After eighteen years of being an active program, we have had hundreds of youth volunteers. Every year we welcome more whether they are former respondents or have heard of our program in other ways. This creates a diverse mix of youth volunteers who have been involved for three months or three years. Adjacent to our forming of the official board, we were slowly creating our Youth Leadership Team. And just like the Youth Transforming Justice Board, our diverse group of teens involved in leadership has led us to make big strides in the last couple of years.
Directors Don Carney and Julie Whyte knew that having an organized way of youth being involved in the decision-making process was important. In the past, the majority of decisions were made exclusively by adult superiors with unclear ways of submitting youth input. So since the start of our independent transition, we have made sure to include the Youth Leadership Team in every step of our development. The team has biweekly meetings with directors and adult staff to gain their input on decisions being made. In addition, team members have suggested new ideas that have materialized as a result. “we discussed implementing introduction questions that all participants answer at the beginning of the hearing to build a community of support. A few weeks later I was able to see this component be added to the Peer Solutions program,” youth leadership member Kalyani Ryaru says. The alterations to our terminology in our Peer Solutions script as well as shifts in our program processes were pioneered by our youth members. Last summer, the team assisted in the facilitation of a workshop at the California Association of Youth Courts Annual Summit.
In July of this year, they facilitated a virtual advocate training. This training was an opportunity for volunteers that have joined us in the last year to be trained as advocates to help further support our respondents and increase their involvement with the program. Advocate trainings have always been a component of our program, but have often been planned and facilitated by staff or senior volunteers. This was one of the first times that youth of any age or experience level had a role in this event.
Youth power is not held within the confines of who is on the Leadership Team. We try to make the team as accessible as possible by having no application process and instead making it a voluntary position. Regardless, we acknowledge that many of our volunteers may not have the ability to attend an additional meeting every other week. For that reason, any volunteer who has the interest is able to contribute content to our social media and website for their voices to be heard. Youth Transforming Justice expands the power of shared decision making to all youth involved in the program. “Having a space where my opinions are heard and really taken into account is a unique and empowering experience for me and many other youth volunteers,” Ryaru says.