The power of a teacher’s gaze

What is the most important part of a teacher? 

What about her gaze?

Bullying starts in silence. In subtleties. It’s glances, murmurs, a passed note, a brushing-by in the hallway that’s a little too rough. Sometimes this is invisible to teachers, but not to Niña Lidiabeth. She could see that the other kids didn’t like the new first-grader: already una nerdita, overly eager to please and excel, cursed by a Panamanian accent after four years spent abroad for her father’s work. La Niña Lidiabeth protected her over-achieving charge just as silently and subtly. An authoritative glance. A well-placed word of support. A little chineo, a tiny singling-out: not enough to increase the ridicule, just enough to warn off the vultures. Those jaws of bullying, poised and threatening, never closed down on the little girl.

So small and precise, impeccably dressed, with large, beautiful earrings framing her face, la Niña was full of sayings: The lazy and the mean must do everything twice. Do it slowly, because we are in a rush. These truisms, such throwaways on someone else’s lips, were transformed by the steady gaze of la Niña Lidiabeth into standards that would shape her students for life. 

One day, she pressed a set of papers into the little girl’s hands and issued an order: run for student body president. “But Niña, no one even likes me!” “You’ll do it, and you’ll win.” What did she see, deep inside the girl who somehow won that election, whose voice now seemed to matter? 

The nerdita had never held a proper camera or learned to take a photo, but with Niña Lidiabeth, she learned more than math or reading. She learned the power of the gaze. What we choose to view. What we leave out of the shot, ignore, obscure. What we do with what we’ve seen. Will we look and leave it be, or will we, like the greatest of teachers, find a way to act?

As published today in El Colectivo 506. Image courtesy of El Colectivo 506 and Mónica Quesada Cordero. Text by Katherine Stanley Obando, inspired by photojournalist Mónica Quesada’s love for her teacher, Lidiabeth Leitón García. Is there a Costa Rican teacher who looms large in your mind? Tell me! Our weekly #MediaNaranja series this month is dedicated to teachers.

El Colectivo is the new, bilingual media organization I co-founded with two friends last year. Our Sunday #MediaNaranja series collects short love stories with a Costa Rican connection: romances, friendships, love of humans, animals, things, places, ideas. To share your own ideas for stories to be featured in this space, write to me at

Our kids and the big wide world

Ah, kids and the pandemic. So many desperate Facebook posts; so many thinkpieces (yes, like this one). Some people say they are far better off at home. Some say their little minds are wasting away into goo.

I look back to my daughter’s school longingly – she will be a happier kid when she can get back there, hug her teachers and run in circles with her friends – but then my gaze keeps going. To the jumbly streets of the neighborhood just outside the gates of the school. To the parks and plazas that are empty. To the mountaintops beyond that. To the coasts beyond that, full of people who, right now, are trying to figure out an immediate future without tourism of any kind.

Costa Rica is my daughter’s classroom, and what a classroom it is. But it took being completely confined to our house for me to realize how little I take advantage of the world when it comes to her. Only when I became completely unable to take her to the river in the park to learn about freshwater life and pollution, or to a small town in the mountains to learn about coffee production, did I realize how pointless it is to even think she is being educated, if she is not doing those things.

This is a well-trod soapbox. There are many, many wheels here that don’t need reinventing, especially when it comes to exposing our children to the natural world: the Forest Kindergarten movement and, in Costa Rica, Guardianes de la Naturaleza are two incredible examples, as are books such as “How to Raise a Wild Child.” On the human side, there are so many wonderful teachers and schools that connect with community leaders and struggles both near and far in extraordinary ways.

Stuck at home, I’ve realized what should have been obvious: that these efforts need to be not an extracurricular, but the beating heart of our schools.

