Youth Justice


This is one of a series of Child Watch® Columns on dismantling America’s Cradle to Prison Pipeline.

Young people get on the prison track for a variety of reasons—they fall in with the wrong crowd, they have few positive adult influences in their lives, they are not engaged in positive activities.  Among the approaches that can be applied to divert children and teens from the Prison Pipeline, there are two activities I’d like to draw your attention to. My suggestions today are “old-school” because what I have in mind is for us to re-create some of the activities that children have benefited from in past generations.

When I was young, we had oratorical contests in school where you learned how to speak with clear enunciation and good diction.  The focus was not just on elocution.  We also learned a lot about our history, literature and heritage. We recited the speeches of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman and poems by Langston Hughes and Phyllis Wheatley.  I chose a speech Ralph Bunche gave at Fisk University in 1949: “The Barriers of Race Can Be Surmounted.”

A present-day model is New Jersey Orators, which seeks to improve public speaking skills among children between the ages of seven and 18 and increase self-confidence, academic excellence and leadership skills.  Young orators are exposed to plays, lectures and speeches of some of our great leaders and thinkers.  Students participate in one-hour after-school meetings in a training program spanning 40 weeks coinciding with the school year. They strive for language mastery in several categories of public speaking—poetry, prose, original speeches and extemporaneous oratory.

New Jersey Orators has an annual membership of about 500 students who pursue excellence through speech competitions and a desire to learn more about authors, speakers and their places in history.  Training sessions are led by volunteer coaches, most of whom have formal training or experience in public speaking, acting or other oratory arts.  This is a team effort involving the students, coaches and parents.  It’s a community effort as well. Judges and timekeepers volunteer, and librarians help the students identify and select appropriate authors and writings. In addition to language mastery, the students’ overall academic performance improves.  New Jersey Orators has grown to 15 chapters that meet in schools and churches throughout the state. That students stay with the program for five to eight years and coaches for up to 15 years speaks to its success.

If managed well, organized athletics too can be an excellent medium for character education and combating obesity. Almost any sport can be useful in developing young people.  Most provide opportunities to enhance body movement, physical skills, coordination, grace and agility.

One of the sports that communities might consider is baseball, which, for a variety of reasons, has waned in Black communities.  My three sons were baseball players and are now fans.  My youngest son, who works for HBO Real Sports, completed this year a wonderful documentary about Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers, “The Ghosts of Flatbush.”  That team unified Black Americans and struck a defining blow against American racial apartheid. Baseball can offer useful lessons that a young person will carry throughout a lifetime.  First, baseball is hard.  For all of his success, Hank Aaron had far more strikeouts than home runs.  So in addition to teamwork and cooperation, baseball teaches young people how to have patience and persistence until they succeed.

Baseball is a highly coached sport. Along with learning throwing, catching and batting skills, a player also must watch for a coach’s signals to know when to bunt or steal a base.  Being able to follow instructions is an important discipline of the game, something every child would do well to learn. Youth baseball also requires a great deal of adult and parental involvement as coaches, umpires, scorekeepers, commissioners and even groundskeepers.  And in Washington, D.C., it was the one integrated experience many children had.  My husband and I spent many weekends cheering for our boys’ teams all over the city in the Police Athletic League.

Each of these old-school approaches offers ways to develop confident children with skills they will need to become successful adults.  Baseball and oratory clubs provide excellent alternatives to what too many children are learning in the streets and can be adopted by virtually any community.  What’s required are committed parents, educators, faith leaders, and other caring adults to make an extra effort to step up to the plate and organize these activities.  Doing so can be fun and rewarding and conveys to our children a message that they are important.