M: What’s your name? Where do you work? What’s your position at the organization?
T: My name is Ta’LannaMonique Miller and I work with Citywide Youth Coalition (CWYC) as the community organizer. A lot of what I do is form relationships with other people who are doing similar work and find out where the population [of students who have had contact with the justice system] is. I’ve been working with City Hall and the Re-Entry office as points of entry. We’re focused on ages 25 and under, so I’ve also been forming relationships with state agencies like Manson Youth Institute so we can reach students where they’re at, and not have them come to us all the time. Since there’s no one office in the city charged to work with youth in this area, the efforts and young people are all scattered – most young people aren’t connected to an organization, they’re seeing their probation officer, they’re going to school, and that’s it.
M: How long have you been there? What has it been like to work there?
T: I’ve been working with Citywide since October…I was brought in through a grant between CWYC and the Warren Kimbro Re-Entry project. The grant was a joint venture to merge the organizing work that CWYC had been doing and add the criminal justice focus that Warren Kimbro has. Our mission is to create an environment where all youth can succeed, and that includes our most marginalized youth. All of my work is related to criminal justice, so a lot of the relationships that I’ve built in my work at the company my parents and I own [Tri-Cord, LLC – Empowerment Training Group] I’ve brought to Citywide. For people doing this work in the state it’s a small tight-knit group, so whether it’s the monthly round tables, calls, or anything you’re seeing the same faces and in a community of people. We’re trying to create a black and brown epicenter for the city of New Haven – we need a space for ourselves to unpack anti-Blackness and colorism in our own community. We don’t have a space to dive into the social and emotional issues that racism brings, and we’re working to be that space.
I love to research, and learning is so much fun! I go to workshops, I get to go on one-on-ones and learn about other people’s jobs and science. I’ve noticed that in having one-on-ones with people who aren’t working in juvenile justice, I’m hearing what their passions are and realizing “Wow, we can partner” – and being able to discover that sort of connection to different people has been interesting. This community of organizers is very helpful – if someone else has an idea I can say “Hey, can I use that?” and they say “Yes! I’m giving it to the world, I want to share!” and I love that.
M: Interested in social justice your whole life?
T: Originally I’m from Connecticut – I spent the first years of my life in North Haven, and through the magnet school lottery system I was enrolled at Betsy Ross. I grew up on the stage – my parents are very artistic and that creativity is something I bring to my work even now. I ended up staying in New Haven public schools; I went to Wilbur Cross for High School. And after some time at Temple University, I transferred back here and went to University of New Haven. I lived in Bridgeport for about 8 years, but now I’m back in New Haven doing this work.
With criminal justice specifically, my dad was incarcerated from preschool to the beginning of elementary school. It was about 2.5 years; he was then on probation until I was around 17. So the criminal justice system has always been a part of my life; I have family in and out. Additionally, my mom has her own company, so it’s been a mixture of what my family has been working on and what my family has been experiencing. We’ve always thought about how to prevent other people from suffering in the ways we have.
M: What is CWYC currently working on and what’s your role in this work?
T: We’re in the middle of doing a lot right now – we’re supporting a group of Achievement First Amistad students who want to see change come. It’s not necessarily a CWYC campaign, but we’re here to support youth in what they’d like to do. We have teachers, alumni, and current students who are interested in doing a video campaign to get the word out.
We’re also gearing up for our Queer Camp this summer. We’re working on a Queer Weekend that won’t just talk about gender and sexuality, but will really dive deep into the issues that individuals experience in a safe space for Black and Brown youth.
We’re working on a curriculum to bring a Freedom School into Riverside Academy, and from there we’ll bring it Manson Youth Institute.
And April 25th – 27th we’ll be hosting an Undoing Racism Training specifically for the re-entry community. We want people from the Department of Corrections, the City, and the community all together. This will be a safe space to bring people together with no power dynamics in the room; the goal is to speak truth to power, and have power hear the truth about what’s going on. Personally, “Undoing Racism” changed me – it just challenges you to think about race and racism and how it affects you in a different way. I hope we have a room full of people, community members, and folks doing this work.
M: What role does CWYC play in the larger ecosystem of youth work and social justice?
T: We went up last week to testify to the Education Committee, an action that was led by Students for Educational Justice, and other organizations that are members of the Connecticut Black and Brown Student Union [Citywide is one of the founding member organizations of the CT BBSU]. One bill was for African-American studies, one was for Puerto Rican and Latino studies. It was also good to see CWYC Black and Brown youth speaking truth to power to our senators.
And that’s what CWYC does – a group of young people from urban areas speaking to their representatives and telling them what they need them to do. I’ve gone to a lot of community meetings looking to do work with youth, but they don’t have youth at the table. And there’s always a conversation about needing to “prep” them, or that they don’t know what they need or what they want. A lot of these young people are dealing with the same issues that I am as a 30 year old, so for people to say “These young people don’t know what they’re talking about” is ridiculous. Not once do they say “What can we do to accommodate youth?” The fact that you wouldn’t think to have those young people at the table is counterproductive. You’re not a young person, you don’t know what young people need. Until organizations say, “We need young people at the table” and actually make moves to have them there, it won’t work. And it’s doable – a lot of these organizations are BLOC [Building Leadership and Organizing Capacity] organizations, so there’s a blueprint. I’m working to put myself out of a job, that’s the whole point.
I translate how I parent into this work as well – my children have feelings and emotions, they have their own thoughts and their own ways of learning. But if we keep sitting here and saying “Youth are our future”, if we keep stifling youth voice, what does our future sound like?