by Artika Tyner

"America's Cradle to Prison Pipeline" published by the Children's Defense Fund (CDF), is a report my mother gave me in 2007. It changed my life. It set me on the course of advocating for social change.

The cover photo shows a young Latino boy being booked at a police station. He was too short to reach the table and was standing on a milk crate. This photo drew me into learning more about the stories of children who are entering the pipeline to prison.

I learned that "every night approximately 87,000 youth are housed in juvenile facilities and 10,000 youth are held in adult jails and prisons. Children of color constitute about two thirds of youths in the juvenile justice system" (CDF). I visited a detention center to gain firsthand knowledge. There I saw the statistics from the book become a reality. I witnessed firsthand the disparities in the juvenile justice system influenced by factors including race and poverty. I became committed to shaping public policy and standing up for children. I recognized that the law is a language of power and I wanted to use this power to dismantle the pipeline to prison and create a new pathway to success.

I began to partner with other local strong women leaders, such as Ramsey County Commissioner Toni Carter, Promise Neighborhood Director Angelique Kedem and (University of St. Thomas School of Law) Professor Nekima Levy-Pounds, to engage in juvenile justice reform efforts. This has included the adoption of alternatives to detention models, re-investment of detention dollars into early intervention and prevention efforts, and implementation of the juvenile detention alternatives initiatives (JDAI).

During the process, I also became inspired by the work of Marian Wright Edelman. Her life demonstrated the important role of women lawyers in using their legal training to effectuate social change. Edelman was the first black woman admitted to the Mississippi State Bar, led the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s final campaign (the "Poor People's Campaign"), and directed the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund office in Jackson, Miss. I learned a great leadership lesson from Edelman that "service is the rent we pay to be living. It is the very purpose of life and not something you do in your spare time."

Dr. Artika Tyner is an attorney, writer and community advocate. She teaches courses on civil rights law and serves as the director of diversity at the University of St. Thomas School of Law.

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