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Children's Voice Article, September/October, 2004

Making Their Voices Heard

CWLA'so Youth Advisory Council for Children with Incarcerated Parents underscores the importance of involving youth in planning programs and services for them.

As CWLA's Resource Center for Children with Incarcerated Parents developed, Director Arlene Lee felt it was important to bring the voice of young people who had experienced parental incarceration into its planning and programming. Her initial idea was to create a youth advisory board that would allow a few young people to make their voices heard to professionals working in the field.

"Tokenism," Emani Davis called it when Lee brought the idea to her. Davis, 25, who has been advocating for children with incarcerated parents since she was 14, had met enough young people who, like her, had a parent in prison, that she knew it was impossible to represent all of the voices of this population by putting a few young people on an advisory board. In fact, for Davis, the assumption that children with parents in prison are an unvaried population, easy to group together and serve uniformly, is one of the major weaknesses of existing programs.

So, Lee expanded the concept to include a larger advisory council that would bring a truer, fuller youth perspective to the center's work. From there, she says, "The vision just kept getting larger." Working with Davis and Chesa Boudin, 23, the concept grew into an ambitious plan for a youth advisory council that would not only guide the Center's work, but also strengthen the voice of youth with parents in prison nationwide.

Here, Boudin and Davis explain the reasoning and the passion behind involving youth in planning programs and services and outline their vision for the advisory council.

Theory into Practice

By Chesa Boudin

I grew up in Chicago with my adoptive family. When I was 14 months old, both of my birthparents were incarcerated in New York State correctional facilities. Their incarceration contributed to a range of behavioral and developmental problems I suffered while growing up. In turn, several factors allowed me to overcome them. Central among those was the love and support of all of my parents.

My adoptive parents encouraged me to build relationships with my birthparents. Although difficult at times because of the long distances and the deep emotions involved, this was a crucial step in my journey for self-control and academic success. What was most significant, however, was not simply that I was taken to see my parents and allowed phone calls since before I can remember, but that I was included and consulted in the decisionmaking process every step of the way--even when I was a young, often out-of-control child.

When I was about 10, my adoptive mom dropped me off at the airport to fly to New York for a weekend visit with my dad, who I had not seen for six months or so. After she watched me board the plane, she headed home to my two brothers. Instead of taking off, however, our plane stayed at the runway for half an hour. Then, the pilot announced one of the engines was not working properly, and we could not fly. Everyone got off the plane and returned to the terminal.

Waiting by myself in the airport for the replacement plane, I was lonely, tired, and scared. After a while, it became more than I could bear, and I started to cry. A flight attendant helped me call my house, and I told my mom to come back to the airport and get me. When she got there, she calmed me down and asked me what I wanted to do: The replacement plane had just arrived and the other passengers were boarding. I really wanted to see my dad, but I was too scared to fly that night. I wanted to go home to bed. That would mean not getting to see my dad for another several months, losing my plane ticket, calling the friends who were planning to pick me up at the airport, and canceling my visit to the prison. My mom double-checked that I was sure

I wanted to cancel the visit, and we headed home together. This wasn't an isolated incident, but rather represented my parents' approach to parenting. No matter how big or small the decision, if it affected me, they consulted me and included me in the process. This doesn't mean I always got my way, only that they listened to my views and desires and incorporated them whenever possible.

My parents' commitment to empowering me to make decisions about my own life played a crucial role in my maturation and enabled me to overcome the many challenges I faced because of my parents' imprisonment. Their participatory approach to parenting not only empowered me and built confidence and skills, it helped them parent. I was the one who knew best what I was going through and, usually, what I needed to overcome my problems.
Empowering the Disempowered
Participatory theory--directly involving the subjects of parenting, research, teaching, or social services--has a long history. In 1970, Paulo Freire published The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, a seminal work in the field of participatory theory. Although based on adult literacy education in rural Brazil, his research has broader applications to all kinds of research and work with disempowered groups, certainly including children of incarcerated parents.

Freire presented the concept of liberation--through education or social service programs--not as a gift or self-achievement, but as a mutual process. He advocated a problem-solving approach that places services in the context of the daily concerns and social reality of the population being served and directly involves them in every stage, including program development.

Significant technological and economic development projects failed around the world in the 1970s. It was typical top-down work, and the local populations were not included in the development process. The international organizations sponsoring these projects discovered that the local people were resisting change being planned for them. Thus, in the late 1970s and 1980s, there was a shift, at least in the theory, to new ways that included the subjects as equal participants and planners.

One of the participatory theories that emerged was Participatory Learning and Action. Although originally designed for development work, its core concepts--empowerment, respect, localization, inclusiveness, efficacy, participation, flexibility, and teamwork--are applicable to work with children of incarcerated parents.

In participatory theory, outsiders have a role as facilitators, catalysts, and conveners. But for the work to be of use, it must empower the disempowered. In this case, the group we are working with has been triply disempowered--as children, as children with parents in prison, and as members of socially and economically marginalized communities.

Despite this disempowerment, we are creative and capable, and we are better acquainted with our reality than are outsiders. Thus, if we are involved as active participants in the work, rather than as passive recipients, we will not only be more receptive, but we will also be empowered by and gain confidence and skills from the process itself. Perhaps most significantly, our involvement will improve the program and its outcomes.
The Youth Advisory Council
In 2003, Emani Davis and I began working with CWLA to develop a youth advisory council for children of incarcerated parents. Our goal is to provide these youth a direct, participatory voice in CWLA's work and in the policy and planning debates that take place at the national level.

