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Thoughts from LEAD 2017: ‘Persistent Fleas’ Fight for Youth Justice

Posted in Voices Wednesday, 12 April 2017

By Catie Armstrong, Juvenile Justice Fellow

The fifth annual McCourt School of Public Policy’s LEAD (Leadership, Evidence, Analysis, Debate) Conference “Moving from Research to Policy and Practice to Improve the Lives of Youth” took place on campus at Georgetown University on April 6 and 7.

Each year, the LEAD conference aims to bring together key experts, stakeholders and advocates to tackle the ins-and-outs, causes and effects, alternatives and solutions of a specific policy issue. This year, the two-day conference was hosted by McCourt’s Center for Juvenile Justice Reform.

The overarching theme of LEAD 2017 was examining the connection between research and policy making, in order to establish the most effective means to impact youth justice policy. These conversations are crucial to finding solutions and crucial to the progress of a nation known for its “cradle-to-prison” pipeline.

The last day of the conference, kicked off by announcing the recipient of the inaugural Janet Reno Women’s Leadership Award. Janet Reno served as the first ever woman Attorney General, under President Bill Clinton from 1993 to 2001. She was known as the ultimate champion for women, children and families before passing away in November of 2016 after a lifetime of unforgettable advocacy.

The recipient of the first Janet Reno award went to Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund and someone who personally knew Reno during her career. Just like Reno, Edelman has dedicated her life to advocating for the rights/better treatment of our children.

When Edelman accepted her award, she highlighted the power that we all hold in ourselves to move these issues forward because, as she said, “We are never going backwards. We are going to get there, and we are going to end this two-tiered society.

Edelman, as well as many other speakers throughout the conference, told stories that reminded us all of why we work hard each and every day to impact the lives of our youth. Toward the conclusion of her speech, Edelman mentioned a woman that has always been one of her most favorite advocates: Sojourner Truth.

We should all model our method of advocacy based on Edelman’s favorite story of the unyielding advocacy of Sojourner Truth.

Sojourner Truth was speaking out against slavery when an old white man heckled her. He said, “Slave-woman, I don’t care to watch any anti-slavery talk as much than I care for an old flea bite.” To which she responded, “That’s alright, Lord willing I’m going to keep you scratching.”

Sojourner Truth let nothing deter her and she kept biting until she saw change. Eventually she became a name that we all remember in the long-fought battle to abolish slavery. Marian Wright Edelman ended her speech with a call to action, that we must all work together to be “... persistent, strategic fleas” and that we need to “... bite, and bite with our votes.”

Edelman knows the passion child advocates hold for making big differences in this cause that we’ve dedicated our lives to. She encouraged the crowd to be committed to our dreams of making a big difference, but to remember the most effective way to achieve that is by masses of people making small changes each day.

We see this strategy every day in our fight for juvenile justice reform. After years of activists fighting tirelessly, New York State just passed legislation on April 10 to raise the age of criminal jurisdiction to 18 years old. Decades of fighting for youth justice now leaves only six states in the nation that still automatically put all 17 year-olds (and 16 year-olds for North Carolina)in the adult criminal justice system. The road to justice is long, challenging, and far from over, but we are progressing. This is all thanks to the hard work of advocates everywhere working together and letting nothing deter them.

Sojourner Truth let nothing deter her, Janet Reno let nothing deter her, and Marian Wright Edelman let nothing deter her either. In our fight to achieve youth justice, neither should we. 

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