This year, the JUSTGeorgia coalition decided to return to its roots. In June, the coalition convened a diverse group of community leaders and experts from across the state to discuss many of the most pressing social and juvenile justice issues kids are facing in Georgia. More than 70 participants gathered at the University of Georgia’s campus in Griffin for a day-long JUSTGeorgia Institute summit. Conference-goers hailed from all regions of the state and included non-profit professionals, as well as educators, social workers, faith leaders, law enforcement and juvenile justice officials, and state lawmakers, among others.
The Institute was developed in partnership with the University of Georgia’s J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development, and it’s focus was informed by a series of 2016 regional JUSTGeorgia Community Conversations that convened community leaders to discuss juvenile justice challenges in Georgia.
Community leaders brought their energy, passion, and expertise to the discussion, which started with participants sharing what motivated them to get involved in this work. Throughout the day, participants not only shared their ideas, but also their deeply personal stories about the struggles of children in their lives, including students, children in state care and the juvenile justice system, and families in crisis. Despite positive changes in the state juvenile code, there are still disparities in our child-serving systems, many children who have faced trauma don’t get the care and support they need, communities lack fully equipped schools and safe places for children to go after hours, and students of color still experience disproportionate rates of expulsions and other punitive actions.
We also heard presentations by leading advocates Ira Foster of Georgia Legal Services, Tonza Thomas from Columbus NAACP, and Bill Kearney from Quality Youth Development. Each of them spoke about what is driving the needs of kids where they live and priorities for policy change at the community level. Melissa Carter of the Emory Child Law and Policy Center and Polly McKinney of Voices for Georgia’s Children also provided an overview of the reform of Georgia’s Juvenile code, as well as other state and national juvenile justice policy issues, such as pending legislation on national Juvenile Justice reform, which could have a big impact on the lives of Georgia’s kids. Rob Rhodes of Georgia Appleseed discussed an ongoing community engagement initiative in Dougherty County as an example of how local stakeholder can get involved in addressed key issues affecting their community. Participants also learned about the essential elements of collective impact as an approach to advance shared priorities.
At the onset of the day, State Legislator and Sapelo Foundation trustee Bettieanne Hart challenged the group to determine whether ongoing juvenile justice reform efforts and social policy changes are still needed in Georgia, and after hours of debate, discussion and discovery, it became clear the group consensus was a resounding “Yes.”
Attendees developed a list of the most pressing concerns and then used a group voting system to narrow down top priorities for juvenile and social justice policy change and to gauge participants level of interest in working in these areas. Many thoughtful suggestions were made, including extending supports to families in poverty, improving developmentally appropriate application of juvenile justice law, and improving agency performance. Among the areas of most interest were the following: addressing mental health and trauma needs of children, improving school discipline and restorative justice, and improving the workforce competency of agencies working with kids (such as improved cultural competency, reduced turnover, and better training).
The JUSTGeorgia coalition will use this valuable collective wisdom to design a long-term agenda, recruit new leadership into the coalition, and explore what kind of collective impact initiative might be right for Georgia to take this important work forward. If you are reading this article and would like to join the cause, please get in touch with us right away! JUSTGeorgia needs your energy, talent, and commitment to continue the statewide efforts to improve the juvenile and child welfare systems serving kids in Georgia today.