A Road Less Traveled….

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

By Howard Knoll, Senior Director, Casey Family Programs

Families who take seasonal driving trips often fall into two categories—those who want to get to their destination in the quickest time and those who want to take the “scenic route” and don’t consider time something to be conquered.

In philanthropy, it is easy to view ourselves as those who want to get to our destination in the most direct way. We are often knowledgeable about the issues and rely on nonprofit organizations to do the work and show results in a timely manner. This summer, a group of foundations that make up the New York Juvenile Justice Initiative decided to step back, take a “leap of faith,” and take a “road less traveled.” We asked ourselves this question: “How can foundations create organizational structures that support a youth voice in our work?” We can by engaging youth—so that we can look at particular issues through the lens of someone who has been personally impacted. This is not news to service providers, but it may be a developing area of work for foundations. And engaging foundation leaders so that they can develop that process step in their grantmaking can positively influence their perspectives on grants and awards.

The New York Juvenile Justice Initiative (NYJJI) created a paid internship for a small contingent of juvenile justice-involved young adults who had participated in another internship program run by the nonprofit Exalt Youth. That program taught them to connect with adults and also built their skills and employability. Exalt’s infrastructure model was a logical place for us to turn for this project.

Over the course of eight weeks, the seven young people who now made up the Initiative’s “Youth Advisory Council” had a demanding schedule of appointments. Using structured questions developed by the Council, interviews were held with key leaders of the child welfare system, fellow foundations, and government leaders.

At the end of the summer, the Council held a meeting with NYJJI at the New York Foundation where we learned their key recommendations. The most compelling ones were:

The Juvenile Justice System needs to be more open about how to handle youth that are involved in the system. Unfortunately, many leave not understanding the consequences that follow their decisions.”

“I personally think…the law of 16-year-olds [being] charged as adults needs to be changed.”

“The adults who work with youth should be trained with new skills.”

Underdeveloped communities need to have more family-based programs to help with problems and parent-child relationships.”

More programs where young people can work, learn, and contribute [like] the Youth Council.”

What struck all of us was that the Council members zeroed in on prevention (as a key issue and policy reform), “raising the age,” and improving the quality of care for youth detained in the juvenile justice system.

What also left an impression was the development of individual Youth Council members over the summer: their confidence and communication skills; learning how to lead and participate in a meeting; working as part of a team and their growing comfort with adults and with diverse points of view. The experience did shape them and several Youth Council members reflected on how it will impact their pursuit of education when they return to school.

The Youth Council sensed what we had been hearing from others: that the juvenile justice system needs to evolve to a more community-based system built on prevention first and services for those young people needing aftercare. Their confirmation of this, through their comments and personal experiences, afforded us an opportunity to consider policy implications and a more long-range view of grantmaking going forward.

We are now considering options to sustain their work through the school year and to build on the lessons learned. As one Youth Council member suggested, “Understand that you are part of a larger change.” We are beginning to get there!

Howard Knoll has over 27 years of experience and direct practice with senior-level youth services management. He has worked in community-based settings (21 years with the Stanley Isaacs Neighborhood Center) and workforce development organizations (Arbor Education and Training), combined with his national work as Director of Youth Services Region I at the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment & Training Administration. Mr. Knoll holds a Master’s Degree in Social Work and is a 2004 Lewis Hines Award winner for his contributions during his career in youth services.

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