October is Youth Justice Action Month—YJAM—an annual observance that’s all about action on behalf of—and with—America’s young people. OJJDP takes the word “action” very seriously. Action can change lives.
YJAM is especially significant for OJJDP because justice for youth is the motivation for everything we do. We are committed to ensuring their welfare and providing opportunities and tools that expand their chances for success. We work to enhance and reform the juvenile justice system—to rid it of racial and ethnic disparities, for example, and achieve equity for all. And we are committed to listening to and learning from youth with firsthand experience of the juvenile justice system—to hearing their insights on what works, what doesn’t, and why.
OJJDP is cohosting YJAM 2023 with the Coalition for Juvenile Justice and the National Juvenile Justice Network—CJJ and NJJN. Our first event—a kickoff webinar on October 3—centered on the wisdom young people bring to conversations about the challenges youth face.
Alani Rouse, NJJN’s Youth Program Organizer, described her start in youth advocacy at age 17, after numerous encounters with the juvenile justice and mental health systems. She found her voice and she discovered it mattered, she said.
“I learned how to advocate for myself. I learned how to host roundtable discussions and events with elected officials, and I’m now here as the youth organizing manager with NJJN, which is one of the organizations that was integral in the process for me,” she said. “So it’s a full-circle moment.” When asked to share tips for others looking to host youth roundtables or grow their youth involvement, she offered several, including:
- Be intentional. You can find young people everywhere, so look for them. Invite them to be involved and to speak out. “You might be responsible for helping to facilitate somebody’s genius,” she said.
- Be honest about your organization’s goals and what you hope youth will contribute, and give them space “to be their whole selves,” she said. “I know there have been moments and opportunities where I have felt uncomfortable because I didn’t feel like my whole self was welcome. And so when you make it known to them that all of them is welcome—they can come in whatever they want to, they can wear whatever they want to, they can look how they want to—that makes them a lot happier to show up.”