JCC Winter 2017This blog post includes personal testimonies from three Juvenile Justice Council (JJC) Members.

My name is Arianna Johnson I’ve been a part of Mikva’s Challenge’s  Juvenile Justice Council for almost  3 years now. Throughout these 3 years, The Juvenile Justice Council has made spectacular changes in regards to the juvenile justice system. Over the summer of 2017 the Juvenile Justice Council developed their recommendations around the focus question of “What does a juvenile justice system that is responsive to use look like?” That question sparked more questions and answers over the course of our 7 week think tank summer. We gathered information & data from Public Defenders, State Attorney’s, Judges, & even Juveniles. With that information we narrowed it down to 9 recommendations to present to President Toni Preckwinkle.

One of our recommendations for State Attorneys stated that “state’s attorney’s should have a toolkit of youth friendly language and activities, created by youth advocates, to utilize while working with their clients. Twice a year, state’s attorney’s should attend youth-led workshops; these workshops will offer tools and activities that can improve state’s attorney’s ability to engage youth.” After speaking with system-involved juveniles and hearing the experiences of system-involved young people in our council, it was brought to our attention that they did not feel comfortable or connected with the state’s attorney’s who were representing them. We believed that of state’s attorney’s committed to learning skills directly from young people, the barrier between them will start to break and a sense of trust can be gained. Ms.Toni Preckwinkle approved that recommendation and our council will be conducting a youth-lead training for State’s Attorney’s in the next coming months.  During the workshop we conducted for Public Defenders, we introduced several activities such as Personal values checklist, Personal timeline, Icebreakers, & Mood check.

Personal values checklist is a good and easy exercise in order to gain insight on one’s background, values, and reasonings for behaviors. We performed this activity many times within our council, and it helped us cope with disagreements, and understanding between one another. Although you and someone else may have completely different  backgrounds or beliefs, you may have similar values and that can help strengthen the relationship between you both.

The Personal Timeline has similar benefits to the personal values checklist. Juveniles are often only judged by their case and not by other relevant information about their circumstances. By completing a personal timeline and sharing, youth gain a critical understanding of their history’s effect on their behavior, open a dialogue with adults, and adults gain a clearer understanding of the youth they’re sentencing. Understanding a youth’s history can also lead to better informed sentencing decisions that actually decrease recidivism. We have used this activity in session to learn how to work together as a team and learn that our differences did not define us.

Mood Checks and Icebreaker questions are two more activities we use regularly in council sessions. We believe both would also benefit the relationship between key decision makers in court and system-involved youth. Our youth council already conducts these team building activities regularly; there are many ways to help adults and youth connect better, and my council and I are eager to continue advocating for policies that encourage these interactions.

My name is Kaylin Davis, and I am eighteen years old. I’m purebred Southside Chicago, and have been here my entire life. I’m a senior at Lindblom Math and Science Academy on the city’s far southside and will be attending Vanderbilt University in the fall. I have always struggled to find my voice in a crowd and to figure out what I was passionate about, but Mikva Challenge helped me discover my interests in public policy and youth advocacy.

I have been apart of Mikva Challenge since my sophomore year of highschool. I applied to be a member of the organization’s Juvenile Justice Council- focusing on policy reform the Cook County Juvenile Justice System- but was rejected. After sulking in disappointment for a couple of weeks, I received a phone call from the council’s coordinator asking me if I could be a member of the council. Without hesitation, I began my experience as a youth advocate and policy maker.

My first year on the council, our focus was improving outcomes for youth transitioning from system involvement back to their community through employment, education, aftercare and probation. Our think-tank summer experience allowed us to present our recommendations to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. This past summer, the council focused on reforming the Juvenile Justice System so that it would be more responsive to youth. We focused on three main areas of the juvenile court system: Juvenile Court Judges, Juvenile Court State’s Attorneys, and Juvenile Court Public Defenders.

One of the main techniques the council used in trying to come up with our recommendations was the utilization of an activity we call “Head, Heart, Feet”. In this activity we discussed what we wanted an ideal adult to have in knowledge (head), how we wanted them to make us feel when we interacted with them (heart), and what skills we thought they should have when working with young people (feet). Based on the characteristics we came to a consensus on, we shifted our focus to the adults in the courtroom.

