‘Nothing is black and white: there’s a lot of gray’

How old were you when you became an adult? Were you 16? 15? How about 10?

That’s the question the Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project poses at the start of one of videos. I’d say 25, I thought to myself, only half-joking.

The idea went on to haunt me. The number 25, along with the faces of kids and teenagers in my life, kept flashing before me as I read on about this Philadelphia nonprofit that provides mitigation and reentry services for young people being treated as adults in our courts and prisons – particularly children sentenced to life in prison without parole.

That’s right. Children sentenced to life in prison without parole. The United States is the only country in the world that does this; we even have an acronym for it (JLWOP). And of more than 2,000 JLWOP cases that must be resentenced, thanks to the 2016 U.S. Supreme Court Montgomery vs. Louisiana decision, Pennsylvania has 500, and Philadelphia more than whopping 300.

Lawyers Lauren Fine, 33, and Joanna Visser Adjoian, 34, got to know each other during and after law school when they were working with families of incarcerated youth. They created the YSRP in 2014 to address the misinformation and lack of support that often results in young people’s cases entering the adult system – cases like that of Eugene, who, at 16, was sent to adult jail as a result of a botched group robbery attempt using a BB gun he didn’t handle, in which no one was hurt, and in which no money was taken.

Fine and Visser Adjoian helped Eugene’s case get transferred to the juvenile justice system and, once he made bail, connected him with education and counseling services he needed.

I spoke to the lawyers about how our country reached this pass and what they are bracing for in the new presidential administration. Excerpts follow.

So – a lot of this project is about me realizing how much I don’t know.

JV: That’s like every day for us [laughs].

There was so much on your site I didn’t know before. What struck me the most was on your list of Frequently Asked Questions: “Why should kids receive special treatment?” Is this really a question you frequently hear? How is this a question for our country?

JV: We first drafted those when we were getting started, feeling like we needed to justify our existence, and trying to anticipate pushback we could get from any member of any audience. It went back to really what goes back to the basis of having these law on the books in the first place: the terrible superpredator era of, “You do an adult crime, you serve adult time.” Our desire was to cut this off at the pass and address this head-on – to say that our work is informed by the belief that no kid deserves to be in adult jail.

The United States is the only country in the world that’s treating kids in this way – how did this happen

LF: Race is at the center, and otherization in general, and the idea of certain children being different from other children: using terms like juvenile delinquent, juvenile offender. In our view even the word “juvenile” has an impact, and we try not to use it as a noun. Certainly the idea that there are some children who are inherently bad and corrupted, and should be treated in a way that those who propagate those kinds of laws, across the board, would not want their children to be treated.

Bad facts make bad law, and there were a number of cases in the 90s in particular when the superpredator myth was rising from academia that made it easier that made it easier to justify decisions in legislatures accordingly, to “protect” people from what they feared.

JV: We subscribe to the racial justice or racial injustice view of how our criminal justice has evolved over time, that Michelle Alexander writes about in “The New Jim Crow,” and that Ava Duvernay has so brilliantly pulled together in “13th.” The undercurrent of modern-day slavery as reflected in our system of mass incarceration disproportionately impacts young men of color. That’s what we see day in and day out in our cases:  both in terms of the young people prosecuted directly in adult court, and now the hundreds of juvenile lifers in Pennsylvania who have spent the majority of their life behind bars, since they were kids.

As we’re heading into the impacts and ramifications of our new administration, this is something we’re paying close attention to: how these dynamics are going to be exacerbated.

A promotional image for Ava DuVernay’s Netflix documentary “13th.”

In terms of the Trump administration, are there any issues or changes you’re engaged with already, or are you waiting to see what transpires?

JV: It’s all of the above. We’re in a bit of a wait-and-see posture right now, but not really. We can anticipate what’s coming down the pike… Lifting up a Blue Lives Matter narrative over a Black Lives Matter narrative is directly impactful on our work and something that we would be pushing back on from the start. As a colleague wisely advised a week or two ago, we are storing up our energy for when more explicit things come down that we need to respond to.

We also take an intersectional approach, feeling like we’re all implicated here… [on issues like] the Muslim ban and immigration.

There’s a section of “13th” that discusses the idea that a merging of the immigration system and criminal justice system is taking place. In President Trump’s speech to the joint session of Congress, he talked about getting gang members and drug dealers out of the country, and I saw it differently than I would have even a couple of months ago. It’s all knitted together.

JV: Yup. That was an incredible line. This idea of the bad ones, getting the bad ones out, all goes back to the idea of the bad guys being the superpredator kids. It’s rooted in the same racism.

What can people to do to take action on this? We can donate to your organization, of course! For people in other regions, what organizations can they engage with?

