July | August 2015

Youth Strengthen Their Leadership Skills at Coalition for Juvenile Justice Summit

Keynote speaker, Theo Shaw, community advocate with the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Keynote speaker, Theo Shaw, community advocate with the Southern Poverty Law Center. Photo courtesy of Megan Nibley, Coalition of Juvenile Justice.

Theo Shaw, keynote speaker at the Coalition for Juvenile Justice (CJJ) Youth Summit, an event cosponsored by OJJDP, was barely 2 minutes into his address when he stopped suddenly, breaking down in quiet sobs. He had been reading a poem written by one of the youth he visited in prison.

“This isn’t just work from the head; this is work from the heart,” said Marie Williams, CJJ executive director, taking to the podium briefly to stand alongside Shaw while he gathered himself.

Williams did not have to say much by way of explanation to the youth attendees in the room. Some of them had been system involved themselves; one had been released from jail the day before the summit. They all understood the intense passion that often goes into the work of advocating for youth in the system, and they had come from all over the country with a common mission—to learn how they could become better advocates and leaders.

Shaw is an exemplar of that mission. As a defendant in the “Jena 6” case, he spent 8 months in an adult jail pretrial. “I filed motion after motion after motion,” he said, all of which were denied, but the experience “gave me hope because it meant that I was communicating in their language.”

During his detention, Shaw gained firsthand experience of the plight of youth within the system. In his address, Shaw spoke passionately about the perils of solitary confinement, telling attendees that a lot of youth held in solitary confinement have intellectual and other disabilities that are exacerbated by the harsh treatment they receive. He spoke about the sexual and physical abuse that some of the children in the adult jails he visited in Louisiana and Mississippi as a youth advocate faced. He also spoke of young people being detained without access to medical, mental health, or educational services; injustices he felt would be alleviated if they had access to competent legal representation while in confinement.

Despite all of the challenges, Shaw remains hopeful. “In being an advocate for our young people, I’ve learned very early the importance of holding on to our hope,” he said in closing.

left quoteThere’s no best practice for how to house kids in adult systems because kids don’t belong there.right quote

—Carmen Daugherty

  Policy director, Campaign for Youth Justice

Shaw plans to begin law school this fall.

The goal of the annual event, which took place in Washington, DC, on July 23–24, 2015, is to cultivate and empower a new generation of juvenile justice leaders.

Administrator Listenbee (right) and a summit participant engaged in a one-on-one discussion.
Administrator Listenbee (right) and a summit participant engaged in a one-on-one discussion. Photo courtesy of Megan Nibley, Coalition of Juvenile Justice.


In his welcome remarks, OJJDP Administrator Robert L. Listenbee urged the youth to continue to be engaged in their respective communities. “Use your voices to make clear what your goals and priorities are,” he said. “The world is ready to listen to you.”

The summit featured sessions on breaking down the pathways to the juvenile justice system; communicating effectively with legislators and policymakers; keeping young people out of adult courts, jails, and prisons; encouraging positive youth development; and organizing youth to identify issues and solve problems collectively.

The summit also afforded the 115 participants an opportunity to build peer networks and to learn from each other. When one youth expressed frustration about the tense relationship between the youth and police in his community, others shared strategies—such as scheduling weekly conversations among activists, police, school superintendents, and other stakeholders—they had adopted to improve relationships between youth and law enforcement in their own communities.

Administrator Listenbee embraces a youth participant.
Administrator Listenbee embraces a youth participant. Photo courtesy of Megan Nibley, Coalition of Juvenile Justice.

The youth, who ranged in age from 17 to 25, also had the opportunity to network with legislators and their staff when they visited Capitol Hill, and with professionals from the juvenile justice and other youth-serving systems when they took part in job-shadowing visits in the Washington, DC, area. A number of the youth visited OJJDP to shadow and learn from Administrator Listenbee and staff members Catherine Pierce, Scott Pestridge, Dennis Mondoro, Anna Johnson, Elizabeth Wolfe, Georgina Mendoza-McDowell, and Lyman Legters.

On the final day of the summit, the youth shared their lessons learned. “I learned how powerful our stories are,” one young man said, “and how sharing our stories can spark a movement.”


For more on DOJ’s work to improve relations between youth and law enforcement, read about the OJJDP-sponsored School Justice Collaboration Program: Keeping Kids in School and Out of Court Project and School Pathways to the Juvenile Justice System Project.