Home News Center Those Most Affected by Systems of Oppression Should Lead Reform, Says YJLI Fellow Kenya Lee

Those Most Affected by Systems of Oppression Should Lead Reform, Says YJLI Fellow Kenya Lee

February 27, 2019
Courtney McSwain




What got you into youth justice reform?  

I have always been passionate about youth justice reform because I come from a community with high rates of incarceration and I know the impact it has on youth. However, I also come from a community that, until very recently, prosecuted youth ages 16 and 17 as adults in the criminal justice system as opposed to as the juveniles that they are. Hence, my career began focused on youth in the criminal, rather than, juvenile justice system. 

 
My first job was working in the New York State Legislature where I became increasingly frustrated with the laws for criminal justice and how they were affecting 16-24 years old.  It became really clear to me that treating 16 and 17 years old as adults, as opposed to the youth that they are, is the reason we continue seeing recidivism. This lead me to get involved with a campaign in New York City called Raise the Age, geared toward raising the age of criminal responsibility from age 16 to 18. As I started working in Legislative Affairs at the New York City Department of Probation, I could foresee Raise the Age becoming a reality and the impact it would have on youth under probation supervision. I started positioning myself to have an impact on reducing the educational barriers facing youth involved in the juvenile justice system. 

Tell us about your advocacy project.   

My advocacy project is to increase educational outcomes of youth under probation supervision by equipping probation officers and staff with the tools needed to identify educational challenges, increase access to educational services, and develop training resources. There is plenty of research on the need for educational services for the community supervision population. However, it often focuses on reentry-education models for youth in confinement—that is, creating a seamless pipeline from a detention center to educational providers out in the community. I felt there wasn’t a model that addressed people under the probation community supervision umbrella. For youth who fall under community supervision, who are not sentenced to prison or detention, what type of model exists to ensure probation departments can also help them advance their educational outcomes?  
 
was inspired by the Federal U.S. Department of Education’s 2015 report, which included reentry model mapped out with a diagram and an infrastructure for institutions and organizations to adopt.  I’d like my advocacy project to be the New York City version of that, with an internal website that lists community providers; research and policy around advancing educational outcomes for those who are being supervised in the community; a SWOT analysis of the unique challenges facing this population; and educational media – stories and videos – that highlight the success of court-involved youth in achieving higher education.   
 

What motivates you?  

For better or for worse, I’m motivated by the challenges that exist already. I’m disheartened by some of the laws and the status quo that we have right now. There isn’t enough representation of people who have actually been through the system creating policies for youth justice reform. But that motivates me, because it means there’s so much opportunity to innovate and create change. 
 
Innovative leaders also motivate me. My Commissioner is a fierce juvenile justice advocate. She’s been at this work a long time as an attorney and a principal for a school for court-involved youth; I would not be able to raise my hand and say we need an education unit, and I’d like to direct it, if I wasn’t behind an ambitious, innovative leader that gets it.  

What’s your dream youth justice vision?   

My dream would be that people most affected by systems of inequality and oppression truly get to be the architects of those systems’ redesign.  
 
In college, I was on the first youth partnership team for America’s Promise – the children’s advocacy organization founded by Colin Powell and Bill Clinton. was privileged to be selected, flown to Washington, D.C., and challenged to think about policy reform. When I joined, I was one of a few youth from the inner city whose family had direct experience with the things we were advocating for—funding for S-CHIP, State Health Insurance Program funding, education, etcIn a small way, we had an impact on micro grants and other funding opportunities. A decade later, as a professional in criminal and juvenile justice I see the same pattern. It’s also important to have people affected by the criminal justice system and the juvenile justice system making funding decisions. 
 
We are at a critical point in justice reform as leadership diversifies all across this country. We can continue to have conferences and “think” pieces highlighting someone very successful and vocal about justice reform or we can begin to see those truly affected by the system become legislators, heads of agencies or heads of budget negotiations. So that’s my true dream: that those affected will be the architects of change.  

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