Key Points

The staggeringly disproportionate numbers of youth of color in the juvenile court system in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, compelled the Pittsburgh Foundation to launch the Youth Voices Juvenile Justice Pilot project. The initiative sought to learn from youth who have firsthand knowledge of the juvenile court system and from those at risk of such an experience in order to inform the foundation’s efforts to improve outcomes for youth.

This article outlines the foundation’s process for engaging youth and stakeholders in a meaningful way to improve its grantmaking and to better support systems change that leads to reducing youth court involvement through assessment of policies and practices that create the school-to-prison pipeline.

To ensure solutions were driven by affected youth instead of the foundation’s own agenda, discussion groups planned in partnership with youth-serving organizations empowered young people to reflect on events that impacted their lives, on their hopes and dreams for the future, and on ways the juvenile court system can listen to their voices and respond with meaningful changes.

An analysis of the discussions was shared with participating youth and members of an advisory group to confirm the findings, which included recommendations on school discipline reforms, greater access to diversion and prevention programs, and changes to court-related fees, fines, and restitution policies. The recommendations have informed the foundation’s grantmaking, and over the past three years led to the funding of 23 grants totaling $1.4 million.

The project revealed the importance of respectfully listening to and learning from youth to understand the circumstances affecting the quality of their lives, and of ensuring that insights from youth will result in more effective models for change.

Open Access