Advancing Power for System Impacted Girls: Funding Juvenile Justice as a Foundation

Posted on July 25, 2019 | Leni Dworkis, Weissberg Foundation

The following piece was written by Leni Dworkis for the Washington Area Women’s Foundation. It is being cross-posted here with their permission.

At the end of last year, Washington Area Women’s Foundation released ” A Blueprint for Action: Supporting Young Women of Color in the District of Columbia.” This report, through the creation of the Young Women’s initiative provided tangible actions, strategies, and recommendations that both this group and stakeholders should take to reduce barriers and better support young women of color in the District.

The Blueprint resonated deeply with us at the Weissberg Foundation because we share common values with the Young Women’s Initiative:

    1. A commitment to deconstructing barriers long perpetuated through systemic racism.
    2. A dedication to improving systems for girls, trans, and gender non-conforming youth.
    3. Having a footprint in the District of Columbia.
    4. Having a focus on the justice reform.
    5. Strengthening leadership and advocacy skills of those impacted by systems.

The Weissberg Foundation – based in Arlington, VA – recognizes the deep impacts of structural racism and inequities that contribute to social, economic, and political disparities across the District and beyond. As such, the Foundation has dedicated our work to building access, opportunity, and power to ensure that transformative social change is truly possible. Working at the community, grantee, and foundation levels, the Weissberg Foundation very intentionally incorporates systems change and equity as outcomes of our work. By funding organizations that reach the most impacted, amplifying the work of our grantees, building the capacity of the field, and collaborating with others, we seek to embolden both those in the field and those on the ground to tackle racism head on.

Through Equitable Justice, the Foundation’s program area specific to advancing justice reform, we seek to use an intersectional lens to center system-impacted women, girls, trans, and gender non-conforming individuals of color. We recognize the inequities that exist within and around the justice system. By having open and honest conversations about the unique needs and circumstances of these populations, we are able to explore the ways in which these inequities inflict pain, perpetuate racism, and uphold patriarchy.

Equitable Justice has local and regional impact – supporting small, community-based organizations in Maryland, New Mexico, New York, and Washington, DC. Our District-based grantee partner – Rights4Girls – is a human rights organization working to end gender-based violence in the US, advocating for the dignity and rights of young women and girls to ensure their lives are free of violence and exploitation.

Through advocacy, campaigning, research and writing, training and technical assistance, youth engagement, and federal and local policy development, Rights4Girls seeks to disrupt the sexual abuse to prison pipeline for young girls, trans, and gender non-conforming youth. In 2018, they released “Beyond the Walls: A Look at Girls in DC’s Juvenile Justice System,” in partnership with the Georgetown Juvenile Justice Initiate, which details the significant increase the District has seen in the percentage of girls in its juvenile justice system over the past decade, as well as what has caused this increased contact with local juvenile justice systems. As indicated by this report, a number of strategies need to be taken to close information and policy gaps that remain, including: (1) collection and sharing of data on justice-involved girls that is disaggregated by race, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity; (2) engaging in qualitative assessments of girls in the juvenile justice system to better understand their experiences from their perspectives; (3) mapping of the programming available to both at-risk and justice-involved youth; and (4) convening should occur between all system stakeholders to identify policies and practices that will expand community-based responses.

Available data, such as this Rights4Girls report, demonstrating the immediate need for interventions and supports for young girls, trans, and gender non-conforming youth of color in the District help make the case for investing in juvenile justice. With the number of girls and gender non-conforming youth entering the system steadily growing, and with youth of color disproportionately impacted, there needs to be local advocacy and organizing efforts and policy shifts toward addressing juvenile justice reform.

Funding juvenile justice initiatives can advance multiple objectives:

  • Recognizing that Reforming the Justice System Starts with Early Interventions – Despite efforts to reduce recidivism rates, lower sentences, change regulations around probation and parole, and offer alternatives to incarceration, these interventions occur after individuals have already had contact with the justice system. Intervening early, as well as prevention work, helps find alternate pathways for individuals – especially youth – to ensure that they do not need to engage with or become a part of the juvenile justice system. While available interventions are vast, foundations can work to fund some of these promising practices to ensure that underserved and at-risk youth are offered opportunities and supports to help keep them from becoming system impacted.
  • Restoring Promise and Value to Youth – Investing in youth leadership and development is critically important. Specifically, investing in youth of color, particularly those who are under-resourced, helps provide some of the opportunities and supports that youth need to: (1) give voice to their experiences, especially those that are inclusive of violence, victimization, or trauma; (2) become motivated to push themselves in school, engage in extracurricular activities, or become active in their communities in positive ways; (3) help educate others on issues around incarceration and the criminal justice system; and (4) find ways to believe in themselves and their abilities.

  • Combating the School to Prison Pipeline – Disproportionately youth, particularly youth of color, and young adults from deeply impacted communities are at risk of entering the justice system resulting from increasingly harsh school policies and practices. By supporting those working to combat the most strict and restrictive of policies and practices, foundations can make an impact on the number of youth that filter through this pipeline.

When foundations invest in juvenile justice, we invest in an equitable and just future – working to dismantle systems of oppression and pain, breaking down barriers to opportunity and success, committing to racial and gender equity, and detangling bias and racism from institutions.

Leni Dworkis is the program manager at the Weissberg Foundation, where she provides robust programmatic support to Grantee partners seeking to advance social, racial, and criminal justice. Prior to joining the foundation in 2019, she served in research and programmatic capacities at the Vera Institute of Justice where she contributed to strategic development initiatives, measurement and evaluation efforts, and exploratory investigation around reaching and serving under-resourced and marginalized crime victims. Her long-standing passion for working with and giving voice to underserved populations has fueled her interests in breaking down oppressive barriers and rebuilding social structures to better meet the needs of all individuals.

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