The most important element of the NRCCFI Mission Statement is to “include the families in defining the problems and designing solutions.” See Us Support Us 365 encourages all organizations to adopt this as part of your mission. More and more programs are including youth of the incarcerated, adults who experienced parental incarceration as children as well as caregivers of children of the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated parents on Boards of Directors, in the earliest stages of program planning and in paid positions as staff and as consultants. They should have a place at every table where their needs and concerns are discussed and planned for. They are the experts!
But all too often, ideas about how to best serve this group of children and families are discussed without them. Recently, a community collaborative interested in responding to the needs of children and families of the incarcerated, invited NRCCFI to lead the first planning meeting. No one with lived experience was a part of that group. The planners said that they wanted to invite them in after they had a better sense of what they wanted to do. It may be that the collective conscious or unconscious perspectives come from a belief that families of the incarcerated are not capable of doing what is best for their children or are less able than professionals and others in the community to implement effective strategies. Elizabeth Gaynes quote challenges us to rethink these notions. “Families of the incarcerated are included as “the warm up act, the anecdotes and the sad stories instead of as the experts.” FCN Report 33, 2003.
Focus groups, town hall meetings and listening sessions with those affected by parental incarceration could and should be part of all Needs Assessments. When “Stakeholder Groups” or “Subject Matter Experts” are gathered, including those with lived experience is essential to this process. Including youth, parents and caregivers is in the best interest of the programs as well as the families. Many well intentioned and well -funded initiatives to serve Justice System involved families, have failed to reach the intended numbers or to effectively engage the families or achieve intended outcomes, because those that it was for, were not included in the planning.
“Nothing about us, without us”, is a phrase that is used as a slogan to communicate the idea that no policy should be decided by any representative without the full and direct participation of members of the group(s) affected by that policy. It is often used by groups that are thought to be marginalized from political, social, and economic opportunities. It has its roots in 16th century Poland political movements resulting in a shift in governance from Monarchy to Parliament but became popularized in the early 1980’s by disability rights advocates. This phrase equally applies to children with incarcerated parents and their families as we strive to put them at the center of the discussion.
The Listening Session we co-coordinated in Washington DC in June, brought 19 youth of incarcerated parents from 14 states together to speak to federal Officials about their experiences and needs. Their voices joined this movement to ALWAYS bring youth and families to the table. “Nothing about us without us” they said and then, “We can help each other and we can also help you to help us.”
Stay tuned to Youth.gov http://youth.gov/youth-topics/children-of-incarcerated-parents where the Tip Sheets for Youth and for Service Providers created at the Federal Youth of Incarcerated Parents Listening Session will be posted.