Language and Black Girls’ Experience in the Juvenile Justice System

My name is Dominique Branson, and I am a fourth-year graduate student in the Department of Linguistics at Pitt. This summer, I assisted staff in UPMC’s Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine with their Juvenile Justice-Involved Youth (JJIY) program. The JJIY program utilizes mindfulness techniques and yoga to teach youths involved in the juvenile justice system strategies to cope with the challenges in their lives. UPMC’s JJIY program is unique in that it employs an explicit anti-racist approach to working with juvenile justice-involved youths, who are typically young people of color. While the yoga instructors have several hundred hours of experience and training in anti-racist yoga, as a linguistics student, I do not, but my passion for youth and justice aligned closely with the goals of all of those involved in the JJIY program. Broadly, I am passionate about the ways in which language shapes the legal outcomes of Black Americans, but currently, my second comprehensive exam focuses the relationship between language and Black girls’ experiences in the juvenile justice system. So, although I did not lead yoga sessions with youths, I was able to facilitate meetings with them over Zoom and interview them about their experiences before, during, and after completing the JJIY program. I plan to utilize these interviews to continue exploring the ways in which Black girls’ language shapes how they experience the justice system.

Initially, my goal for the summer immersive was to create a report that included qualitative data about Black girls’ experiences and involvement with the juvenile justice system in Allegheny County and synthesize this data to develop an equity report that informs Pittsburgh stakeholders about ways to better serve at-risk Black girls in the city. Unfortunately, several roadblocks made finishing this task over the summer a little too ambitious. Foremost, because the work involves youth and “prisoners” (in the words of the Institutional Review Board), approval for the project from the IRB required a full-board review. As a result, the project was not approved until the last two weeks of my time with the JJIY program, and I completed only four interviews before my position ended. Fortunately, I am continuing on as a volunteer and have plans to resume interviewing students involved in the juvenile justice system during the fall semester in order to create the report.

Although I have conducted only four interviews so far, during my time with the JJIY program, I used much of my prior academic work, as well as experiences with youths in non-academic arenas to work towards completing the project. In particular, a Field Methods course I took in linguistics was useful, as it provided techniques for interviewing individuals from backgrounds that are different from my own. Furthermore, while transcribing the interviews, I was able to distinguish between African American vernacular terms and expressions and standardized American English ones in hopes to better represent students’ own words. While I was able to lean on my previous experiences while working in the position, I also gained many new skills that will be useful for achieving my professional goals. In particular, I learned the milestones and steps involved in working with youth involved in the juvenile-justice system. For example, I was required to complete six trainings on topics including mandated reporting and information security. Although I have worked with students in the past, I had not had the rigorous training that was required for working with youths in the justice system. The knowledge that I gained from the trainings and the ways in which I was able to incorporate that knowledge into my work with the youths are skills that I will continue to utilize as I progress throughout the linguistics program. Additionally, the summer immersive experience showed me that it is possible to work in academia while conducting meaningful work that impacts real peoples’ lives, urging me to think more creatively about future career options and opportunities.

For those planning an immersive in the future, I recommend submitting any required IRB applications as far in advance as possible—especially if the work involves any vulnerable populations such as youth or individuals who are incarcerated. If this is not a possibility, or IRB approval takes longer than expected, it is important to be open and adapt. While I was not able to begin interviewing students until much later than I had originally anticipated, during this “waiting period” I was still able to engage with youths and at the least become a recognizable name and face, so that when it came time to interview the students, they were not talking to a complete stranger. I feel that first establishing a relationship with the students allowed them to be open with me in a way that would not have been possible had I not spent the extra time with them before conducting the interviews.

The summer immersive with Humanities Engage provided me with valuable experience that I will incorporate into my future research plans and studies. While I take classes about best practices for interviewing participants and analyzing the language data, real-world experience through the JJIY program allowed me to transfer the theoretical to the practical. I study linguistics because I care about people and want their voices to be heard. Although I have not yet accomplished all of the goals I set forth for the summer immersive, I am grateful for the ways that I have been able to advocate for juvenile justice-involved youth through the summer immersive, and I am even more motivated to continue this important work.

Dominique Branson
October 14, 2020

Learn about all the Summer 2020 Immersive Fellows and their experiences with their host organizations.