LF: There’s a DC-based organization called the Campaign for Youth Justice and there’s another one specifically on the issue of juvenile sentencing without parole, the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. They have an important, sweeping perspective: getting involved on the litigation front, but also doing family organizing with loved ones of people serving life sentences, as well as loved ones of people who were lost to individuals who were then convicted of life without parole. Their goal as an organization is to get rid of sentences of life without parole for children.

The Incarcerated Children Advocacy Network – ICAN – is made up of individuals who, as children, were sentenced as life without parole but have been released through various legal mechanisms, and are doing really amazing things in countries around the country.

Many people now are getting more involved in the political process. On this issue, I guess a first step people can take is to find out about their own state’s policies, right?

LF: It can be really encouraging the focus on the local level with these issues. There’s a lot of change that can happen on the municipal level or the state level.

JV: It’s become really clear for us that there’s huge power in local elections – in particular in states like ours where judges and district attorneys are elected. That’s something people can do even if there isn’t an organization on the ground. They can pay more attention to these kinds of elections and hold the folks who are running accountable.

There’s been a lot of attention on the legal profession in general in the past few weeks and the power that lawyers can have. Have you experienced fellow lawyers showing new interest in addressing some of these issues?

LF: Philadelphia is a sanctuary city; there have been a lot of efforts directed and defending members of our immigrant community who are under attack right now. Our local Bar Association has been really fantastic in convening a lot of our partners, colleagues, and local attorneys to get them trained in deportation defense and figuring out what the front line should look like. It’s encouraging knowing how the community has mobilized so far, and that when issues [related to criminal justice] present themselves, similar mobilization efforts will likely occur.

You’ll each have a million answers for this question – but what have you learned from the young people you are working with, that you wish more people knew?

LF: At the risk of being really cliché, I think an overarching theme that I have learned is that nothing is black and white. Our system is designed to put things in those terms, but people are really complex; there’s a lot of gray. Even in the advocacy world, we want things to be black and white, and there’s complexity and grayness there, too.

It’s about recognizing the full humanity of everyone we come in contact with, and understanding that this doesn’t fit into an easy narrative, but trying to really understand people as individuals.

And that’s what our country is struggling with on every level.

JV: I keep thinking about what one of the young people we work with said to me last week – in our first meeting, actually. We were just getting to know each other. He looked at me and said, “You know, I have so much untapped potential, and I have never had an opportunity to reach my full potential, and I need help doing that.”

That degree of self-awareness was so – I can’t even find the right word. Poignant, I think. It reminded me that the systemic oppression and inequality that our young people and families are experiencing are not lost on them. They are aware of the barriers that we have erected on people’s paths. It was a helpful reminder, at the very least, and something we need to remind ourselves of in terms of how we do the work.

LF: This is easy, Hallmark-y, but to put a more positive perspective in the mix, too: just how resilient people are. Even in the face of all these things, there’s still that hopefulness in wanting to reach one’s potential. That’s so important in all of this.

Donate to the Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project here; meet other women leaders from the Shadow Cabinet series here.

Comments, suggestions? Connect with me on Facebook or Twitter.


‘Don’t be the one clipping your own wings’

Read more Shadow Cabinet interviews here.

Step one if you want to interview Mariana Santos? Figure out where in the world she is.

And no, following her on Facebook won’t help much. As the driving force between a growing international network of journalists, she’s not only traveling constantly to trainings and events, but also sharing updates, event announcements and most of all, news from all over the world. Oftentimes, it’s groundbreaking digital journalism created by members of Chicas Poderosas (Powerful Girls), an organization she founded in 2013 and now co-directs with Vicki Hammarstedt, the digital media director of the Berkeley Advanced Media Institute.

The organization’s goal is to address the gender gap Santos, 34, experienced during her work in digital media at organizations including The Guardian and Fusion, and to provide women – both professional and citizen journalists – with the tools they need to tell their stories online. From free training and events to the organization’s New Ventures Lab, which offers intensive support to women-led media startups, Chicas is on a mission to get women telling stories using digital tools they might otherwise be uncomfortable using.

Continue reading ‘Don’t be the one clipping your own wings’

Why despair in the age of Trump means we need to know more, not less

Here’s what surprised me the most during Donald Trump’s first month in office – a period I prefer to think of as my first month with the Shadow Cabinet.

During each of the past four weeks, I’ve interviewed one remarkable woman: an immigration lawyer in New Mexico, a public-education advocate in Alaska, a business owner who promotes activism through art in Pennsylvania, and a Washington, D.C. innovator who made congressional pressure as easy as sending a text.

Before each chat, I was nervous, and not just because these women are powerful and extraordinary. I was nervous because they know so much about the problems facing our country, and are so in tune with populations and institutions at risk. I expected to learn terrible truths and come away the way I generally come away from the news: depressed and feeling helpless.

