Principles of Youth Justice

I first wrote these principles for the conference packet of National Youth Rights Association’s “Age of Youth” virtual conference in 2020, when I was president of NYRA (I left the organization in Dec. 2020). Then, they were called “Principles of Anti-Ageism.” As of 11 Nov. 2022, I have renamed them “Principles of Youth Justice” to reaffirm that the fight against ageism in our current society that disempowers and oppresses young people must be rooted in the fight for youth justice and liberation. I have also added an additional bullet point to precede the rest of the principles reflecting this renewed perspective.

I wish to share these living principles with the wider world, hoping that they will stimulate reflection, discussion, and action.

  • Youth Justice is deeply connected with the fight against ageism of all forms, including that towards young and towards elderly people. However, at a systemic level, young people are particularly disempowered and oppressed in our ageist society. The following principles attempt to take into consideration both of these truths, focusing upon justice for youth but also honoring people of all ages.
  • Older people should give space to young people and respect and support them as equal partners in change.
  • Young people can take space and take charge even and especially in places where they historically have been left out.
  • When conflicts arise between older and younger folks, openness and respect are paramount for all involved. In particular, older folks should examine their attitudes and actions for ageist assumptions, such as a belief that they are right because of having general “experience” (distinct from particular expertises, which anyone, younger or older, can have and which should be respected).
  • Younger folks should encourage older folks in breaking down their internalized prejudices with compassion and, when feasible, help them to correct their problematic language or behaviors.
  • Avoid using words like “kids” and “children” when referring to non-adult people as a whole, as some find them belittling. Try “youth” or “young people” instead.
  • Avoid romanticizing youth, such as thinking of youth as a time of “innocence” or of being “carefree.”
  • Youth should not be sexualized or sexually exploited, by older people or by other youth. Youth should be empowered to make informed choices about their own bodies; to explore their identities, desires, and self-presentation such as in relation to gender and sexuality; and to independently seek and receive support and care in regards to (physical and mental) health, identity, and relationships.
  • Avoid equating “young people” with “students.” Some young people are not in school, perhaps instead unschooling or working a full-time job, and some older people are enrolled in educational institutions. All of us, however, are forever learners, always striving to grow into more socially aware, critically and creatively thinking persons.
  • Ageism is deeply intersectional, tightly intertwined with other forms of systemic oppression such as racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, classism, xenophobia, etc. Young people are BIPOC, young people are queer, young people are of various genders and of no gender, young people are disabled, young people are poor, young people are immigrants and migrants — just like older people. When we fight against ageism, we also commit to fight against oppression in general, for young people can only be fully liberated when ALL people(s) are liberated.

As I said, these are living principles, which means that they can be changed and rewritten as we learn better ways of thinking and doing. In fact, I have already made a few changes to phrasing from the original conference packet list. I encourage you to comment on this page if you have a question or suggestion for these principles. I also encourage you to share these principles widely and particularly with anybody who works with young people or who is interested in social justice. Attribution is appreciated but not required.

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