Laramie’s Youth Justice Institute Creates & Debates
Laramie youth have things to say, ideas to share, and projects to implement. They’re tackling hard and controversial topics, and hoping to shape a future where all voices can be heard at the civic table.
“Our willingness to do things that adults aren’t willing to do, or even communicate about, gives us practice in the adult world, and a push in the right direction,” Laramie High School student Kai Edwards said.
Edwards is part of a six-member collaborative group, the Youth Justice Institute (YJI). These civic-minded high school students gathered recently at the Laramie Plains Civic Center to discuss Wyoming and the future they’d like to help shape for our state and communities.
The group was started by educator Aubrey Edwards and journalist Tennessee Watson, with a mission to empower youth to participate in civic engagement.
The YJI “Connects high schoolers with people in their communities. The students discuss issues that affect them collectively across the state and in their own communities. Things like youth suicide and youth incarceration, to not accessing mental healthcare in Laramie.
“They vocalize and share, and we talk about solutions and interventions. We connect them with adults who help facilitate that change,” Aubrey said.
This is the Institute’s third iteration. The first one was an after-school program, the second was a collaboration with Partners with Rural Impact, and they attended a rural summit in Charlotte, N.C. This year, they partnered with the Laramie Public Art Coalition and the Laramie Plains Civic Center to create a public art installation.
Many of the participants are students of color and queer students. This year focused on art as an expression of social justice and issues impeding equality.
“Because art is such a powerful way to express yourself, it's a good way to show what you’re thinking. It's a way to show a movement. The missing and murdered indigenous women hand– that piece of art is representing an entire movement,” Kai said.
Edwards and Watson wanted to provide a space for students to discuss current issues. “The beauty of doing this program outside of an institution…no rules about what they’re allowed to talk about, or what to say. They had honest conversations that they might not be able to have in school,” Aubrey said.
The unveiling of this year’s project will be on Sept. 14 at the civic center, from 5-7 p.m. Aubrey teased the piece, saying it’s “Food related, and honoring the diversity of Laramie. Lots were kids of color and queer folk; a lot of their concerns were about safety and visibility. It’s a big picture of diversity all sharing a meal.”