Home News Center YJLI Fellow Sarah Yousuf Striving to Make the Law Accessible to Marginalized Communities

YJLI Fellow Sarah Yousuf Striving to Make the Law Accessible to Marginalized Communities

May 31, 2018
Josh Gordon

Sarah Yousuf is a 2017-18 fellow in NJJN's Youth Justice Leadership Institute (YJLI), a year-long program that clears a broad path for people of color to lead us toward justice system reform. YJLI seeks to elevate the leadership of people of color who know how to transform the oppressive systems harming communities of color.

Sarah is the Policy Director for United Congress of Community and Religious Organizations (UCCRO), where she advances bills that promote racial equity. Recently, Sarah was instrumental in passing a law that ended the practice of using police booking stations in Chicago schools. She is further working to stop the school-to-prison pipeline by lobbying for the passage of  SB 4208, a bill that is aimed at providing mental health services to young people in schools. Prior to working for UCCRO, she worked at Enlace Chicago, where she convened the Violence Prevention Collaborative, which included representatives from community-based organizations, local churches, the Chicago Police Department and Chicago Public Schools. Together, the collaborative addressed issues of gang violence within the community by organizing rallies, hosting community peace circles, and developing education campaigns to raise awareness of the resources available to community residents. Sarah also worked as a public defender for the Office of the Cook County Public Defender, where she represented parents whose children were removed by the child welfare system. At the California Innocence Project, she investigated innocence claims for incarcerated individuals. Sarah received her J.D. from California Western School of Law and her undergraduate degree from Loyola University Chicago.

Recently we had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Sarah about what drives her youth justice reform work and her dreams for a better future for young people.

What got you into youth justice reform?

I got into youth justice reform work because during my time as a public defender in the juvenile courthouse here in Chicago, I often saw kids enter the system and never leave. They were dealt a bad hand before they even left school and the extreme injustice of their situation left a mark on me. I hated that the youth I served were often seen as another number, another case, instead of being seen as human beings with specific needs.

Tell us about your advocacy project.

My advocacy project focuses on making the law accessible to marginalized communities. I have taken steps throughout the year to offer consultations to people who lack access to affordable attorneys. I am also offering community information sessions around youth justice and immigration issues, where community members can come and ask questions about these areas of law - along the lines of a Know-Your-Rights session. I’ve also built up a network of attorneys who can assist me in providing help to these residents. My hope is to provide the communities that I serve with access to the law that they would otherwise not possess.

What motivates you?  

Hands down, it's the people that I serve - knowing that i can make an impact, no matter how great or small, and empower someone who felt that they had no options previously. That realization is what keeps me going and serving others is what I am here on this earth to do.

What’s your dream youth justice goal?

I envision all youth having access to adequate mental health resources, where they are supported by systems, rather than punished by them. I’m working to create a system that views youth misbehavior through a public health lens, and treats the roots of the problem.  Our youth justice system must start treating youth with the humanity and dignity that is inherent to all people, regardless of race, religion, or immigration status. That is the dream that I am working towards, the dream that I dedicate myself to.

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