Last week, Starcia Ague shared her amazing life story, from an impossible childhood and “juvie life” sentence, to graduating from a four-year university and becoming a powerful advocate for juvenile justice system change [Read the entire story HERE]. Starcia has turned her life into a success story. With her degree from Washington State University in criminal justice and a passion for reform, Starcia works to help alter the lives and paths of kids with circumstances like her own. We interviewed Starcia about religion, the mentors that changed her life, and her vision for a paradigm shift in how we think of system-involved youth. Read the Q&A after the jump
Juvenile-in-Justice: What are the events that happened in your adolescence that allowed you to excel beyond your poor childhood, ‘juvie life’ sentence, and felony convictions?
Starcia Ague: It was not so much several events as much as the continuous chain of events that allowed me to not only excel past my indigent childhood, the juvenile life sentence and felony adjudications, but to choose and remain on the path toward helping youth make the right choices. My greatest support and guidance was and continues to be my relationship with God. After I established this personal relationship with God I realized there was so much ahead of me that was good. I came to feel that must not let the bad from my past and what has been thrown in my path along the way to deter me from a better future or define me as a person in adulthood. Although problems will still arise even with the force of my faith in place, I can rest assured and take comfort in knowing I will never have to do it alone. When the trials of life come, my newfound faith becomes my source of wisdom. It is not necessarily about never having problems in your life again, but having the tools and knowing how to handle them when they do arise. I have heard people on occasion referring to the Bible as life’s manual. The more I read and study the bible, the easier it becomes to assemble my life properly, using all the tools God and the people inspired by his son’s example have given me.
J-in-J: What type of work are you doing today to help disadvantaged families and/or children in the justice system?
S.A: I am currently working as a Program Coordinator at the University of Washington with at-risk youth who are currently or have been incarcerated in the juvenile justice system. We work together by giving them a voice so that others hear their opinions, ideas, and concerns on matters such as education and transition to the community, and getting these youth concerns to policy makers and others with influence to make changes. We are helping to break down stereotypical judgments youth have had to face along the way!
J-in-J: Can you talk about how you help youth voice their opinions to policy makers—how do you connect these two disparate populations?[superquote]”Oftentimes we read about these youth in annual reports and see graphs of statistics, but RARELY do we ever talk with them face- to-face and give them an option to share their thoughts, concerns, opinions and ideas.”[/superquote] S.A: The juvenile justice system has operated with inadequate resources and many misconceptions surrounding it. With that said, I use youth panels and conferences as a way to convey the personal experiences of these youth to people who have influence for reform. Oftentimes we read about these youth in annual reports and see graphs of statistics, but RARELY do we ever talk with them face- to-face and give them an option to share their thoughts, concerns, opinions and ideas. A youth panel allows the youth an opportunity to do so. The youth panel consists of 4-6 youth who are prepped on topic areas such as, The School to Prison Pipeline, Disproportionate Minority Contact, and other contemporary social justice issues. After we have a baseline of knowledge as a group we answer a list of questions regarding the topic and addressing our concerns based on their own personal experiences.
J-in-J: What type of response are you getting from policy makers?
S.A: The budget crisis of our Nation today doesn’t quite allow juvenile justice to be a main priority. For the most part smiles, handshakes and friendly gestures are the initial response from policy makers. However, the policy makers who invest time in being well equipped with knowledge to learn and understand just how complicated the juvenile justice system is, they are the ones who make true system reform happen. We need much more of these traits in the people who hold positions of power because those are the people who have the ability to create legal change to allow youth to truly change. Therefore, advocacy at this time is critical to lower recidivism rates and have better outcomes for our at-risk kids!
J-in-J: How do you envision the juvenile justice system in 10 years? 20 years?
S.A: My ideal vision for the juvenile justice system in the next 10 to 20 years, when it will still have room for improvement, will be to better meet the ever changing needs of youth in Washington State. I’m looking forward to juvenile justice system folks having more and better training on adolescent brain and neuroscience-based research and development so that we can better serve the youth. We would have a holistic representation, not just looking at the particular case file they are working on but also looking at the reasons why this offense occurred in a broad sense. We will ask questions like: does this youth need/have special education? Are they developmentally disabled? Is bullying occurring? Does this youth have a dysfunctional family at home? What resources can we provide to them so they do not have to come to the system in order to receive these services?
