spring_branch-wideTHE YOUTH FORUM has identified some tough and often depressing challenges facing our kids:  Addiction and overdose.  The school to prison pipeline.  Racial Disparities in the Juvenile Justice system.  The unique challenges facing special needs children.   Corrupt judges jailing kids for profit. But with the onset of Spring, we’ll pause and reflect on a few reasons to be inspired and for guarded optimism.  Through the short history of this blog,  I’ve  been privileged to meet several people who have channeled their personal challenges, and sometimes overwhelming tragedy and grief, into a determined, concerted effort — not just to help others they encounter — but to bring impactful, systematic improvement to their schools and communities, and ultimately save lives.  Allow me to introduce you to just a few:

Meet Mark and Julie Filler from Highland Park, Illinois.  Facing the devastating loss of their amazing son Jordan to heroin addiction, they  established The Jordan Michael Filler Foundation to take Jordan’s fight out from behind closed doors. With the support of a dedicated and admiring family and community, they now work to educate children and their parents, share best practices with  schools, support increased accessibility of medications, and improve policies and laws that can save lives.

Meet Katy Hutchison from Victoria, British Columbia.  After her husband’s murder on New Year’s Eve 1997 Katy waited for five years while the  police worked to prosecute and convict his killers.  As a result of her experience, Katy grew to recognize the critical need to educate and support members of the community and other stakeholders about risks and opportunities for our young people.  She was moved by her own tragedy to devote years pursuing restorative justice advocacy work with youth, communities and the criminal justice system, helping others look at ways to use restorative practices to build and sustain healthier communities

Meet Lorenn Walker.  Lorenn lived on her own when she was 14 years old, dropped out of high school at 15, was adjudicated as a juvenile offender at 16, was a teen parent, and seriously injured in an assault at age 24.  As a result of her own challenges, she devoted herself to becoming an expert and leader in the implementation of restorative justice practices, designing and facilitating effective learning programs, focusing on reentry for incarcerated people, substance abuse, violence prevention, and reconciliation for people harmed by wrongdoing and social injustice, working with schools, courts, prisons, businesses, and the police.  She is a co-editor and contributor of the excellent book,Restorative Justice Today: Practical Applications.

“Restorative Justice” practices  engage those who are harmed, wrongdoers and their affected communities in search of solutions that promote repair, reconciliation and the rebuilding of relationships; building partnerships to reestablish mutual responsibility for constructive responses to wrongdoing. As just one local example, we reported earlier on the remarkable reduction in suspensions in some Chicago High Schools using restorative justice practices awhich, as we’ve seen, reduce suspensions which reduce dropout rates which reduce criminal activity.

Meet 9 year old Kamryn Remfro of Grand Junction Colorado, who successfully challenged the uniform dress and appearance code of Caprock Academy Charter School, by shaving her head to support a friend undergoing chemotherapy treatment.  Kamryn may not be the “at-risk” youth we typically cover, but her simple act of defiance to support a friend in need exemplifies a mindset that is pushing back on zero tolerance policies across the country that have had devastating implications for our most underserved children, fueling the school-to-prison pipeline that has devastated so many (disproportionately minority) for behaviors that can often be addressed more effectively in school.

Meet Terence (whose real identity will remain confidential).  He flipped over a desk in anger in a confrontation with his teacher.  Two years ago he would have been suspended for 3-10 days, and sent out into the streets, angry and frustrated.  But through school-centered RJ staff discovered that Terence’s cousin had been shot and killed two weeks earlier, and he had been bottling up the hurt and anger with nowhere to turn and no ability to process his emotions.  Through UMOJA peace circles, RJ staff helped keep him in school, repair relationships with his teacher and classmates, and implement other steps to prevent future incidents.

Some hopeful trends to consider this spring as well:

*    Juvenile arrest rates for violent crime in the U.S. has dropped by more than 50% from its peak in 1994. 

*   Youth incarceration rates in the United States — while still far higher than in most countries — have also dropped significantly, reflecting a sustained drop in juvenile crime, a shift of thinking obout the best way to handle young people who break the law, a belief that recidivism rates are higher for those detained, and fiscal pressures forcing tough-on-crime politicians to now consider the effectiveness of less costly alternatives.