We first focused on State’s Attorneys. To inform our recommendations, we met with current State’s Attorneys in the Cook County Juvenile Court. Our main source of connection was Maryam Ahmad- who acted as our insight into the job and responsibilities of State’s Attorneys. With the insight we gained from her, we visited the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center and spoke with Assistant State’s Attorneys about their view of the justice system for youth in our county, and we formed our recommendations around our experiences with them.

Next, we wanted to modify the way Juvenile Court Judges interact with youth that come into their court rooms. We interviewed presiding judges in Juvenile Court as well as retired judges. When we talked to them, some of them were very open and honest with us, and others were less candid, but we saw that others had yet to acknowledge that our Juvenile Justice System needed to be reformed, and that was a problem for us.

Perhaps we gained the most insight when it came time for us to focus on the Public Defenders. For a more youth centered experience, we interviewed young people at the Saura Center about their experiences with their public defenders, as well as used personal accounts of some of the council members. I’ve found that their testimonies lead our work and recommendations and were the most powerful.

We were then able to present all the issues we found – like lack of youth interaction experience from the judges and State’s Attorneys and the little communication young people had with their Public Defenders- and our solutions to them to Toni Preckwinkle and her staff. At the meeting, she approved almost every recommendation we had. After the meeting with her, we regrouped to focus on the person who we needed to talk to in order to implement most of our recommendations, current Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx.

We just concluded our meeting with her and her staff in December, and it was one of the most empowering experiences I have had at Mikva. She agreed with our opinions and actively listened to our experiences. She heard us. We were already aware that she was an advocate of youth voice, but I feel like she will enable us to make ours’ actually heard.

The biggest takeaway from this summer is that in order for us to fix a system that was created for us, but is working against us, we must first acknowledge that that system, whatever it may be, is broken. Without that, change, be it from the young people or those in power, will never come.

by Aasiyah Bintu-Bilal

How does a homeschooled, self-centered, self-taught, west side young adult join an organization; develops intricate levels of patience, becomes a leader encourages her peers to speak up, listens and advocates for the youth in the system? It’s all due to MIKVA! As an emerging adult working with MIKVA’s Juvenile Justice Council, I have grown a great deal. I used to be shy and judgmental and a little snappy. I grew up in a big family, always having to compete with my siblings to be the best.  I was going into the summer session with the mindset of doing better, and being better than everyone. I wanted to stand out and make the summer about me and my success.

I remember on the first day of the summer session, we were handed our name tags and my name was spelled incorrectly; off by one letter. I kid you not, I walked up to James (the director) and was like, “Who did this?!” I feel as if I might have frightened the poor man, I was aggressive and rough. He just wanted to do his job and encourage young people and here I was arguing about my name being spelled wrong. I was not always this way, three weeks into session I noticed a shift in how I was talking to my council members, and poor James. My tone was softer, politer and less aggressive. As I built relationships with my peers I began to appreciate them as individuals and started to see James as a role model. I have grown, I am humbler. I find myself eating humble pie more often.

Another person at MIKVA whom I look up to and use as a template is Michelle Morales. When she walks into a room, she owns the space. Michelle is a very inspirational woman, not only is she a minority running an organization she is a pierced and tatted up minority calling the shots. When I go into meetings with officials, I think to myself, “How would Michelle conduct herself?” As a minority in Chicago I am grateful for the opportunities that I have come across due to MIKVA. I was able to tell my story on WBEZ about my experiences walking home and how I felt about it. I am able work with the  David Lynch Foundation, coaching young people on how to cope with PTSD.  I have been able to demonstrate my abilities as a youth leader. I, Aasiyah Bilal, the shy girl from the west-side had the chance to facilitate a decision maker’s meeting with Toni Preckwinkle, my council and I were able to present to her on how we can make the Juvenile Justice system more responsive to youth. It is a big deal, I met Kim Foxx! I did a story swap with Maryam Ahmad.

I have become more humble, open, and encouraging to my peers and people alike. I have tapped into my “wanting to do better and be better” but not for my sake; but for the sake of the world. Working with MIKVA has empowered me to want to heal the world, but by starting off small and changing my community and impacting the people around me. In a training session facilitated by my peers and myself with public defenders we were doing a personal values checklist; even though I had done it before “helping society” has always been my number one value over others. I feel as if I was born to lead and to help others. I am given a higher-education to teach people and to assist them in their healing. I was offered a chance to work with the Juvenile Justice Council, to enhance my leading skills. I want to leave a legacy, I want to leave a garden of flowers that I won’t get to see. My name is Aasiyah Bintu-Bilal, and I heal the world, and no one will forget me.