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In the Hands of Our Youth

Even before Youth Transforming Justice took on its current name, our nonprofit has always been one whose focus is on empowering youth. Our goal is to encourage young people to pursue what they are passionate about and make them feel empowered to have autonomy over their futures. In the last several years we have worked harder at providing youth progressively larger roles. From Peer Team Volunteers to youth leadership roles and Board advisory, we ensure that youth have a voice at every level within the YTJ community. Ultimately, we strive for, not only a youth-centered program but, a youth-led one.

So how do youth support teens that have been referred to the YTJ Peer Solutions program? After an initial family intake meeting with YTJ staff, a youth advocate is the next person who will meet with a youth respondent (teens referred for violating the law or school rules). Advocates are trained youth volunteers who who speak with them, not as superiors but, as peer supports. It is essential this relationship remains equal in order to align with our organizational values, and for the respondent to feel they have control over their journey through the program. During this peer-to-peer meeting, they will collaboratively create a recommended restorative plan outline to share with the Peer Team at the hearing. Each hearing has a Peer Team made up of similar-aged youth who will ask the respondent questions about both the incident that got them referred to the program, as well as questions about family, friends, school, drug use, interests and goals which will help give them a better picture of who the individual is as a person. Next, the Peer Team will come to a consensus about the restorative plan within the recommended range. If they believe a plan outside of that range would be more beneficial to the respondent, the team must confer with the respondent and their advocate and they must reach mutual agreement on any change. After receiving their restorative plan, there are a variety of options to complete community engagement hours. It is important that respondents have opportunities to do community work in areas they are interested in so that the experience is supportive rather than punitive. Each respondent will also serve on the Peer Team for future cases to help support future respondents.

A variety of student volunteers have interest in training with YTJ to become advocates. In addition, respondents who have recently come through the program often choose to continue their work with Peer Solutions after seeing it positively affect their own lives. Trainings are conducted almost exclusively by fellow youth volunteers with significant experience as advocates. During these trainings, youth will have the opportunity to learn more about the school-to-prison pipeline and the foundations of restorative and trauma-informed approaches, and also get to practice how to be someone's advocate within that restorative framework.Trainings have evolved over the years to make them more current and easy to follow. Many of these changes have been suggested and implemented by the youth trainers themselves.

YTJ has also developed a strong Youth Leadership Team. We pride ourselves on this opportunity being available to anyone interested to join. The Youth Leadership Team includes volunteers with all different levels of experience, current and previous respondents and an age range of between 13-25. The Youth Leadership Team also includes involvement from YTJ staff and members of the advisory board and all decisions are made together in an effective youth-adult partnership. It is important to hear perspectives from all backgrounds when making decisions for a program that has such a wide impact on so many people.

Youth are the driving force behind our name and organization's establishment. So we strive for young people to have a strong voice at every level of the organization. Young people have the invaluable perspective, creativity and ability to innovate which is fundamental to YTJ's ability to effectively run and improve our programs. We thank all of our supporters who make it possible for us to provide so many youth with an authentic voice so they feel empowered to create change.

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