"Illinois Youth Advisory Board Gives Me a Voice that Counts," Says Ja'Vaune

Posted October 17, 2017
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Blog illinoisyouthadvisoryboard 2017

This post is writ­ten by Ja’Vaune Jack­son, a found­ing mem­ber of the Illi­nois Youth Advi­so­ry Board and a mem­ber of the Casey Foundation’s Youth Advi­so­ry Coun­cil, which advis­es the Juve­nile Jus­tice Strat­e­gy Group. He cur­rent­ly lives in Peo­ria, Illi­nois, and is study­ing social work at Illi­nois Cen­tral Col­lege. He is pas­sion­ate about set­ting his sights high and going beyond what is asked of him.

By the age of 20, I had served five years on juve­nile pro­ba­tion, two years and three months in secure juve­nile facil­i­ties and a year in after­care with the Illi­nois Depart­ment of Juve­nile Jus­tice. When I was in the juve­nile jus­tice sys­tem, I had ideas about how to make the sys­tem bet­ter, but no way to share those ideas with lead­ers who could make a dif­fer­ence. My mem­ber­ship on the Illi­nois Youth Advi­so­ry Board changed that, empow­er­ing me and oth­ers as young lead­ers. Here’s how:

1. We are chang­ing the mean­ing of sys­tem involved.”

When I com­plet­ed after­care, I applied for and received a fel­low­ship that was cre­at­ed in 2016 to bring youth voice into the Illi­nois Depart­ment of Juve­nile Jus­tice. The fel­low­ship was spe­cial because it gave me a seat at the table with stake­hold­ers from the depart­ment, devel­op­ing a broth­er­hood with four oth­er youth and cre­at­ing an ongo­ing rela­tion­ship with depart­ment lead­ers. I learned about depart­ment poli­cies and prac­tices and how to com­mu­ni­cate my thoughts and ideas to lead­er­ship. I’m now involved in the juve­nile jus­tice sys­tem in a total­ly dif­fer­ent way: I have agency and a way to get my ideas heard.

2. We par­tic­i­pate in mean­ing­ful ways.

After my fel­low­ship, I became a found­ing mem­ber of the Illi­nois Depart­ment of Juve­nile Jus­tice Youth Advi­so­ry Board. We team up with depart­ment lead­ers, cor­rec­tion­al offi­cers, after­care agents and youth to reduce the num­ber of youth in facil­i­ties, with the goal of ulti­mate­ly elim­i­nat­ing all juve­nile facil­i­ties in Illi­nois. Board mem­bers are active par­tic­i­pants in staff meet­ings, speak with youth in facil­i­ties and work close­ly with after­care staff to improve their rela­tion­ships with youth. We also con­nect with our com­mu­ni­ty. For exam­ple, the board trav­eled to North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty School of Law and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go to meet with lawyers and stu­dents advanc­ing jus­tice reform. These activ­i­ties allowed us to share our opin­ions and learn about how juve­nile jus­tice sys­tem reform works.

3. We receive men­tor­ship and finan­cial support.

The board’s first coor­di­na­tor, Christo­pher Huff, was a great role mod­el. He is some­one who had been through the same sys­tem, fin­ished col­lege and is liv­ing a great life. He gave me a sense of hope that, after sys­tem involve­ment, you can work hard and make some­thing of your life in ways that you nev­er thought pos­si­ble. I’ve also met juve­nile jus­tice reform lead­ers through the board who have helped me fig­ure out what I want to do with my life, broad­ened my under­stand­ing of juve­nile jus­tice and been there for me when I’ve had per­son­al issues. More con­crete­ly, the Illi­nois Depart­ment of Juve­nile Jus­tice sup­ports board mem­bers through a stipend and pro­vi­sion of trans­porta­tion to and from events relat­ed to the board’s work.

4. We are build­ing struc­tures to keep our work going.

One of our first projects was to cre­ate a mech­a­nism to hold board mem­bers and depart­ment lead­er­ship account­able for the com­mit­ments made to youth in Illi­nois’ juve­nile jus­tice sys­tem. We’ve estab­lished that struc­ture, and now we are writ­ing a fundrais­ing let­ter to sus­tain the board, and we’re work­ing with Youth Out­reach Ser­vices in Chica­go to broad­en our reach and make the board stronger.

5. We work to over­come challenges.

One of our biggest chal­lenges has been the loss of mem­bers due to life changes and per­son­al strug­gles. When our board was down to only two mem­bers, we had to work extra hard to fill in the gaps. We made sure we had a strong line of com­mu­ni­ca­tion with depart­ment lead­ers in order to keep the board rel­e­vant. Our part­ners at the Vera Insti­tute of Jus­tice helped guide us through this tough time. Ulti­mate­ly, by ensur­ing every after­care spe­cial­ist had the board appli­ca­tion, so they could active­ly recruit youth, we were able to add two new members.

I have faced the chal­lenge of know­ing that one day I must move on. I’ve been a part of this board for so long, it’s hard know­ing that one day I won’t be able to be as hands-on. But the board has helped me con­nect with juve­nile jus­tice reform­ers in my com­mu­ni­ty, so I know I can con­tin­ue this work. I’m con­fi­dent that the depart­ment will open its doors to new board mem­bers, just as they did for me and oth­er youth in the past.

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