“Don’t throw them away because the system already threw them away.” This quote from Keynote Speaker, Mysonne “The General”, resonated with the mission of our Youth Justice Summit.
On Wednesday, May 22nd, Our Piece of the Pie hosted a Youth Justice Summit, bringing together community leaders, mentors, young people and OPP staff to take a deep dive into justice reform by highlighting the true injustices of the justice system and how these injustices impact youth of color. The Summit took place at Capitol Community College and showcased five different speakers and a panel of young people to share their personal experiences with the justice system. Special thank you to The Tow Foundation and FHI60 for helping us make this event possible!
Our keynote speaker was Mysonne “The General”, a rapper and youth justice advocate. Mysonne spoke about how the justice system is broken and targeting young people, especially young people of color, something he knows a lot about after being misidentified in a line-up and spending seven years of his life wrongfully behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit. Mysonne urged not only young people, but the adults in their lives, to begin to make a change. Reflecting on the experiences of past generations, Mysonne exclaimed, “As a man, if you allow your children to go through the same things you went through, you are not a man. I am a cheat sheet for your life, look at what I do, and learn from the mistakes I made.” He also emphasized how important programs like OPP are, and how as a community, we need to take steps to help better justice involved youth.
Dr. Maysa Akbar gave a presentation on the effect of Urban Trauma on life. Living in urban environments have many effects on the progress and the priorities of young people. Dr. Akbar’s presentation was focused on empowering young people to help break through barriers that might be seen as too difficult at first. Urban youth often feel an increase in self-doubt, fear of failure, and lack of support, this leads to a strong decrease in employment and wealth. Perseverance was a big message in Dr. Akbar’s presentation. Being a young person involved in special education until grade six, Dr. Akbar did not have a lot of adults who supported her and pushed her to her full potential. Dr. Akbar realized her own potential which has led her to becoming a professor at Yale. One of the more impactful pieces of her presentation was focused on people of color being seen and believing in themselves. “Don’t ever let somebody tell you that you’re not seen. Don’t let anyone tell you didn’t come from a line of Kings or Queens.” The sense of pride associated with being from a line of royalty can help to encourage self-confidence in people from urban communities. It helps to level out the playing field in people’s minds.
Dr. Danielle Cooper from the TOW Youth Justice Institute presented on Youth Injustice in our community and stories like Kalief Browder, a young black man who was jailed for three years awaiting a trial for a crime he didn’t commit. The amount of stress incurred during this time had the worst possible effect on Kalief’s life, two years after he was released, he took his own life. Dr. Cooper focused on this story to help show the inconsistencies and inequities in the Justice System. Dr. Cooper also identified nine different layers of injustice that took place during the Browder incident, he was targeted with stop and frisk, the bail system increased his bail forcing him unable to be let out on bail, his confinement conditions were unconstitutional, there were numerous incidents of misconduct by his correctional officers, Browder was placed in solitary confinement for a large amount of his time behind bars, his right to a speedy trial were infringed upon by the overbooked court systems, lastly, there is no way to get this time back, and civil litigation does not allow for his family to collect reparations for the loss of Kalief. Kalief’s story and stories like his are too common in America, organizations like Our Piece of the Pie are working to try to help families in these situations and similar situations too.
Some OPP youth were given their chance to speak during a lunch panel. This was one of the most influential parts of the day. Salvatore, Kamari, Nazareen, and Frederick took their turns sharing their stories. When asked about the resources that were the most helpful to these young people as they reintegrated into the community, they all had similar answers: someone. They needed someone, they needed guidance, they needed support, they needed someone to believe in them, they needed someone to trust in them, they needed someone they could confide in. Frederick talked about the relationship he built with his YDS. “She called me and told me I had a paycheck because I had been procrastinating three days in a row. When I got there, I had no paycheck and she scolded me about where I had been and what I had been doing. That’s the little stuff I am talking about that I don’t get at home and it really helps us.”
Kamari provided her insight on what other help might be needed when assisting these young people. “Anger management classes and support, we need it all. I need anger management because I’ve been through something. We need everything right now, because there is a lot of kids that’s going through a lot of things that people don’t know or might not understand. There’s a lot of deep stuff in people’s lives that took a toll on them and made them take different steps in their lives go to things that they didn’t want to go to.”
Sal added in saying, “We need more OPP. If we have more OPP, you will see less youth going into the justice system. We need more amazing staff, we need more everything, we need as much help as we can get.”
Nazareen had high praise for Our Piece of the Pie, exclaiming, “Big shout out to OPP! I don’t know how they did it, but they turn water into wine over there. They were able to coach me down the path of what I should be and who I am showing. And that is two different paths that I didn’t realize.”
Spending the day learning about the theoretical, the youth panel gave attendees a chance to hear about the practical, the day to day of young people affected by the justice system.
Dr. Wendy Waithe Simmons and Camara Stokes Hudson from CT Voices for Children presented on the school to prison pipeline and the exclusionary practices that are used that have a huge impact of the trajectory of school children. There are many indicators that Dr. Simmons and Ms. Hudson presented, including academic achievement and suspensions at a young age that can predict the probability of a kid being incarcerated. They dove into school data across the state to see what communities are being hit the hardest by the school to prison pipeline, and what steps we can take to make our state better. These disturbing trends are visible even at the earliest stages with 48% of preschool students who are suspended more than once being black. By increasing pay and training of teachers, we can try to inhibit this trend from continuing.
Matthew Sagacity Walker discussed how to create change through community dialogue using Everyday Democracy’s approach. Walker had attendees interact at their tables to find pieces of similarity between tablemates. This also helped to garner a foundation between the participants before more sensitive topics are discussed. The discussion heard around the room was focused on ways to make people feel more comfortable in their communities. Often the outsider’s idea of how a community is can have a negative connotation because of the media portrayal or the ignorance of the community as a whole. Working in Hartford, it is important to look at people more as individuals instead of looking at them through a lens of a Hartford resident. Everyday Democracy is a nonprofit focused on creating positive change through facilitating conversations.
Our Youth Justice Summit was just the start. Bringing together community members of power in their own respects, was an instrumental piece of starting, however more work can be done. To find out about how you can help out more, or if you have questions about youth justice, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org or go to opp.org