2019 Leadership Prize Winner, Jennifer Rodriguez, on Creative Advocacy
Jennifer Rodriguez is a winner of the 2019 Leadership Prize and Executive Director of the Youth Law Center (YLC), a public interest law firm that has worked for four decades to transform foster care and juvenile justice systems across the nation. We asked her to share some thoughts about her work, leadership, and her vision for the future.
A Personal Mission
As a lawyer and the Executive Director of the Youth Law Center, I lead an organization that has stayed persistently focused for the past 40 years on transforming juvenile justice and foster care across the country to systems that are just and based on possibility and promise of youth. This mission is personal.
I spent the majority of my childhood in institutions, both behind bars in juvenile halls and in foster care facilities that didn’t have bars, but still felt like prisons. When I attended my first meeting as an organizer of youth in foster care with the California Youth Connection, I was just a teenager myself and had recently left my last group home and received my GED from Job Corps.
At CYC, I was able to lead advocacy efforts alongside thousands of other current and former foster youth to establish the first foster care bill of rights, educational rights, transitional housing program, permanency for older youth, and normalcy statutes in the country. I am proud of those policy changes and how they have influenced policy across the country. But, I am most proud of the opportunity I had to invest in the leadership and power of so many other foster youth who went on to become agents of change across the country, in their communities, and in their families.
Centering Youth & Creative Advocacy
Today, as a lawyer and a leader of an advocacy organization, these experiences create my vision for change. I believe that we have the responsibility to listen to young people to make sure we are working on the things that matter most and advocating for the solutions they want. In our advocacy, it is critical to have high expectations, to respect individuality of children and above all, to ensure the standard for our advocacy is not simply stopping harm or making horrific conditions a little less bad, but actually pushing for what we would want for the people we love. Leadership in changing our foster care and juvenile justice systems requires being as creative as it takes to succeed.
A New Approach
I have worked to try to focus reform on the things that children and youth tell us matter most: improving conditions in justice facilities and group homes, eliminating incarceration and institutionalization, building bridges to educational, employment and parenting success, stopping the foster care-to-detention pipeline and most recently─and most ambitiously─trying to re-orient child welfare systems across the country─80 of them in 10 states─to prioritize love and relationships in culture, policy and practice.
This new approach to foster care has elevated youth, foster families and birth families as leaders, innovators and change agents through our Quality Parenting Initiative. My personal and professional experiences have convinced me that it is possible, through creative advocacy centered with those who have the most invested, to transform our approach to system involved children and youth to focus on their inherent health, healing, power and promise. I am ready for a world where our youth can heal, thrive and lead.
Juvenile Law Center will celebrate the 2019 Leadership Prize winners at a special event on May 1, 2019. Tickets start at $50, and we hope you will join us and get inspired by the winners' visionary work.