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Sparer Symposium convenes scholars, activists, community leaders to aid at-risk youth

March 19, 2012

by Jenny Chung C’12

On March 16, 2012, a diverse group of policy experts, scholars, activists, and community leaders addressed the pressing issues of aiding at-risk youth in the transition to adulthood as part of the 31st annual Edward V. Sparer Symposium, convened at Penn Law’s Levy Conference Room.

Sponsored by the Law School’s Toll Public Interest Center, the day-long event consisted of five panels centered on the countless challenges confronted by today’s youth—both domestically and worldwide—in addition to the initiatives and advocacy efforts aiming to mitigate them.

Opening with a panel on “Strategies for Facilitating the Transition from Adolescence to Adulthood,” the Symposium also featured an expert discussion of “Transnational Conversation on Youth Empowerment,” followed by discussions addressing, respectively, juvenile justice protections and the roles of murals and media in responses to housing challenges faced by Philadelphia youth. The final panel, titled “Educate or Incarcerate?”, examined the policies and programs developed to reduce youth incarceration rates through improving education.

Featured Panel—Bringing Human Rights Home: A Transnational Conversation on Youth Empowerment

The second of the day’s panel discussions invoked the expertise of a range of advocates for at-risk youth and other marginalized communities, including former inmates and HIV-positive young men who have sex with men.

Speaking on the core principles undergirding his approach to social work, Dorothy Mann Center program coordinator Noel Ramirez named both the capacity for self-advocacy and the cultivation of a critical consciousness as central objectives he helps clients achieve. According to Ramirez, one of the principal aims of the Center—which offers HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment and outreach to at-risk Philadelphia youth—is to “help clients find empowerment within themselves and each other.”

Janine Kossen, director of Public Policy at Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Advocates for Youth, echoed the importance of youth empowerment.

The need to provide youth with access to adequate reproductive education and healthcare is particularly dire in developing countries, she added, where systemic poverty, gender inequality and high HIV infection rates are endemic.

“The leading cause of death among women from 15 to 19 in the global context is pregnancy and childbirth,” she said. “We must educate, empower and engage young people.”

The thread of empowerment was again taken up by Imani Walker, a survivor of physical violence and untreated addiction, who co-founded the Rebecca Project for Human Rights where she now acts as executive director. Walker, who experienced firsthand the difficulty of seeking treatment for addiction as a mother, emphasized the necessity of facilitating dialogue between policymakers and the families affected by their legislation. “The catalyst for change must come from the community… from the voices of the girls and mothers who are impacted,” she said.

Kwame Fosu, CFO and Director of International Affairs for the Rebecca Project, followed with an overview of his founding of the Project’s Educating Girls to Empower Girls Initiative, which “a gendered leadership approach” counter to the dominant one in Africa, where women are categorically excluded from positions of authority.

In her work as Director of Legal Services at Homeboy Industries, Elie Miller routinely assists felons with expunging convictions, child visitation documents, divorces and child support. In the spirit of its mission statement “Jobs Not Jails,” the program offers clients mental health and tattoo removal services, Alcoholics Anonymous sessions, court-certified domestic violence classes and anger management courses, among other means of rehabilitation and training.

“Even though people are out of prison and on the right track, substance abuse and domestic violence are still big issues,” Miller said.

Grace Akallo, who was abducted at 14 by a rebel group in Northern Uganda and escaped after seven months in captivity, founded United Africans for Women and Children’s Rights after witnessing the stigma faced both by abducted children upon returning to their communities in Africa and by children committed to foster care due to parental incarceration or substance abuse in the United States.

“No child in any part of the world deserves to go through what I went though—anyone who’s a human being should be doing something to resolve the problems of youth, whether in America or Africa,” she said.

Observing that the present generation boasts the largest relative population of young people in the history of the planet—with nearly half of the globe’s 7 billion occupants under 25—Kossen called for the inclusion of the “authentic voice [of youth] on Capitol Hill.”

According to Kossen, such initiatives as youth leadership councils are valuable because they provide outlets for youth to discuss issues of relevance to them. “It’s important to give youth opportunities to speak out…to reach out to marginalized youth with social media…and to [help them develop] decision-making capabilities with regard to all the programs and policies that impact them,” she said.

In addition to stressing the importance of teaching youth to “advocate for themselves,” Fosu exhorted lawyers and activists who hope to champion the interests of at-risk youth to “stay true to the cause, believe and always challenge.”

“All of us can advocate for issues, and we’re all responsible to each other to voice them,” Akallo added. “We can say ‘our Congressmen can do this,’ but individually we also have to contribute to change within our own communities.”

Keynote Address – Rachel Lloyd, GEMS

 Rachel Lloyd
Rachel Lloyd, Founder and Executive Director of GEMS: Girls Educational & Mentoring Services
The panel was followed by a keynote address delivered by Rachel Lloyd, Founder and Executive Director of GEMS: Girls Educational & Mentoring Services. Based in New York City, GEMS is now the nation’s largest organization offering direct services and outreach to victims of sexual exploitation and trafficking. In 2008, the organization contributed to the passage of the New York Safe Harbor Act for Exploited Children, which ended the criminalization of trafficking victims.

“We’re more of a youth empowerment/gender-based violence organization than an anti-trafficking one,” Lloyd said, highlighting the need to view trafficking “as part of other systemic issues affecting youth.”

Evoking her experiences working with adult women emerging from the sex industry in 1997, Lloyd recalled “meeting 12- and 13-year-olds told to lie [about their ages] by their pimps, held in adult correctional jails.”

Underage victims of sex trafficking in the United States continued to be regarded as prostitutes rather than victims, she said, even after the Trafficking Victims Protection Act—which acknowledged the victimization of non-U.S. citizens exclusively—came into law in 2000.

“Over the years our biggest fight has been to ensure the recognition of victimization happening to girls in this country as the same thing happening to girls in Ukraine, Thailand [and] Cambodia,” Lloyd said. “13- and 14-year-old girls were arrested and charged with prostitution they couldn’t legally consent to—it doesn’t make legal or moral sense.”

Affirming the importance of “survivor leadership,” Lloyd spoke to the necessity of trafficking survivors coming to the forefront and developing expertise in the issues that concern them.

According to Lloyd, since the passage of the Safe Harbor Act in New York—designating it the first state in the country to “protect, not prosecute children for an act of prostitution they couldn’t even legally consent to”—nine other states have passed Safe Harbor legislation.

“I’m really proud of the work we did in Albany, not only because we changed state law, but because girls whose voices had been continually silenced were the ones who changed that law and are now affecting the history of the country,” she said. “I believe in the next five years we’ll see that law in every state, shifting the paradigm of seeing young people as victims, not criminals.”

In light of the fact that many GEMS clients came out of the child welfare system, Lloyd argued that system reform must be incorporated into the anti-trafficking movement.
“Histories of trauma and sexual abuse are so interwoven, only addressing criminal justice issues is insufficient,” she explained. “We must talk about systemic issues and root causes.”
Addressing the media spotlight currently trained on trafficking and the “momentum” generated as a result, Lloyd advocated the prioritization of “long-term systemic change” above immediate “rescue.” 

“We’re challenging the idea that you can rescue children—rescue is such a short-term solution,” she said. “We have to be focused on empowerment, economic independence and developing leadership and strength among youth.”