*   There has been significant progress in the fight against children working in hazardous labor conditions, fueled by stronger political commitments and ratifications of conventions designed that draw attention to and combat the risks of child labor.

*   The United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention announced a sharp decline in childhood obesity for children ages 2-5, a drop attributed to heightened  awareness, healthier diets and commitments of local, state and federal initiatives.

*   There is an emerging and increasingly public Culture of Recovery (exemplified by the filmThe Anonymous People), pushing back against community pressures that once convinced parents to keep the problem of youth addiction a family secret and  providing alternatives to the plague of addiction.

Of course, much work remains.  Just this past week, 36 people in Chicago were shot in the span of just 36 hours, killing at least four, including a 17 year old girl. Our heartfelt sympathies go out to the families of Gakirah Barnes, 17, and the other victims.  In coming posts we’ll turn to the persistent culture of youth violence, the intersection of a mental health care crisis and the juvenile justice system, and many other challenges to be addressed.  But it is spring.  There is progress.  And hope springs eternal.




The Rudeness Of Saying Thanks, Humorless Indonesians And The Colorblind Sending Black Boys To Jail.

Speak globalAn American teacher in Beijing tells her students “You lovely girls. I love you” — and her Chinese students are terrified.  An Italian professor teaching in the United States is appalled to learn that his students are allowed to evaluate him, but an American elementary school teacher is frustrated by her South American students’ reluctance to answer questions in class.  An American says “thank you” to a colleague for treating the group to dinner, embarrassing and offending the Indian recipient of his praise who believed it questioned the sincerity of his motives.  A Dutch businessman jokingly tells someone who borrowed a chair for an empty office that “you’re on a nice stealing spree,” angering his Indonesian colleague who emphatically declared the next day that he is not a thief.  A South Korean businessman is put off by the aggressive, confrontational behavior of his American negotiating partner, while the American is incredulous that the South Korean seems so afraid to speak his mind.

What is going on?  These incongruities, as explained in Geert Hofstede’s excellent book:  “Culture and Organizations:  Software of the Mind,” stem from differences in our subjective cultures — our patterns of thinking, feeling and acting which we learn through our lifetimes.  Hofstede describes different cultural dimensions that result in different perceptions, communication styles and habits that, in turn, often result in conflict and miscommunication, impeding an organization’s ability to effectively carry out its mission:  Does a culture value more collaboration between leaders and their subordinates, or is there a greater respect for lines of authority?  Does it place a greater value on individualism or collectivism?  Does it value assertiveness or modesty?  Does it tolerate ambiguity or demand certainty?  Hofstede explains where each country tends to fall on the spectrum of these cultural benchmarks, and how a clash of different subjective cultures can lead to miscommunication, inadvertently offensive conduct and ineffective outcomes.

Improving Intercultural Communication

Companies increasingly recognize the value of having employees equipped with intercultural competencies so that in a global economy they can communicate effectively in cross-cultural situations, and relate appropriately in different cultural contexts. Many companies, in other words, recognize the need to stop glossing over cultural differences (and to stop turning diversity initiatives into faux group hugs to  “celebrate the rainbow”) but, rather, to bring in trained professionals to identify and explain cultural and communication differences, and teach how to navigate within them, strengthen intercultural awareness and communication, and become a stronger, more productive organization.  Many people have a natural curiosity about these differences.  Many travelers enjoy learning about the cultures of their destinations, and are rarely heard to announce defensively that they “don’t see Chinese or Peruvians or South Koreans — Just People.” 

