Project 180: An Alternative to Incarcerating Youth

I had the privilege and the honor to sit in on a 180 Program session, which is an alternative to incarceration that has been in effect since 2012, and I had both my mind and heart blown away by what I witnessed. I was already impressed that the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office created this program. However, after I met Coach Dom (Dominique Wheeler-Davis) the program director, by accident at Urban Impact, whose mission is to “Partner with families and communities to break the cycle of social, material, and spiritual poverty,” when I was recovering a schoolbook I had left behind after I attended a Restorative Justice meeting, I was thoroughly impressed and very excited. This happenstance meeting occurred shortly after the Seattle City Council voted unanimously on Resolution 31614 “Zero Use of Detention for youth” on September 21, 2015. A resolution is not a law, and as such, it is not legally binding, but it is the direction that the City of Seattle is moving. By definition, a resolution is a firm decision to do or not to do something. In political and legal terms, a resolution is the official position of the legislative body, such as, how the body will function. Furthermore, it is not intended that the resolution will be applied eternally, but rather, for a limited time and acutely focused. In the case of Resolution 31614, Seattle City Council is focusing its attention on alternatives to incarcerating youth that is community led. So, the chance meeting with Coach Dom, and the invitation to Project 180 was clandestine.

Project 180 is nonetheless, a community led program, even though they are partnering with the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and as such will fit the resolution the City Council passed. Te program has had, and is having a positive impact on the lives of over 1500 youth in King County since 2012. The program is, in my opinion, limited by its focus on misdemeanor offenses, not limited in its impact in the lives of those who can participate in the program because of the threshold between felony and misdemeanor. Notwithstanding that limit, Project 180, is still able to assist over 300 youth in King County per year. That is 300 people who may not have to suffer the stigmatizing affects of a criminal background and the ostracization that often accompanies such a background in terms of limited educational and employment opportunities. I am going to let the program and its facilitators speak for themselves in this video:

I went to the Law School at Seattle University on September 26, 2015 to observe Project 180 thinking I was going to see a loosely structured, meeting and what I was greeted with was discipline and purpose.  The organizers of the event had an entire panel prepared with a mix of men, women and young people who all had their own stories of making 180s in their lives. Most of the speakers were people of color, though not all, and the participants in the program were from many backgrounds and ethnicities. In addition to the youth who were there to seek an alternative resolution to the criminal justice system, their parents were also in the room engaging in the program with them. This was something that I had not expected to encounter. However, the impact immediately apparent and it was obvious that the parents and guardians of the adolescents were truly invested in helping their children to achieve brighter futures without the entanglements of a criminal record. Most of the program was devoted to revealing that the adolescents and the adults in the room were not so different, and that in fact, we had all shared many experiences. The process was bridging a divide between us that we all walked in with and I was a component of the emergence of a community.

The program was focused on the beginnings of conflict resolution, which is developing communication skills. In most of the relationships that I am party to whether, they are activism circles, churches, non-profit organizations; friends, family, or romantic in nature issues with communication tend to be at the heart of most issues and complications. The first factor is that we as a people tend not to listen very efficiently to those whom we share our lives. Secondly, we may actually hear the words they are saying when we are not speaking over them, but we are not understanding what our partners are communicating to us. There are two methods that may increase our ability to communicate effectively and efficiently, which will decrease the negative emotional impacts that our interactions tend to draw to the surface. The first is active listening, and that is, carefully listening to the people in our lives without focusing on how we are going to respond to or undermine what is being told to us. The second is to ask questions for clarification to ensure that we have received the messages appropriately.  This is what I observed in the training during the Project 180 program.

In addition to the lessons in communication, I was also party to the development of a community. Again, this is not what I expected to encounter when I agreed to attend this event. The word “love” was used, not passively, but actively and in such a way as it not customary in many public and formal occasions. For instance, one of the exercises was for us to turn to the people who were sitting beside us and to tell them that we believed in them and that we love them. Now that may seem like a trivial and uncomfortable act, to tell someone whom you do not know, that you love them; and it was, let me assure you. However, that simple act made a huge difference to many of the people who were there; so huge that some even started to cry. The act did a few things. First, it showed everyone that they were not alone. Second, it revealed that everyone was worth respect, honor, integrity and that they were also human and members of our moral community. Third, because we all shared the uncomfortable moment together, we had a shared emotional experience that began fusing relationships among us, broadening our communities to include the people in the room.

My best research and activity has revealed that many of the social harms we want to solve begin with improving the conditions of our communities. Much of that improvement entails conflict resolution and effective communication. Communities are bodies or groups of people who work together for the common goal of the betterment of all who identify with the community. In my opinion, that is the real definition of justice and that is what I observed occurring in the Project 180 program event. However, the program does not end there, they also provide an AfterCare component, which helps the adolescents and parents or guardians to address many of the issues that may have led to the behavior and circumstance that brought them into Project 180 via the criminal justice system. These factors may include such things as education, drug and alcohol abuse, conflict resolution, emotional and mental health, job training and placement, and so on. The aftercare component of Project 180 is specifically designed to help the participants in the program to address those issues, so that they can become functioning and participatory members in our communities.

In my opinion, it is providing a very valuable and vital service to our community. As such, I think this program should be supported by our community with both funding and volunteers because it is having a positive impact on our community on multiple levels. To donate to Project 180 or to find out how you can help in some other way, please contact Urban Impact or contact Coach Dom at mailto:coachdom1@gmail.com

Please also contact our Seattle of Seattle and King County officials and inform them that you would like to see this program maintained and enhanced and most importantly, financially supported.

It is truly an honor and is highly encouraging to see that people are engaged in activities that are having positive and tangible impacts on our community; this goes for community members as well as the prosecuting attorney’s office.

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