Our Unheard Voices: Youth On the Margins
By Cheryl Bonacci, Sabra Williams: Co-founders Creative Acts
With more than three decades between us working with young people in the criminal justice system, we knew exactly where we wanted to go to raise the volume on young voices. Especially with the 2017 California law ensuring the voting rights of people incarcerated in juvenile and adult jail facilities…we went directly to the juvenile halls and probation camps of Los Angeles County.
19 workshops + 662 young people ages 16 – 18 + 86% of eligible voters voting in the primary elections of June 2018 = MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.
Through our new social justice organization, Creative Acts, we have created a stage for incarcerated youth to reshape their narratives using the power of their voices and experiences to become creative and civic leaders. We recognized that our young people had little information about the power of their vote. Filling in the gaps of information they had heard about the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, we reminded them that they are the most valuable, unheard voices in the national youth uprising. Their experiences of systemic violence and incarceration are needed in the youth movement to make our communities safer, for everyone. With an arts-based workshop and supported discussion, we worked to educate our incarcerated youth with the facts and history of voting, to support their process in becoming active citizens on the political/ social issues affecting them and their communities. Together, they created protest signs for the first time, with the prompt, “My Vote Is”, empowering them to use their voices, even while still incarcerated. The students shared with us that they were inspired to elevate the way they see themselves and the impact their actions can have to shape the future for themselves, their families and communities.
Deeply inspired by the engagement, insight and wisdom generated from our young people, we were motivated to make sure their voices continued to be heard. When the ‘March For Our Lives’ high school shooting survivor/activists’ “Road To Change” tour was announced to be in Los Angeles over the summer, we were compelled to bring these two populations together to amplify the voices of our young people and ensure the student activists would hear their stories. Contacting their mentor and fellow activist, Michael Skolnik, we invited the group to join us at a juvenile hall. On July 12th, eighteen young adult activists walked with us into the girls unit spending four hours sharing stories, challenges, ideas and hope with our most unheard population; girls. One teenage girl in prison at Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar, California said, “I had dreams. I have dreams. You reignited them.”
Although they had already been on tour for 6 weeks, having visited more than 20 cities in 10 states, one of the visiting students emotionally shared, “All I see here is power. I will carry this experience all my life.” The group went on to commit to sharing the stories they had heard that day, vowing never to forget the need to include the voices of our incarcerated children wherever they go, determined to visit a juvenile facility in every city along the tour.
Every time we speak at an academic institution, to community partners or to local, state or federal government officials, we amplify the voices of children whose voices are not being heard. We take their faces, their stories, their hope and power, with us. The March For Our Lives activists, Common, John Legend and many others have joined us in elevating the voices of our most unheard children. When we empower and lift up ALL of our children, we will gain a deeper understanding of who is silenced and why and see our world become a better, richer, more beautiful place.
With leadership efforts like Youth Justice Action Month (YJAM) we have collectively increased the number of young people registered to vote…now we have to get to the polls and mark that ballot! Fill out that vote by mail ballot and put a stamp on it! Creative Acts is engaging artists around the country to take their talents to polling centers, celebrate our freedom to vote and embrace the community around election day. #PartyAtThePolls has garnered support from legislators, influencers and activists around the country. We are grateful to be part of this powerful movement, and happy to support our young people in leading the way to making all of our communities safer.
(Photo: Rapper, Common admiring the protest posters our youth made, while registering men in L.A. County jail to register to vote)