I recently co-founded the Costa Rica Corps; we hope that this entity will one day, public health conditions allowing, guide young Costa Rican adults into service experiences where they learn as much as they provide. Less clear to me, but equally important, is how we can broaden and deepen the learning experiences for younger kids. I know it requires individual private and public schools building meaningful partnerships, with each other and with communities, to tackle this question together (something that Guardianes de la Naturaleza also promotes). I know it requires redefining “community service” as the essential learning process that it truly is. I know it requires casting out old ideas about rural and low-income communities as recipients of food donations or murals, and embracing the reality: that they are not just a beneficiary to be served, but also a teacher from which to learn. So many of our most innovative and creative solutions, dynamic initiatives and transformative leaders are out there, just waiting for our kids to engage with them. Not on a field trip or through a clothing drive, but as an integral part of their curriculum.

I have been dreaming about a Giving Tuesday Kids or a Costa Rica Corps Junior, or simply supporting people who are already doing the work of bringing the center of gravity of our kids’ education out of the classroom and into Costa Rica’s communities. No matter where the path leads, I have a lot to learn. If you’re doing this work or know someone I should talk to, or if you’d like to just dream with me a little bit, please get in touch. I hope that, out of all this shut-in-ness, we can bring more of our kids into the streets of their country, and into the forests, and into the light.

I’m a writer in San José, Costa Rica, on a year-long quest to share daily posts on inspiring people, places and ideas from my adopted home as a kind of tonic during a rough time in the world. Sign up (top right of this page) to receive a little dose of inspiration every weekday in your mailbox; tell a friend; check out past posts; and please connect with me on Instagram or FacebookIf you want to learn more about how to support Costa Rica during the crisis, visit my COVID-19 section, updated regularly – or for ways to enjoy Costa Rica from afar, visit Virtual Costa Rica.


Celebrating teachers in Costa Rica – especially Batán de Limón

Last week, I talked and wrote about champions of kids. Today, during Teacher Appreciation Week, here’s a little more information about one of the stories I mentioned: the teachers in Batán de Limón, on Costa Rica’s Caribbean slope, who have turned to radio in hopes of reaching all their students, no matter what their connectivity at home.

Here’s what the Ministry of Public Education shared using #vocaciondocente, the hashtag that will lead you to all kinds of inspiring teacher stories:

Music teachers at the Vocational High School in Batán, Limón, created an internet radio station to communicate with their students… it became the ideal tool to educate kids at a distance in the Caribbean region.

“Radio Batalents” is the name of the station, led by teacher Bladimir Alvarado Álvarez with the support of Zuricka Gómez Obando and Álvaro Herrera Vázquez. The station brodcasts classes with shows like “Let’s talk about music,” which uses lectures, examples, concepts and activities to address the curricular demands of every year of high school.

The station also offers community news, greetings that students send to the station, and classes with teachers of other subjects, as well as a blog.

You can read more about Radio Batalents here, or give it a listen here. Thank you to Bladimir, Zuricka, Alvaro, and all the teachers who are showing not only dedication to their students, but also amazing creativity as they seek to reach the kids without internet at home, or who are facing other challenges in conecting to teachers.

Remember, search #vocaciondocente on Facebook anytime you need a lift. Join me tomorrow at 8 am CR/10 am ET to talk for a few minutes about shopping local.

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week to all!

I’m a writer in San José, Costa Rica, on a year-long quest to share daily posts on inspiring people, places and ideas from my adopted home as a kind of tonic during a rough time in the world. Sign up (top right of this page) to receive a little dose of inspiration every weekday in your mailbox; tell a friend; check out past posts; and please connect with me on Instagram or FacebookIf you want to learn more about how to support Costa Rica during the crisis, visit my COVID-19 section, updated regularly – or for ways to enjoy Costa Rica from afar, visit Virtual Costa Rica.