Instead, every time, I hung up the phone and practically ran up the walls with excitement. Allegra, Alyse, Maryam and Laura replaced my despair with energy.

Continue reading Why despair in the age of Trump means we need to know more, not less

‘Making calls is the gateway drug to political involvement’

Every woman I’ve spoken to for this series is busy by definition. But in the case of Laura Moser, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that I can hear the time pressure in her voice over the phone – understandable for a woman who is surely experiencing one of the busiest times in her life.

A woman who, in a matter of months, has become the person on whom hundreds of thousands of people depend to help them strike back at the Trump Administration’s most extreme positions.

A woman with a $30,000 phone bill.


How did Moser, 39, an accomplished writer and mother of two, come to preside over the phenomenon that is Daily Action, a service through which users can easily sign up – just text DAILY to the number 228466 – to receive a daily text tailored to their specific location with a key message to convey to their representatives? (The service then automatically connects the user to the elected official of the day, making a daily call a one-stop operation that can be done almost hands-free on the way to work.)

Continue reading ‘Making calls is the gateway drug to political involvement’

‘Can we bridge this gap?’

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I’ll admit it. When I picture an activist, I tend to envision picket lines and marches and petitions; if I associate it with a profession or field, it’s probably the law or politics. Activism is all of those things, but as I browsed with amazement through the website of Philadelphia Printworks, I realized that a true activist can infuse any of her endeavors with that spirit – art, fashion, business, writing, or, in the case of Printworks founder Maryam Pugh, all of the above.

The local business, which Pugh, 35, created in 2010, sells clothes in thought-provoking collections such as School of Thought, whose collegiate designs bear the names, not of famed universities, but of iconic black thinkers and leaders such as Harriet Tubman or Audre Lord. Other collections include Cats Against Catcalling, Professional Black Girl and Cognitive Dissonance – basically, these are clothes that are guaranteed to start a conversation.

Continue reading ‘Can we bridge this gap?’

‘This is grassroots: just authentic’

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If there’s one word I do not associate with the frantic struggle against the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, it’s “fun.” But when I called a stranger more than 6500 miles away who’s in the thick of that fight, she reminded me that fun is a key component of activism, even when the stakes are dire.

(Courtesy of Alyse Surratt Galvin/Via Facebook)

Three years ago, Alyse Surratt Galvin, 51, attended a school board meeting to find out why funding cuts were threatening the job of her kids’ beloved art teacher; she went on to co-found Great Alaska Schools, a non-partisan advocacy group focused on quality public education statewide. The educational consultant and mother of three eventually stepped back from her consulting work to focus on the organization full-time.

Great Alaska Schools supporters made headlines across the country last week when they took on their first national education issue, flooding the offices of Republican Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan to ask them to oppose DeVos. Murkowski then announced she would oppose the nomination, telling the Alaska Dispatch News that the estimated 30,000 calls her office had received were “overwhelming.”

As I scrolled through the story, a woman with a megaphone caught my eye. Who was she? How did she get there, and how were Alaskans creating such a vibrant movement?

Continue reading ‘This is grassroots: just authentic’

‘Before you say you want to help, say you want to learn’

Allegra Love doesn’t mince words. It’s obvious from the pace and passion of her speech that she doesn’t waste time, either. The immigration lawyer can’t afford to, not with her clients depending on her – plus the onslaught of “thousands of emails” and calls since the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, just one week before we spoke.

The waves of new attention come from people who want to help the organization she created: the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, which provides free legal aid to immigrant youth and their families.

At one point during our Skype conversation, Love stands up to go ask her colleagues for a website address she wants to give me. “I’m sitting outside,” she explains, “so I don’t disturb all the other lawyers while I YELL. AT. YOU.” She laughs for a split second, recognizing the heightened emotion that has dominated the conversation, and then the moment of mirth is gone and it’s back to the urgent topic at hand.

Continue reading ‘Before you say you want to help, say you want to learn’


Rosie The Riveter.jpgWelcome to Shadow Cabinet, one writer’s quest to interview women on the front lines of the fight for human rights in today’s United States.

There’s so much information – heartbreaking, infuriating and inspiring – coming at us hourly after only nine days of the country’s 45th president. We all need to be calling our representatives, signing petitions and putting our money where our mouth is, but I also feel a need for something both bigger and smaller than that: weekly conversation. I hope you’ll join me here for brief, weekly chats with inspiring women who have suggestions to share about how we can make a difference alongside them.

Read more about the idea here and please contact me with your suggestions or feedback on Twitter (@shadowcabinet45) or at kstan.cr@gmail.com.