“Do You See Me?”: Youth Voice to Address Barriers

This blog post was originally published in May 2017. As we embark on a new year, we must remain vigilant in our commitment to promoting and protecting the role of youth voice and advocacy in youth policymaking and programmatic processes, especially for youth involved in the foster care and/or juvenile justice systems that face unique barriers. In this blog post, AYPF’s Jesse Kannam highlights three programs that are inclusive of youth voice in how they shape their programming and advocacy for policy change. For those interested in learning more, visit AYPF’s Foster, Juvenile Justice, and Crossover Youth Resource Page.

This is part one of a two-part blog series about youth voice and advocacy. Click here for part 2.

Jessica Kannam, AYPF Policy Research Assistant

“Do you see me?” This is the question that youth performers and activists of Maine Inside Out challenged the audience to consider during their performance at the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. Throughout the play, youth impacted by the justice system performed a compilation of scenes reflective of their personal experiences of entry into the justice system and the barriers encountered during reentry back to their communities, such as the difficulty in securing housing when one has a criminal record. The performance and accompanying talkback session really struck an emotional/philosophical cord in me because it confronted an issue I have been grappling with – the distance between those who make policy and those who are directly impacted by that policy.

For me, the “Do you see me?” question directly addresses the idea of both the isolation of systems-involved youth and invisibility of the struggles and barriers that exist for these particular populations. AYPF recently released a microsite, hoping to provide straightforward and relevant information to better-inform policymakers and influencers about the systems-involved youth population, and jump-start a conversation about best practices and opportunities to support these populations in policy and practice at the federal, state, and local level. Yet how can research, policy, and practice elevate and include youth perspective?

The mission of Maine Inside Out is to “initiate dialogue, develop leadership, and build community across boundaries with collaborative original theater inside and outside of correctional facilities” to address oppression and transform their communities. The performance and their mission got me thinking about how programs specifically can build communities/spaces centered on and respectful of youth voice to address issues of societal isolation and invisibility among youth involved in the juvenile justice system. The following community-based programs address issues of recidivism, aid reentry back to communities, engage in prevention measures, and address barriers to educational and workforce opportunities by prioritizing youth voice.

UTEC (United Teens Equality Center, Inc.)

The founding of UTEC is rooted in youth voice and action. UTEC was founded in 1999 in Lowell, MA, by a group of youth who wanted to have a teen center in response to the gang activity and violence in their community. UTEC seeks to “ignite and nurture the ambition of Lowell’s most disconnected young people to trade violence and poverty for social and economic success”, measuring their impact by a reduction in recidivism and criminal activity, and increasing employability and educational attainment. UTEC serves youth ages 16-24 many of whom have a criminal record, were involved in gang activity, and have no high school credential. UTEC’s model includes intensive street/facility outreach, transitional/case management services, enrichment programming, and a Workforce Development and Social Enterprise program, in addition to a strong emphasis on civic engagement and organizing.

One aspect of UTEC’s organizing work is the organization’s leadership role within Teens Leading The Way (TLTW), a state-wide youth-led coalition focused on fighting for social change through the policymaking process. In recent years, TLTW has focused their campaigns on record expungement. Many youth expressed the barriers to employment, higher education, and housing caused by having a criminal record, and TLTW worked to increase awareness of the issue and support legislation for record expungement.

Through the Workforce Development and Social Enterprise program, youth can gain work skills and earn money by participating in the social enterprises run by UTEC. These enterprises include a mattress recycling business and café. These businesses allow opportunity for youth development and work experience while also financially sustaining UTEC’s other programming.

The RYSE Center 

Similar to UTEC, the RYSE Center was founded in 2008 as a result of youth organizing efforts to address violence in the Richmond, CA community in the early 2000s. RYSE seeks to create safe spaces grounded in social justice and equity to allow for positive youth development. RYSE provides their programming both onsite at the Center and in other locations like schools and community-based organizations.

One aspect of RYSE’s comprehensive work is their Youth Justice Department, which includes workshops, support groups, and projects that allow youth to learn about various juvenile justice processes, share experiences, understand their rights, and shape policymaking within their community. One particular project is the Youth Policy Institute, in which youth work in partnership with UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy to develop policy campaigns regarding practices in juvenile justice system that impact their communities.

RYSE also provides educational and workforce preparation programming. The Education and Career Department provides academic tutoring, counseling, and case management, college support services, job readiness and career exploration opportunities, among many other services to increase access and success in postsecondary pursuits.

All of these programs are inclusive of youth perspective and voice in how they shape their programming and facilitation of dialogue and advocacy for social change. These programs came about because youth raised their voice about the barriers they faced and the supports needed in their communities, highlighting the immense knowledge and expertise youth have in creating solutions to community problems. Youth are insistent that they be “seen”, recognized, and heard. By fostering spaces where youth can share their story and participate in community dialogue and decision making, communities and policymakers at all levels can do a better job at addressing the barriers faced by systems-involved youth and expanding opportunities for further education, participation in the workforce, and civic engagement.


The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.