It’s not everyday you hear about a 15-year-old Indian girl from Marin County, California, who is shooting footage of a prison cell and interviewing former inmates for a documentary on juvenile justice.
But this is not where my journey started. In fact, it started in a small courtroom in seventh grade where I first began to attend a program called Youth Court in Marin County, a diversion program using a restorative justice approach, designed to help at-risk teens and their families through challenging times. This intervention philosophy is based on rehabilitation and reinforces that offenders are valued members of the community and we are there to support them in making better decisions for their life and the promise it holds.
While I was there, I saw the power of youth support and the chance of redemption for every offender. I learned no one is inherently bad, but rather people make mistakes and it is our job to help them find their way back to a place where they feel supported and reintegrated into the community.
Unexpectedly, in 2012, Trayvon Martin’s murder lit a fire under me. I was 14, sitting on my couch, when I saw the streets of America fill with rage; I felt the urgency of the Black Lives Matter Campaign and the struggle for youth justice. Driven to take part in this revolution, I reached out to the world beyond Marin County. I began to volunteer for the Youth Court program in Oakland, where I was able to explore the juvenile justice system and rehabilitation efforts in the context of great unemployment, poverty, homelessness, gang violence, school drop-outs, teen pregnancies and a murder rate seven times higher than the national average.
Soon, I was knee-deep in the fight for juvenile justice system reform. Wanting to take the fight for reform to a larger community, I spent the next two years of high school creating my documentary, “Losing A Generation.” It was extremely important to me that I show people how poorly our society treats young people who are getting in trouble with the law and the accompanying misconceptions about these young people who are trapped in our judicial system. Everybody makes mistakes at 15 or 16 years old, and nobody deserves to spend the rest of their lives paying for those mistakes.
During the year of development for the film, I traveled all over the Bay Area, meeting judges, district attorneys, kids who have been through the juvenile justice system, and academics at Stanford University and Hastings School of Law who have worked with policy makers, such as Jerry Brown and Kamala Harris, in developing realignment of youth and adult prisons. Everyone I interviewed offered inspiring and compelling stories that resonated with me. During the process of developing a script and shooting footage in prison cells, I began to realize the importance of sharing these diverse, personal histories. In addition, I conducted in-depth research on racism, brain development, and the effects of legislative decisions, e.g., Prop 21 which mandated that more juvenile offenders be tried and serve time in the adult penal system.
My experience in Youth Court and making my documentary really opened my eyes to the power that we, as a community, have. Teenagers who get in trouble are our future leaders, presidents, and policy makers, and they need a chance to get on a better path and not end up behind bars and we need to be able to give them that chance. One of the biggest things I learned is that we all have a role to play in the community; whether you’re a kid or an adult, there’s something everyone can do to help others and really make change.
Through this process, I have begun to learn what it means to be a leader and, more importantly, what it takes to motivate many other people to join my cause. As I asked kids to share their stories, I learned the importance of redemption, giving second chances, and developing compassion for the young people in our justice system. Though this journey, I found a community of people willing to stand with me, to energetically analyze the complex layers of this problem, and help young people fulfill their potential.
If you would like to watch my 30-minute documentary, please visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ALdjnHnmpz0
If you would like to visit my website, where you can read more about what I have done, please visit: https://www.losing-a-generation.com