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Lessons Learned from the 2023 Gault Center Summit

OJD stepped away from the office this week to attend the 2023 Gault Center National Youth Defender Leadership Summit hosted by The Gault Center. The summit was two full days packed with general sessions, workshops, community building, and networking opportunities. As I process all that I experienced, here are some of the moments that stand out to me.

1. Conferences such as this aren’t always going to teach you new laws or content, and that’s not their only purpose. Sometimes the most important thing you gain is the name and number of a new friend and colleague. Sometimes you hear a story that rejuvenates and revives you professionally and personally, filling your cup so that you, in turn, can continue to fill the cups of your clients and others you care for. Sometimes you reconnect with your chosen family of defenders and re member that you are not fighting alone.

2. Even for the most seasoned defender, you’ll still probably learn something new. Or maybe look at it from a different perspective. This year’s summit included a panel on J.D.B. v North Carolina, a critical Supreme Court Case in developing the rights of children and recognizing that children are different from adults. Most Supreme Court cases are strategically chosen based on the facts of the case needed to push an issue to the Supreme Court. Did you know, however, that J.D.B. was a “run of the mill” case? There was no particular plan to “send it up” to the Supreme Court. The defender fought with all of her might and kept appealing the decisions until the Supreme Court got it right, and now that we have case law to educate others that a “reasonable child” is not the same thing as a “reasonable adult.” Keep fighting, defenders. We will teach them yet.

3. One of this year’s special guests included Bobby Bostic, who – at age 16 was sentenced to 241 years in prison for charges related to an armed robbery in which the most serious injury to anyone was being grazed by a bullet. He spoke with us and told us his story, including how the judge watched him disregard the advice of his family to take an open plea and then said “Mr. Bostic, you made your choice, you will live with your choice, and you will die with your choice because Bobby Bostic you will die in the Department of Corrections. Do you understand that? Your mandatory date to go in front of the parole is 2201, nobody in this room will be alive in the year 2201.” Bobby shared with us how he could not understand the gravity of the decision he had to make at the age of 16. He shared his feelings of hopelessness as he began to try to understand what it meant to never see the outside world ever again, that he was in the place where he would eventually die. He watched as laws changed and other youth who were convicted for much more serious charges, including murder, were released on parole. While Bobby’s story does have a happy ending, hearing from a survivor the truths that we know about youth’s inability to fully comprehend the implications of their actions and decisions was a phenomenal reminder as to why we, as youth defenders, must continue to fight for children to be treated as children and spread the message of adolescent brain science and development. When we asked Bobby what advice he had for the youth defense community, he implored us, “Please just talk with your clients and take the time to explain everything to them. You can help them make the right decisions if you will get to know them, gain their trust, and make sure they understand the process and the law.”

4. Sometimes it takes seeing something from a different perspective to truly understand its reach and impact. One of our speakers gave us an opportunity to see things a little differently. A group of about 10 people from the audience was invited on stage and they were given “acting cues” – show me what pain looks like at a level 4, show me what fear looks like at a level 8, etc. The group was asked to show what thirst looks like at a level 6 and each person showed how that might look or feel to them. The speaker then took a bottle of water out of the very large cooler full of other water bottles and placed it on the stage, then told those on stage to show what thirst looks like at a level 8. Those on stage increased the intensity of the emotions, but no one touched the water bottle. The speaker had to go to the water bottle and lift it up and offer it to the closest person standing, who then snatched the bottle. The remaining people on stage just looked at her. The speaker ended the exercise there and thanked the people, and then asked us why we thought no one touched the water bottle on stage until it was offered to them.

This was a powerful learning moment for me. No one had to say the answer out loud; no one touched the water bottle because it was outside of the rules. It was not intended for them. They were not allowed to have it. Despite the fact that an entire cooler of water was just at the stage, and the speaker had said several times earlier in his presentation for people to please help themselves to it, those water bottles were inherently off-limits during this exercise until someone with power and authority allowed it to be a part of the exercise.

To me, those people on stage are the children in our care, the children oppressed by the system, and the families marginalized in our communities. And the water bottles are the resources “available” in our communities. The resources may be there, but it is incumbent upon us as defenders and as members of our community to make sure that the resources are not only available, but also accessible. Water bottles sitting in a cooler while everyone walks around thirsty are of no use to anyone.

It goes without saying that these are not the only moments and take aways for me from the 2023 Summit. Throughout the summit, OJD was constantly taking notes on what we can do to bring fresh training ideas, resources, and community building to our defenders in North Carolina. And while it was refreshing to get away from the office for a couple of days, we are so excited to be back and start planning new and exciting approaches to strengthening our own youth defense community.


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