Home News Center YJLI Fellow Kiana Calloway Mentors Youth to Own their Leadership and Create Change

YJLI Fellow Kiana Calloway Mentors Youth to Own their Leadership and Create Change

February 15, 2023

Quote: Justice is

YJLI Profile: Kiana Calloway, He/Him/His 

Artist Activist & Reentry Navigating Community Organizer 

What got you into youth justice reform? 

Being impacted by systems. As a Black, underprivileged youth with no voice, I've witnessed first-hand how degrading systems can be. I feel I'll be doing myself a disservice if I don't use my past to fuel my passion. [I want to make sure] I am an intricate vessel in the implementation of the new youth reform movement taking place because our kids have been silenced for a long time. Working with the young men [that I work with] - I see how powerful they are. [They are] intellectual [and] intuitive; I definitely want to amplify their voices. 

What are some examples of the work that you've done in the community? 

There are many examples, but I think the most important investment for me was the 2018 “Yes on 2” campaign which was to end Jim Crow's last stance here in Louisiana by changing the non-unanimous jury initiative. Too many young black men are in prison right now for not having fair and just trial proceedings, and it really shows. In that campaign I was a regional director covering 14 southern parishes in the state, such as Terrebonne Parish, Lafourche Parish, Jefferson Parish, Orleans. [I] spent hours just getting that word out, advocating and organizing. With the collaborative coalition of organizations across the state, we passed that initiative over 70%, which is one of the highest voting ballot initiatives here in Louisiana. 

That campaign experience made me wake up at 6:00 o'clock in the morning and go to bed at 3:00 o'clock in the morning figuring out strategic ways to get information to our constituents, our community, and our people who have been impacted by these systems. And it worked. I believe that style of organizing is huge, and I felt like that was huge for me because I know for a fact that I registered over 3,000 people, including formerly incarcerated people, so that they can cast their ballot and. It worked and it shows that people have power. It shows that the numbers are huge and if we can do it once, we can continue to do it. 

Being able to engage young people in the work is something many of our members are thinking through. What are some of the lessons you’ve learned as you work with young people in activism? 

We have to listen. During the "Yes, on 2” campaign, we put together collegiate listening sessions and teachings. In the listening sessions, we would have elected officials, community leaders, and activists listening to what young people had to say. Secondly, we had teaching sessions where we explained to young people what we're doing in the campaign. A lot of these youth are dealing with unresolved trauma due to having a family member who was impacted by these systems, so that brings with it a strong sense of will and a strong sense of understanding and ownership of the issue, because they can relate. 

I look for ways to give young people ownership so they can think, “This is my job” and have that sense of ownership over something. They may have their own style of organizing or activism, but whatever style, I want them to rock it with swag. Being able to allow young people to have ownership in the work let’s the work become sustainable. They have ownership in moving it forward so that they can take the lead and stand on our shoulders. 

Can you tell us about your advocacy project for YJLI?  

My advocacy project for YJLI is amplifying youth voices in Louisiana. Being able to control the narrative in Louisiana is huge. So “Amplifying Youth Voices, Louisiana” is  a legislative advocacy action that will allow young people to speak truth to power by sharing their experiences, being able to use their creative skills to develop the narrative change aimed toward changing the hearts and minds of our policymakers. 

Having young people testify and share their stories in those legislative chambers is powerful. I have been personally participating in our Louisiana legislation for seven years now, and I've never seen a room shake up the way that it shook up when two impacted young men testified against the unlawful use of solitary confinement of youth under the care of the Department of Corrections. When they told their stories, it sucked all the air out of the room and made our conservative Republican representatives really open their eyes. It really showed that impacted youth are our experts, and they need to have a voice. The youth who spoke during that specific session are two young men that I'm mentoring now. Those are two leaders that you can’t “make.” We just have to sharpen up their tools and figure out how to get them in positions where they can start learning advocacy and organizing lessons that will also help them in their everyday life. Both young men recently got accepted into a Marshall Ganz organizing training, and I think that will be huge. It's not just them, but these are the two I believe can start the process. My job right now is to help sharpen these young minds by assisting me in the process of assisting them.  

What motivates you?  

Waking up every morning energizes me to do this work. My boots are on the ground. I'm in the trenches, getting my nails dirty, but I know I'm doing much needed work. I believe that starving my distractions and feeding my focus is key. Through our youth peer support groups, I'm instilling those very same attributes in those young men. I understand the system wasn't built for people who look like me. However, many pioneers have shed blood, sweat and tears for me to continue this movement, and I'll be doing myself a disservice if I don't give everything that I have in this space. 

My past has been victimized by unlawful convictions, collusion, trials, lies, cover-ups all by the hands of men. The system is man made. The system took away everything that I had - Every dream, every ambition that I had growing up was just robbed away and taken away from me. So, my motivation is to make sure that another Kiana doesn’t have to endure that. I thank God for this opportunity. On this day 12 years ago, I was incarcerated. I have survived the dark spaces, everything else is on light. I'm trying to walk in prosperity and remain humble, positive and well-healing because every day is a healing process for me. I have to. There are things I don't speak about but can't forget. There are things that I've seen that can never be erased out of my mind all behind what man did? I just continue to stay focused and stay rooted in what I do, how I do it, and how I act with my young guys or anyone that I see in the street. I open doors, say good morning, give hugs, and give handshakes. It's a beautiful day, so life motivates me.

What Is your dream youth justice vision? 

My dream vision of youth justice is where every child is treated as a child. Where every household has three hot meals a day and every child has a safe place to blossom into their true authentic selves. I envision a youth system that's inclusive and willing to go that extra mile to identify and address the many unresolved layers of trauma that causes our young men and women to stray away. Because that's what disconnects them from life.  

I envisioned a system that's based on values of trustworthiness and honesty, not just on numbers. We are in 2023 and we're still dealing with convict leasing. We're still dealing with involuntary servitude - working people to bone for bare minimum. I envision a place where time is valued, and dreams are being supported through the very same democracy that those youths will eventually participate in. 

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