Tuesday, February 21, 2012


Our post today comes from Sonia Balaram, coordinator of the Harlem Youth Court. Check out their website here!

The Harlem Youth Court (HYC) is located in East Harlem at the Harlem Community Justice Center. It was the second Center for Court Innovation youth court, opening in 2001. In the last year, the Harlem Youth Court has undergone a number of changes. We have increased the number of hearings we hold per night and increased our sanction completion rate to 90%. During our last recruitment cycle, we had a record number of applications for new members, a total of 180! After a long summer of training, with visits to the Supreme Court, Criminal Court, and weekly blogging assignments, our youth court trainees were inducted as full members and began the school year full of enthusiasm for helping young people in New York City. Despite their strong commitment to the Harlem Youth Court, many of our youth court members realized that balancing work, school, sports teams and the other commitments in their lives was challenging.

Our youth court members, like many young people involved in CCI projects, work hard and are passionate about the work they do, but they arrive at the Harlem Youth Court after long days in school, and they often give up their weekends and school holidays to participate in youth-court-related events. In the courtroom, they are advocates for their peers and sometimes witness respondents or their guardians talking about traumatic experiences in their lives such as dealing with a death in their family or the struggle to be accepted in their school communities. For youth court members, it can be difficult to observe respondents break down and cry on the stand or share stories about the challenges they face at home or in their neighborhoods. Because our youth court members act mature and professional, we sometimes forget that listening to emotionally charged testimonies and helping teens in their community can be draining. As facilitators and mentors, we have realized that we need to plan ways to support our members and show them that we care and are invested in them.

Below, we discuss some strategies we have utilized to keep our youth court members motivated and excited about the work they do:

1) Have fun! One of the best activities we have done with our youth court members is just buying some pizza and giving them time to talk and relax. Like adults, they need time to unwind and process what they are learning and experiencing in youth court.

2) Let them know your door is open. We invite youth court members to come by any time to talk to us about school, college, or just how they are doing in general. We have learned that it is important for young people to know that they can come to us with their news of getting into college or failing an exam, as well as more serious issues like the death of a loved one or peer pressure in school. Providing opportunities to build strong bonds and spend time one on one with a staff member is key to supporting them.

3) Invest in their future. We meet with each of our youth court members to ask them about their future plans and how we can offer support. Through these discussions we have found scholarships for those interested in law, connected others to internships, and helped with writing college essays.

4) Provide leadership opportunities for them whenever possible. We ask our youth court members to help recruit new youth court members and, during the summer time, make presentations to potential referral sources, and we try to give them a sense of how things work from a staff level.

5) Show Appreciation. Like many other youth programs, we recognize a “Member of the Month” and give out awards for “best attendance” or “most improved” at the end of the year. We have found that it is also important to provide time for young people to “shout-out” their fellow members at the end of session in order to recognize the efforts of one another. We believe that this reinforces team spirit in a positive and encouraging environment. We also hand out personalized messages of praise like “you rocked that speech!” on sticky notes to members during hearings.

6) Let them make decisions. Youth court members make decisions regarding the cases they hear, but we also give them the opportunity to make decisions about what community service projects we do together or how to recruit new members. We believe that our members have the right to participate in the decision-making process that affects their lives not only because it provides a key developmental process, but also because the systems in place to address their needs will be better organized to achieve positive youth outcomes when they have integrated young people into their planning and decision-making processes.

7) Ongoing professional development. Like adults, youths continuously need to improve on their skills. We hold regular workshops outside of training for our youth court members to sharpen their existing skills or build new ones. In the past few months, we have held a public speaking skills workshop led by actors, a self-defense workshop led by a female kick boxer, and an anti-discrimination training led by Project Reach.

8) Celebrate their differences. One thing that we are working on in the coming months is offering time and space for our youth court members to share pieces of their culture and backgrounds through a potluck dinner and a talent show. Cultural celebrations give young people the opportunities to view and understand more about cultures different from their own.We hope that celebrating difference in our space will translate into tolerance and appreciation of our diversity.

9) Finally, don’t call them “kids.” According to Webster’s dictionary, the definition of kid is “a young goat.” We call our members youths or young adults.

We have realized that positive youth development is something we have to think about and plan for. Providing opportunities for young people to develop a sense of competence, usefulness, belonging, and empowerment takes time and energy.  We are always looking for new ideas on ways we can invest in our youths. Let us know if you have any ideas!

Finally, if you know a young person 14-18 who lives in New York City and would be interested in becoming a Harlem Youth Court member, tell him or her to fill out our application online at www.harlemyouthcourt.org.

HYC members volunteering at Community Kitchen and Pantry of West Harlem 

1 comment:

  1. Full disclosure, I am the Director of the Harlem Community Justice Center. And yes, I LOVE my Youth Court and think our Youth Court Coordinator, Sonia, is amazing. They really are as good as they are portrayed. If you don’t believe me, come up for a visit and find out why we think this approach should be used all over NYC to address low-level delinquency and keep our kids out of the formal justice system.