The Welcoming Project is a juvenile reentry program that partners with the Travis Hill Schools inside the New Orleans Juvenile Detention Center, as well as the Orleans Justice Center, to work with former students in those facilities to further develop their academic, social, and employment skills after their release. I spoke with Sarah Omojola, the director at The Welcoming Project, about the goals of the program, day-to-day operations, and underreported injustices facing children caught up in the tangled web of incarceration. 

Why does The Welcoming Project exist? 

The Welcoming Project is the brainchild of the Travis Hill School’s staff. The Travis Hill Schools were established in 2016, and staff were seeing that when kids were released, they needed somewhere to go where they would be supported and would be able to have a mentor to keep them from getting kicked back into the system. In 2016 when the school at the Youth Study Center was established, or in 2017 when the school at The Orleans Justice Center was established, about 30% of the kids who would leave would basically drop out of school in 90 days after leaving those facilities. About a quarter to a third of the young people would be re-arrested pretty quickly thereafter. And so they were like, there needs to be something to support young people. There needs to be juvenile re-entry in the city and there isn’t a place where all juvenile re-entry services sit. And so The Welcoming Project was an idea. In June of 2018, The Welcoming Project was just a concept paper and we worked really hard from June to September 2018 to make it an actual thing. 

What is the goal of the project? 

The goal of The Welcoming Project is to reduce and eliminate juvenile recidivism—young people getting caught back in the system after being there the first time or the second time (or however many times they’ve been in the juvenile or criminal justice system). We want to eliminate them going back by creating this relentless and intensive intervention… that really focuses on that young person’s needs, as far as housing, academics, jobs, and also utilizes their passion and interests to get them on the path to success. For instance, we have a young person who’s really interested in music, so we’ve paired him with a mentor who is a musician and also are figuring out ways that his summer job will be with the Jazz and Heritage Foundation, who’s working on a summer employment program with us. The whole foundational principle of The Welcoming Project is that when you are working on a passion, you are less likely to get into other things that would get you back into the juvenile justice system or the criminal justice system. We spend a lot of time on allowing young people to exercise those passions and give them outlets for their creativity and for their brilliance in ways that are positive and allow them to contribute positively to the New Orleans community. 

We know the real challenge of being a young person in New Orleans… is that they often are pushed into adulthood prematurely.”

Are there personal reasons you decided to start The Welcoming Project? 

I was a teacher right after Katrina. I’m originally from New Orleans and I went to Franklin, Karr, and all of these schools that were really great, diverse places where my teachers were really supportive. It was just like a beautiful childhood of learning and playing and all of that stuff. And then I went away to college and Katrina happened while I was in college. Because I spent a lot of time during my Katrina year in LSU tutoring kids from New Orleans and working with them on creating a zine and doing poetry and all of this art-related stuff, I got really excited about becoming a teacher. Fast forward to teaching, and the school that I’m teaching in is nothing like the schools that I went to in New Orleans. And I was just shocked. I was like: how are these the same? How is this the same place? Our kids didn’t have books for the first three months, and then in the first year, I lost four of my kids to gun violence. I saw countless amounts of injustice, from an administrative perspective to just even down to what the facilities look like at the school. I think even in that first year I had a kid who had gotten into trouble in my class, and when we were talking to the principal about it, she punched him in front of me. And I just kind of was like: this can’t be real, this can’t be what we’re doing. So I decided to go to law school, because my whole plan was: I was going to sue this Recovery School District, which was super naive. However, you know, personally, I have a really strong belief in justice and a really strong belief that we can have equitable schools, and that equitable education is actually the path to success for a lot of people in New Orleans. And if you look at our economic divide and you look at our justice divide, and you look at quality of living and what life looks like for Black New Orleanians versus white New Orleanians—or even low income New Orleanians versus more affluent New Orleanians—you can see that a lot of the contributing factors is education. 

How do juveniles come to be a part of the project? 

When a young person is arrested and they are detained, either they’re detained in the Youth Study Center (because they have juvenile charges) or they’re detained at the Orleans Justice Center (because they have adult charges). The Travis Hill Schools are our counterparts on the inside of those facilities, and so we work really closely with them to figure out which young people are leaving soon. We also do push-in services and teach a life skills class for our young people so that we can build rapport with them, such that when they are released—depending on the disposition of the case—maybe their charges are dropped, they get probation, they bond out, and they’re able to pay the bond to be out. We are then able to connect with them in that period of time and begin to really build an individual fellowship with them. [We ask] what are their academic, social, emotional and career goals? What are their passions and what kinds of things do they want to really be? Are they really interested in basketball? Are they really interested in music? Let’s start to figure those things out, and then they’re fully enrolled in The Welcoming Project and we basically start working that plan. 

The Welcoming Project commits to working with our young people for five years. Obviously that support looks different at the beginning, where we’re spending a lot of time doing this stabilization of making sure like: Is the kid enrolled in school? Where are they going to get food? Who picks them up? What’s their transportation? Our hope is that we get to this five-year period and they’re really on the path to successful independence, so they’re having a job, attaining further academic degrees, they have a house, they have a car—all of those things. Which are pretty much basics but they’re no longer one mistake away from the criminal justice system, and that’s really the goal. 