Celebrating our kids’ champions, part II: A few great ideas

Thank you to everyone who sent incredible stories and ideas for kids during this crisis! Here are a few of those discussed yesterday in the FB Live, plus some extras:

Daily calls for students

So many teachers, principals, nonprofits and other leaders are doing extraordinary things to monitor whether kids’ basic needs – housing, food, safety – are being met. I told the story yesterday of Costa Rican Andrés Ugalde Castro, a paraprofessional at a middle school in Lawrence, MA; his wife Michelle wrote to tell us that Andrés “has been calling students day and night” and that for immigrant students, “having a bilingual role model like Andrés-whom they can count on for guidance & help has been such a game changer.” In Arizona, Phoenix Union High School District Superintendent Chad Gestson started “Every Student, Every Day,” which you can read more about here. I hope many schools support their staff in doing this time-consuming and sometimes emotionally difficult daily outreach that is so important. And here’s Andrés:

Supporting kids in need in San José

My heartfelt thanks go out to the many champions of kids in low-income urban areas in San José. These kids often have no way to stay in touch with their teachers, have little or no room to themselves, have no green spaces to play in and may have food and rent security issues. Some are also facing abuse. Organizations like Boy with a Ball (for kids in Los Cuadros) and the Costa Rican Humanitarian Foundation (for kids in La Carpio) are doing absolutely outstanding, and often heartrending, work. I am so grateful to both. The featured image is from Boy with a Ball, and here’s another:

Incredible Costa Rican teachers

Go here (or search #vocaciondocente on Facebook) to read stories of Costa Rican teachers who are making the difference. I’ll be sharing individual stories in future Boosts, but let’s just say that Roxana Vargas, Rocío Castro, Bladimir Alvarado and Cindy Céspedes are my heroes right now.

Fun stuff

There are so many ways your kids can enjoy Costa Rica online right now, and I try to gather as many as possible in my Virtual Costa Rica section. One cool new one is a tapir contest being run by the incredible research and conservation organization Nai Conservation. Draw a tapir with your kids and you can win delicious chocolates and postcards! Check it out and learn more about Nai, here. Finally, check out the Reto Guardián from the wonderful people at Guardianes de la Naturaleza. It’s a fun way for kids to stay connected and motivated to protect the planet during these hard times.

Thanks and keep those great ideas and shout-outs coming. Next week’s Live will be about shopping local and some creative new ideas for how to do that! Stay tuned…

I’m a writer in San José, Costa Rica, on a year-long quest to share daily posts on inspiring people, places and ideas from my adopted home as a kind of tonic during a rough time in the world. Sign up (top right of this page) to receive a little dose of inspiration every weekday in your mailbox; tell a friend; check out past posts; and please connect with me on Instagram or FacebookIf you want to learn more about how to support Costa Rica during the crisis, visit my COVID-19 section, updated regularly – or for ways to enjoy Costa Rica from afar, visit Virtual Costa Rica.

Celebrating our kids’ champions, part I: Daily Boost Live

Join me for a little cafecito and some inspiring stories from people working hard on behalf of kids! Tomorrow’s post will include more info and links on some of these projects. Breathe in, breathe out: you’re doing enough. Even when you’re not. (You know what I mean.)

Day 41: One of the best decisions ever

So governments are very frustrating, but sometimes – usually hundreds of years ago – they really hit the nail on the head. Did you know that Nov. 10 is the Day of the Costa Rican Primary School? Me, neither, but it’s the day when, in 1869, Costa Rica declared primary school to be free and obligatory.

To put this in context, Costa Rica had only been an independent nation for 48 years at that point, and given everything I’ve learned about Costa Rican history, I think this must have been a terribly ambitious declaration. Maybe, like a certain U.S. declaration, the rub was in actually creating access for everyone to this universal right – but at least the declaration makes that quest legally necessary. Costa Rica’s commitment to education has shaped the country’s history for generations, and is one of the reasons I am proud to call this place my home.

Mónica Quesada

I’ve spent a lot of time in Costa Rican elementary schools, but certainly one of my happiest excuses to do so is JumpStart Costa Rica, the academic vacation camps I co-founded and that today are implemented by Peace Corps Volunteers. (There will be a whopping 21 camps this coming January, funded by the Costa USA Foundation, where I now work!) Thanks to the incredible photojournalist Mónica Quesada for these images, taken at camps in elementary schools in San Isidro de León Cortés and (last photo) in Rincón Grande de Pavas, 2014.

