Mentors Build Meaningful Connections With Youth in Washington, D.C.

Posted July 15, 2019
Credible Messengers with the Washington, D.C., Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services

Clin­ton Lacey has a mantra: The answer is in the community.”

These words appear on T‑shirts and writ­ten mate­ri­als for the Wash­ing­ton, D.C., Depart­ment of Youth Reha­bil­i­ta­tion Ser­vices (DYRS). As direc­tor of DYRS, which par­tic­i­pates in the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juve­nile Deten­tion Alter­na­tive Ini­tia­tive®, Lacey inte­grates this mantra into his every­day work — includ­ing the department’s Cred­i­ble Mes­sen­ger Initiative.

The pro­gram pairs every youth under its super­vi­sion with spe­cial­ly trained adult men­tors from the com­mu­ni­ty. These paid men­tors — called cred­i­ble mes­sen­gers — have lived through sim­i­lar expe­ri­ences and under­stand the sup­port and ser­vices that youth in jus­tice sys­tems need.

The pres­ence of a con­sis­tent, car­ing adult with shared expe­ri­ences can make the dif­fer­ence in help­ing a young per­son get on the path toward a pos­i­tive future,” says Nate Balis, direc­tor of the Foundation’s Juve­nile Jus­tice Strat­e­gy Group. If jus­tice sys­tems are to pro­mote youth well-being and com­mu­ni­ty safe­ty, build­ing com­mu­ni­ty con­nec­tions is essential.”

Since launch­ing the pro­gram in 2015, DYRS has con­nect­ed 474 youth and fam­i­lies with cred­i­ble mes­sen­gers. Twice a week, the men­tors host youth for a hot meal and a group out­ing, such as a paint­ball ses­sion or go-kart rac­ing. Cred­i­ble mes­sen­gers also employ their knowl­edge of com­mu­ni­ty dynam­ics and resources to help young peo­ple achieve goals, like find­ing a job, advanc­ing their edu­ca­tion or man­ag­ing every­day chal­lenges, such as con­flicts with parents.

Cred­i­ble mes­sen­gers went to the same high schools, are liv­ing in the same [hous­ing] project, the same neigh­bor­hood, may have grown up with a sin­gle par­ent. They were able to nav­i­gate those cir­cum­stances,” says pro­gram man­ag­er Charles Dot­son. When a young per­son says, You just don’t under­stand,’ cred­i­ble mes­sen­gers can say, Yes, I do.’”

Lever­ag­ing com­mu­ni­ty con­nec­tions is not a new con­cept, Dot­son points out. In every field, there are peo­ple who have shared life expe­ri­ence,” he explains. If you’re going through surgery, you talk to some­one else who’s had surgery; wound­ed vet­er­ans talk to [troops] com­ing back home. We are just hav­ing peo­ple who have had sim­i­lar expe­ri­ences advis­ing youth.”

A young person’s men­tor is often the first per­son he or she calls when in need, accord­ing to Dot­son. Acces­si­bil­i­ty is key. We don’t turn our phones off at 5 p.m.,” he says.

After they are hired, cred­i­ble mes­sen­gers must com­plete an inten­sive five-day train­ing on cog­ni­tive behav­ioral ther­a­py, bound­aries, work­ing as a team, trau­ma, self-care and safe­ty in the com­mu­ni­ty. As active men­tors, they can attend sup­port group ses­sions or com­plete month­ly train­ings on top­ics such as sex traf­fick­ing, emo­tion­al intel­li­gence and youth development.

The City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York’s John Jay Col­lege of Crim­i­nal Jus­tice is cur­rent­ly eval­u­at­ing the pro­gram, which is mod­eled after pro­grams such as Home­boy Indus­tries in Los Ange­les, The Men­tor­ing Cen­ter in Oak­land and Arch­es Trans­for­ma­tive Men­tor­ing in New York City.

Learn more about the cred­i­ble mes­sen­ger program

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