CWLA directly involved Emani and me to incorporate the particular challenges, strengths, and needs of children with incarcerated parents into the council development process.

We recognize from our own experience that for a participatory approach to be truly beneficial, the role of these young people must not be limited to consultation but should provide opportunities for leadership. Thus, we incorporated skill development, training, and leadership opportunities for the youth council members as a core part of our vision.

Advisory council members will be selected from all over the country to represent the diversity of backgrounds and experiences among children of prisoners. Being sensitive to these children's particular psychological needs, we designed the selection process to avoid making anyone experience yet another feeling of rejection. Moreover, the first members of the youth advisory council will develop the council's structure and goals--we have imagined several different ways of structuring the advisory council, but the final design and goals are largely up to the youth serving on the council.

Although they may not have had a name for it, all of my parents employed a participatory approach to parenting. Every step of the way, they allowed me to have a say in what was best for me, from overcoming my behavioral problems to deciding to pursue a post-graduate education. The process was crucial to the outcome. In this seemingly radical approach lies the often untapped strengths and expertise of children with incarcerated parents. By including them, we can dramatically improve research, social work, and parenting, and empower this disempowered group.

Passion into Action

By Emani Davis

When I was 6, my father was sentenced to 107 years in a Virginia prison. Although this might seem like a life sentence, he was actually eligible for parole after 11 years. But in the eight years since he became eligible, we have received eight parole denials. I say "we," because what you deny to a man, you deny to his children and family as well.

I was first asked to speak about my experience as a child of a parent in prison in 1994, when I was 14, as part of a panel of youth at a conference sponsored by the Osborne Association. The conference, Children Left Behind, was the first of its kind in New York City.

At that meeting, I learned several important lessons that still guide my work:
  • Meeting the other children on the panel was the first step in reducing my sense of isolation and stigma.
  • There are people who listen and remain committed to
  • listening to what affected children have to say about the impact of having a parent in prison.
  • Our voice was too small, and not everyone could hear us or cared to hear us.
When I was asked to become part of planning CWLA's Youth Advisory Council for Children with Incarcerated Parents, I saw it as an opportunity to advance and spread what I have learned. Participatory theory addresses many of the reasons why adults should listen to young people, but the youth advisory council goes a step further, bringing youth together so they can speak--and listen--to each other.

Involving youth allows them to inform the conversation and therefore the policies and practices affecting children of prisoners. But providing forums to bring these young people together also provides them the power that comes from having one's voice valued. It creates a space of healing, and it gives power to the voice, so that it's large enough, clear enough, and healthy enough to be heard, even by those who are not inclined to listen.

By supporting and speaking to each other, the children of prisoners can reduce their feelings of isolation and stigma. This in turn empowers participants to see themselves as people who have support, rights, and the power to alter their futures.

Incarceration exerts total control over those in its grasp, so for children affected by it, the idea of fighting for one's rights is especially important.
The New Experts
Traditionally, designing programs for the children of incarcerated parents has been driven by "experts." But in truth, there really were no experts on the issue, only general notions about children, youth development, and parenting that were applied--sometimes thoughtlessly--to children affected by incarceration. The experts often assumed that those affected by the problem could not contribute to the conversation, in part because we were young, and in part because we were not objective.

When I first began doing this work, I was mostly ignored by people who assumed they knew what was best for me because they had a theory of what it was like to be me. Those responsible for making changes in policy or designing new programs never asked me what I needed. There were exceptions, like the Osborne Association and the Women's Prison Association, but these organizations were focused more on criminal justice than on child welfare. They were already employing and listening to those who had been incarcerated and were more open to creating a space for authentic voices. But as the field developed, more people realized our voice was needed, and we began to speak.

Although it sounds circular, being given a place to speak allowed me to develop the ability to speak. It was people listening that gave me the courage to find my voice. And it was people listening to other children that allowed me to see the power of our collective voice.

Of course, it isn't enough for a handful of children to do this. All children of prisoners are entitled to a place where they are with and supported by other kids and are able to have a say in their futures, as well as in foster care, visiting rules, and the programs created to serve them. With this in mind, we imagine a national youth advisory council will
  • build social capital, teaching members to use e-mail and teleconference equipment to communicate with youth

  • nationwide, and providing instruction on how to run meetings and how to lobby and testify;

  • teach young people how to tell their stories in a way that heals the speaker and moves the audience to action;

  • create a structure, as the advisory council ages, that allows older youth to move up and begin to guide the younger ones; and

  • connect kids so they understand they are part of something larger than their own experiences and their own lives.
The young people who take up the leadership of the youth advisory council and become its members will continue to shape it and focus its work. We are creating a foundation for young people with parents in prison to make their voices heard nationally and compellingly.

Chesa Boudin recently graduated summa cum laude from Yale University and is studying issues of forced migration at Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar. Emani Davis works with Centerforce, a community-based human services agency serving families affected by incarceration. In 2004, she and her mother, Elizabeth Gaynes, became the first Americans nominated for the World's Children's Prize for the Rights of the Child.


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