Mónica Quesada

Mónica Quesada

I’m a writer in San José, Costa Rica, on a year-long quest to share daily posts on inspiring people, places and ideas from my adopted home as a kind of tonic during a rough time in the world. Sign up (top right of this page) to receive a little dose of inspiration every weekday in your mailbox; tell a friend; check out past posts; and please connect with me on Instagram or Facebook! You can also find me churning out small, square poems on any topic under the sun (here on the site, on Instagram or Twitter). 


Day 21: There is a castle in the clouds

If you’re reading this bright and early on Monday morning, you’re probably bracing yourself, just as I am. Right? Is at least part of your brain thinking, “Oh, lord. It’s Monday. What fresh hell will be inflicted on us by the time I turn off my computer tonight?”

I hear you. Here’s something that I plan to draw comfort from when those crises roll around. No matter what happens out in the world, there is one place where you can be sure something good will have happened by the end of today. There is a little corner of Costa Rica, hidden away up a long and winding road, where people from all over the world will have spent the day trying to figure out together how to fix the environment, resolve conflicts and promote world peace.

I recently got to spend three days at the University for Peace, and I gotta tell you, it makes me feel better just knowing it’s there. On a hillside where toucans flit from tree to tree, every corner you turn yields a new spot to rest and reflect, the bathrooms are adorned with poetry, and the benches are labeled “BENCH OF DREAMS,” it’s impossible to be cynical. It’s impossible not to be grateful for the foresight of the people who donated this incredible piece of land; the UN General Assembly for establishing this institution; the Executive Education Centre that allows people like me to take a class; and the fresh-faced young people – they might not all be fresh-faced and young, but that was my overwhelming impression – who seek out a degree there. They’re not doing it to become more prosperous, or even more successful, by the traditional standards many of us might employ. They’re doing it to become effective leaders, to make a bigger difference, and to become gentler human beings.

If you live in Costa Rica, head to Ciudad Colón and take a day trip up to the public park next to the university, where you can stroll around and even enjoy a meal at the little restaurant nestled between ponds, Kaninka. The drive up alone is soul-soothing. And if you can’t go in person, try making UPeace – or your favorite lovely spot where future leaders are being educated – your happy place for awhile. Pour yourself a cup of coffee at the university soda, sit down on a Bench of Dreams (because who doesn’t want to sit on a bench of dreams?), smile as a muddy dog or marmalade cat inevitably curls up nearby, and gaze out over the valley below. We are not alone. If we don’t have the strength to think of answers, someone out there is doing it for us – and when they sleep, or give up hope, maybe that’s when we’ll find the energy to take a shift.

May this idea bring you a little peace of mind as a new week begins.

I’m a writer in San José, Costa Rica, on a year-long quest to share daily posts on inspiring people, places and ideas from my adopted home as a kind of tonic during a rough time in the world. Sign up (top right of this page) to receive a little dose of inspiration every weekday in your mailbox; tell a friend; check out past posts; and please connect with me on Instagram or Facebook! You can also find me churning out small, square poems on any topic under the sun (here on the site, on Instagram or Twitter). 

Day 11: The empowerment of women starts right here

Courtesy of Soy Niña

It’s an extraordinary time to be a woman – and by that I mean heartbreaking, exhilarating, exhausting and energizing. Many whose experiences of abuse and oppression have long been ignored are finally starting to be heard. Those of us who are more fortunate, whose eyes have been opened by courageous revelations in many countries and the disgusting responses they often provoke, are sometimes left with a sense of impotence. Clearly, the empowerment and defense of women is an urgent task, but it can be easy to feel useless in the face of the deep-rooted hatred that is increasingly laid bare.

That’s why getting to know Ana Laura Araya and her program Soy Niña, a new organization near my home in Costa Rica, was not only inspiring but also provided me with a sense of relief. Here is a thing that is being done. Soy Niña works to empower women in a way that makes all the sense in the world: by starting when they are girls. Their flagship program, Club Niña, works with girls from Desamparados, just south of San José; it’s where Ana Laura grew up, but where problems and poverty have since multiplied. Club Niña surrounds those girls with weekly support focused on issues from self-esteem to nutrition to STEM skills. It connects them with powerful allies and role models. Most importantly, it promises to stay by their side until they’re launched in life: the program begins at the age of six and is moving up as the girls continue into the upper grades.