There will be more challenges to extreme sentences and we will start to consider factors like the lack of maturity and sense of responsibility as compared to adults. Almost every state prohibits those under age 18 from voting, serving on juries, or marrying without parental consent. Juveniles are also more vulnerable to negative influences and outside pressures, including peer pressure. They have less control, or experience with control, over their own environment. They also lack the freedom that adults have in escaping a criminogenic family or social setting.
I also expect policy makers, adults, and all concerned parties to work together more closely than ever, seeking new ways to improve the juvenile justice system and implement those improvements effectively and efficiently, from the least urgent to the most — always remembering in the process that youth MUST be at the table in all of these conversations and decisions.
J-in-J: Tell me about your work with Youth Voice:
[superquote]”Youth provide distinct ideas, opinions, attitudes, knowledge, and actions.” [/superquote] S.A: In Washington State, the Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration is using Youth Voice as a way to gain the youth’s perspective regarding their juvenile justice experience, which in turn helps inform our system reform efforts. Youth Voice is a worldwide movement to promote young people’s perspectives and engagement in addressing system reform. Youth provide distinct ideas, opinions, attitudes, knowledge, and actions. Further, engaging youth enables them to obtain important skills, including critical thinking, decision-making, consensus and team building. We currently have youth from JRA institutions, community facilities, and parole participating in Youth Voice. The WA Partnership Council for Juvenile Justice (WA-PCJJ) has adopted the principles of the Youth Voice Movement as an integral part of full representation and participation in the process of reform. JRA youth may present at conferences, speak in front of governmental, education and business audiences, as well as meet with community leaders and advocates.
[superquote]”Taking this path requires a change in mindset about system involved youth.”[/superquote] The principles of Positive Youth Development, which are increasingly accepted as the basis for effective youth-serving programs, state that it is crucial to help a young person feel connected to and responsible for their community’s well being. Engaging youth in juvenile justice reform work becomes a ready path for youth to experience greater self-efficacy and connectedness. Most importantly they can get other youth to engage in the improvement of their local communities by showing how they can become meaningfully involved in activities that allow them to realize they are valued, influential and able to make a difference by contributing to significant institutional and systemic reform.
Taking this path requires a change in mindset about system involved youth. It is essential that we change our thinking — from regarding our justice system involved youth as victims and villain offenders who need to be fixed and/or punished — to a mindset that sees our youth as young people who have made mistakes, are capable of change and growth, and who have valuable resources to share to become active agents in enterprise and larger system reform.
J-in-J: What do you feel are the most significant obstacles impeding juvenile justice reform today?
S.A: I believe the most significant obstacles obstructing juvenile justice reform today would be a combination of closed-minded individuals who lack understanding and compassion for the vulnerable youth within the juvenile justice system. These youth have little or no confidence in their ability to succeed or any conceivable idea or plan of action for when they leave the system, along with little to no support in the community.
J-in-J: How/when did you find God?
S.A: This amazing beautiful woman came and gave her testimony when I was at Naselle Youth Camp. Her story was so powerful and touching. In the 214 days in detention and a year in the facility, I had not heard anything so compelling, genuine, and miraculous. This woman was a product of being raped, she felt as if the world she was born into did not accept her because of her family and teen years of bad choices. She had turned to drugs and alcohol as a way out. However those things only caused low self-esteem and she found herself even more broken than before she did those things. She was the only person I had ever met who talked about her past as if it did not define who she was, and I was so inspired. I thought that if she could do it then there was no excuse for the rest of us.
J-in-J: We often share our work with religious outreach groups working with incarcerated youth, do you think that more children need to be able to able to access the tools and teachings of religion?
S.A: Yes, because there is nothing to lose by having faith but so much to gain. When you have nothing or feel like you have no one, you become more vulnerable to the idea that there must be something more. When you are incarcerated you have plenty of time to explore that Idea and it is an excellent time to introduce God into their lives.
J-in-J: What are the most disturbing stereotypical judgments that youth face along the way?
S.A: The most disturbing stereotypical judgments our youth face are the unspoken ones denying them of their self-worth and true potential which disengage their confidence to succeed. They can see it in your face and hear in the tone of your voice, whether or not you believe in them and their ability to accomplish their goals for the future. When staff does not engage these young people in conversations around higher education, we are indirectly saying that we don’t believe it’s a possibility for them.