What does the day-to-day look like for juveniles that are in the project? 

We work with young people who are 10 to 21. When they come to us they’re in that age range. And so we have tutoring on Tuesdays and Wednesdays; also on those days we have music appreciation. Young people can also do yoga here. It also looks like support in the community, so today they’re all at school but we’re also checking to make sure that they’ve actually gone to school that day. [We’re also asking] what is their behavior? What are their grades every quarter? We’re asking them for their report cards, because report cards, while maybe innocuous to some people, are sometimes really integral in our young people’s cases and integral in their freedom. And whether they’re doing well in school sometimes is what the district attorney looks at to decide whether or not they can get probation or whether or not they go to prison. And that might be backwards, but that’s what it is. 

Also, on Saturdays our young people get together and they do community building circles because we do believe that they’re going through similar things and sometimes the best teacher is another person going through the thing with you, trying to stay out of the system, avoiding all of the dangers of the street, avoiding the bad influences that come. We really emphasize community building. We also are always trying to bring in enrichment workshops and enrichment courses for our young people to help them with their goals. 

We know the real challenge of being a young person in New Orleans—and this is something I want people to know about our young people—is that they often are pushed into adulthood prematurely. So we have one young person who earns a stipend with us and then he gives that stipend to his mother to cut the lights back on. We have some young people who are trying to use their money to help out their parents, to help out their siblings, from buying clothes to buying food—all of these are things that our young people are dealing with. That’s why we really believe that they should earn a stipend for really focusing on themselves and attaining their goals. But we also realize that comes with a responsibility to teach them financial literacy and the importance of saving and not blowing your whole stipend on candy. They’re still children, right? 

What are some of the most important juvenile injustices that the public should be made aware of? How is the City addressing some of these issues? 

There are quite a few injustices. I think the biggest one that I have been trying to grapple with is that not all young people in the Youth Studies Center or in the Orleans Justice Center belong there. Point blank: they shouldn’t be there. And I think what happens is that our public gets the picture of our young people—and people in general who are locked up—from juicy, scary headlines in the paper or on the news, and that is not the reality of what’s happening… The way we think of those young people is really pushed by what we see in the media, which is always the worst case scenario and the scariest thing. So judges and district attorneys really make decisions rooted in that fear instead of rooted in what’s best for our young people and their development. Having a young person sit in a facility really breeds a lot more injustice. Getting further behind in school, having more disconnection from your family, from your community, being in substandard conditions—all of those things really snowball into bad situations for our young people. 

I think another issue of injustice that we have in our city, and it relates to having young people arrested and put into our criminal justice facilities, is that… it’s kind of hard for them now to think of [things like], “What does my future career look like? What do I want to be when I grow up? What do I want to see in my community?” Because when your community is over-policed and people in your family are all being arrested all the time and being entrenched in the system, that’s what you see as your reality… It’s hard sometimes when I sit down with one of our young people and I say, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And they’re really just like, “I want to make money legally,” like, “I need money, I like to make money.” When I was little, I had 15 million ideas of what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wanted to be a ballet dancer, I wanted to be a police woman, I wanted to be a cook, a neurosurgeon—all of these [ideas] that, when I have these conversations with my young people, they’re not getting. And so, I think the real injustice is the effect on their childhood. 

Without The Welcoming Project, what work’s getting done, if any? 

I would say that through the Office of Youth and Families, and some of the work of the Office of Criminal Justice Coordination at the city level, there are people who care about this issue of over-incarceration of our young people. There are people who care about young people being arrested on school campuses and the over-involvement of police in our school discipline… With the Office of Youth and Families and the mayor, we were awarded a grant from the National Basketball Players Association to provide support for our young people’s stipends and to provide programming for them at the Youth Study Center. And that is great, but those things are small in comparison to the need. And so one of the things that I think is really important for the New Orleans city government to understand, and then also the school district and a lot of different people, is that this is going to take all of us. If we want to really focus on reducing juvenile recidivism, if we want to focus on further decreasing juvenile crime—because it’s not as high and not increasing like the newspapers would tell you—if we want to focus on these outcomes for our young people, then we’re going to actually have to spend a lot more resources on programs like The Welcoming Project. Currently, we’re the only program in this space; we could have more programs or we could expand this program and really have it be a priority for our city government, for our school district, for our courts, for our chief of police, for people in the community who just really care about public safety and reducing crime, but also increasing economic mobility for people. Everyone really should be focusing on this population of young people, because there’s much more need than The Welcoming Project, as it currently stands, can provide. 

The City of New Orleans knows and should know that, while The Welcoming Project is able to currently work with 60 young people, there are hundreds more young people who’ve been arrested this year, and we have a small staff, so we really have to multiply the amount of impact that The Welcoming Project has on them. Multiply the amount of space that The Welcoming Project takes up in the criminal justice and juvenile justice reform space. Otherwise, we’re going to keep doing the same thing over and over again, which is locking up our kids and not getting any of the results we want. 

For more info on The Welcoming Project, check out ceeas.org/welcomingproject.