All photos courtesy of Soy Niña. Her sign reads, “The right to equality.”

It’s an unusual program in that its focus is very specific – to reduce the rates of teenage pregnancy in communities where they are extraordinarily high, and in a country struggling with sexual abuse and statutory rape – but it is working toward that goal in the broadest possible way, both in terms of the time invested and in terms of the base of self-esteem it is building in these girls. This is not a quick fix. And if you’ve been paying attention in Costa Rica, or most any country, you know that this problem is beyond quick fixes. It is about deep changes that must take place one person at a time.

Soy Niña Costa Rica
Ask Ana Laura Araya (left) for a photo of her, and you’ll get is selfies with the people she wants to highlight: members of the Soy Niña community.

When I visited the program recently at one of their sites, Parque La Libertad (an incredible nonprofit facility that’s worth its own Boost), Ana Laura explained that we could sit in because today was a lighter day; on some others, the discussion among the girls and program staff is of course highly sensitive and not appropriate for outside visitors to overhear. Today, they were learning photography. Their faces were bright, full of enthusiasm. As I have so many times over the years when  visiting programs that work with children, I felt my heart both sink and swell at the contrast between the unaffected exuberance on display across the lawn and the daunting statistics and life circumstances Ana Laura had described. Soy Niña works within that contrast, building on that natural resilience and strength to face the challenges head-on. I was amazed to see that because Ana Laura and her staff work with so many volunteers, they provide all this programming with a budget of just $30 per kid, per month.

Soy Niña Costa Rica
Courtesy of Soy Niña

On this last day of September, a month that celebrates democracy and freedom in Costa Rica, I am proud to celebrate one woman, her staff and a passionate community who are making what I consider a massive contribution to both democracy and freedom: building future citizens, professionals, voters, women who know their own worth. I hope I will not soon forget the joy on the faces of the girls of Soy Niña, running across green grass in Desamparados. It was a balm for my soul, but it was much more than that. It was a call to action. It was a spark to urge us forward. It was a warning about the power of young women – a power we must protect, a power we cannot afford to lose.

Learn more about Soy Niña here. Added bonus: Their Instagram feed is a joy, often featuring portraits of young women from around Costa Rica explaining what being a girl here means to them. Follow for a source of inspiration and motivation. And as always – I’d love to hear from you. What are the organizations standing up for women’s rights where you live? Let me know.

I’m a writer in San José, Costa Rica, on a year-long quest to share daily posts on inspiring people, places and ideas from my adopted home as a kind of tonic during a rough time in the world. Sign up (top right of this page) to receive a little dose of inspiration every weekday in your mailbox; tell a friend; check out past posts; and please connect with me on Instagram or Facebook!

Soy Niña Costa Rica
Courtesy of Soy Niña

The power of immigrant vision

Founders’ Day remarks delivered at The Derryfield School, Manchester, New Hampshire, May 19, 2017.


Thank you, Dr. Carter, the Founders, Mr. Sanborn, and everyone who played any part in helping me get me back to Derryfield today, including my parents, who made the drive from Eastport, Maine. The list of reasons we love Derryfield is very long, but one I have been thinking about lately is how much I was allowed to try when I was here. Middle and high school are always going to be scary – but I got to experience that part of my life in a place where I felt able not only to do the things I was naturally good at, but also to do things I was clueless about. I mean, they let ME on the soccer team! Mr. Holland let ME through the door of his classroom every day for years! Breakthrough Manchester let ME teach a total immersion Latin class to sixth-graders.

I was not great at any of those things. That means that Derryfield helped me start to learn what it felt like to enter new spaces where I did not quite belong. Those small experiences of awkwardness in a safe place build up little muscles that help us deal with bigger uncertainties later on. Those muscles, that practice of cluelessness, have been crucial for me as an adult.

Continue reading The power of immigrant vision

‘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.

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