Why then,  when it comes to race are many of us quick to say that “I don’t see race.  Just people.  I am colorblind”?  Why do we become so instinctively uncomfortable talking about different values, perceptions or cultural norms between races?  Out of fear of being labeled a racist?   Of course there are many exceptions to every generalization and most people are more complex and multi-dimensional than is suggested by any label.  Regardless, just as there are general cultural differences between people of different countries, there are interracial cultural difference that can pose their own challenges to interracial communication and cooperation.  In his outstanding book “The Inclusion Paradox,” Andres Tapias reports that white males frequently rank values such as self-sufficiency, hard work, fairness and honestly at the top of their cultural lists, citing those who lived the American dream by pulling themselves up by their bootstraps as epitomizing those values.  Many African Americans, in contrast, frequently list “giving back” and “justice”, and Latinos list “commitment to family,” at or near the top of their lists — differences that, as Tapias, explains, makes sense given the different experiences many in each group can relate to.  Many whites, for example, grow up with the cultural perception that most people have a level playing field and equal opportunities, while many African Americans have a cultural perception that intervention is sometimes necessary to achieve justice — competing perceptions that are both grounded in histories that were taught or experienced differently.  As well, a seemingly shared value can be interpreted very differently depending on race.  Tapias observes that Southern white males and Northern African American women both list “respect” as a value that is embraced, but the former group believes saying “yes sir” and  “no ma’am” is a sign of such respect, while the latter group believes it to be a sign of subservience.  It is not surprising that racially disparate organizations or communities sometimes show conflict, miscommunication and vastly different perceptions, not unlike the Dutch and Indonesian business partners.

justice not quite blind

And what does any of this have to do with at-risk youth?  Cultural differences permeate the criminal and juvenile justice system in the United States, a system which many African Americans believe is rigged against them — and with good reason.  In a recent study by Stanford psychologists, 735 white Americans were told of the identical background of a fictitious 14 year old boy with several prior convictions charged with a brutal (though nonlethal) crime — half the respondents were told the offender was black and the other half was told the offender was white.  The black offender group more strongly favored a sentence of life without parole and rated the juvenile offender more similar to adults in their culpability than respondents in the white offender group.  Other studies have revealed that people have a tendency to fear members of races other than their own.

How are outcomes affected?  In an earlier edition, we introduced the topic of racial disparities in the juvenile justice system through a satirical Onion broadcast news clip of a white girl whose crime was so horrific that she was sentenced to be tried as an adult black man.  Satire or not, African Americans are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white males.  If current trends continue one of every three black American males born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime, compared to one of every seventeen white males.  Studies have revealed racial disparities in police activity and sentencing.  The National Institute on Drug Abuse found that from 1975 to 2011 white students were slightly more likely to have abused an illegal substance than black students, yet black youth were arrested for drug crimes at rates more than double those of white youth.  Black drivers were three times as likely to be searched at a traffic stop as white drivers.  New York City’s recent stop and frisk policies effectively targeted black and hispanic americans far more than white New Yorkers, yet blacks and hispanics were no more likely to possess weapons or drugs than whites.  The harshest sentences — life without parole or the death penalty — is disproportionately sought and ordered when either the defendant is black or the victim was white.

It would be oversimplifying to blame all of this on racism or even unconscious bias.  There are higher crime rates in poverty stricken neighborhoods.  Public Defender’s offices that frequently represent minority defendants are overwhelmed with massive caseloads that do not permit sufficient investigation and preparation for each case.  Those with limited resources are less able effectively navigate an often confusing system.  But without an understanding of intercultural differences, unconscious biases will clearly exist between people with different sets of experiences and cultural norms.  Whatever the reasons (and there are many), the reality and perception of the police, prosecutors and courts differ significantly depending on race, economic well-being and cultural orientation. But if the Dutch, Indonesian, American and South Korean businessmen can be taught about cultural differences and intercultural competencies to support their bottom line, then we should be able to have just as honest a discussion about interracial cultural differences and their implications for the bottom line of our children, our schools and our community.  .








Sentenced To Be Tried As An Adult Black Man

Onion -- Motor City Murder

onion-news-network-IFC-1Does race still matter in the juvenile justice system?  To start the conversation I’ve attached a link to a satirical television news video from the Onion — the story of a white teenage girl whose crime was so horrific that she was given the ultimate sentence: to be tried as an adult black man (with familiar consequences.  Not to suggest humor in racially disparate treatment and outcomes, but satire can start difficult discussions or to force us to consider uncomfortable truths.  Soon, we’ll turn to the statistics, the reasons for discrepancies along racial lines, and look to examples and avenues to strengthen different facets of the juvenile justice system.  For now, however, HERE IS THE LINK TO THE SATIRICAL BROADCAST ON THE MOTOR CITY MURDERER. You can also see some initial data in racial sentencing disparities on this link to THE SENTENCING PROJECT.