The Importance of Involving Emerging & Youth Leaders in Police Reform

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By: Ephraim Kum, Community Engagement Fellow – Utah Division of Multicultural Affairs


In 2020 we have witnessed, and are continuing to witness, a mass resurgence of protests, organizing, and dialogue surrounding issues of racial injustice and police reform unlike any other we have previously seen. The mass movements we are seeing in the news, on social media, and often in person, have been far reaching in their geographic and demographic involvement. Though, of all those who are involved, it arguably is our youth, and particularly our youth of color, who have been at the forefront, leading the way, especially in the realms of protests and organizing.

For change and reform to be truly successful and effective however, we need to be especially inclusive of our emerging and young leaders in the dialogue and discussion, not just the protests and organizing. Racial injustice, criminal/juvenile justice disparities, and police brutality affect young members of our communities, just as they do older age groups. Young people are stakeholders in all of this, like everyone else. Youth have a perspective that is only unique to them, and their exuberance is crucial to have at the decision-making table. 

Young people march at the Black Lives Matter protest in Washington D.C.

The Need for Young Voices

Emerging leaders and youth activists have proven time and time again that they are among the most outspoken voices in the face of injustice. Oftentimes, they do not have the same propensity to hesitate on calling out wrongdoings or springing to action that sometimes our older demographics may have. Amongst our younger generations, progressivism has become increasingly popular, and with the advent of social media on our side, having conversations with our peers about racial equity is very common among us. 

Speaking as a young person myself, I can confidently say that not only do we have ideas, but we also have the urge within us to speak them out, and the willingness to work towards bringing them to fruition, but we need to be granted seats at the table for any of that to matter. Too often in the past, we have seen gatekeeping and barriers placed in front of us. Whether these barriers are installed by older community stakeholders in the form of intentional & unintentional exclusion, or by ourselves in the form of self-doubt and fear of delegitimization, they still injudiciously hinder the progress that can be made in reform efforts.

Youth Experiences with Justice System

When it comes to decision-making, experience is important and necessary, but experience also comes in different forms. What youth may lack in years of career experience to speak about the needed reform in their communities, they make up for in life experience and the ability to provide a unique perspective. Unfortunately, much of this experience is first hand, especially as it pertains to our juvenile justice system. 

Here in Utah especially, inequities in our juvenile justice system have been long standing, with much progress left to be made. Recently, Voices for Utah Children published their “Striving for Equity” report, which centers the racial and ethnic disparities within our state’s juvenile justice system. A lot of their data and findings acknowledge that youth of color are overrepresented in essentially every stage of the justice system process (e.g. intakes, adjustments, petitions, arrests, locked detention). This was consistently the case with our Black, Latinx/Hispanic, and Indigenous youth.

We as a society would be remiss, and sorely mistaken if we were to suggest that the younger members of our community aren’t “experienced enough”. Our youth have been on the front lines of the protests, of online activism, and unfortunately, the justice system as well. They have more than enough justification to be front and center at the decision making table too.

The youth voice is essential to advance systemic change.

Examples of Youth Inclusion

Across the nation, we are seeing examples of youth leading conversations and action within the realm of police reform. In Chicago, some youth leaders have released a litany of policy recommendations. In Denver, there are youth-led meetings taking place for the purpose of tackling police reform. In addition, a lot of municipalities have created commissions, boards, and committees that feature youth representatives. 

Utah, thankfully, is no exception to this, and has been off to a good start. One major example to be highlighted is the Youth Subcommittee of the Racial Equity in Policing Commission, which was created by the office of Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall. The subcommittee (of which I’m grateful to be a part of), consists of emerging leaders of varying ages, racial/ethnic backgrounds, occupations/experiences, and gender identities. Members of the subcommittee also serve as part of the core commission and attend meetings as acting commissioners on a rotating basis.


The importance and necessity of youth involvement in our decisions surrounding police reform could never be overstated. While we in Utah are creating more and more opportunities for emerging leaders to be included, now is certainly not the time to let up. Youth representation should be a standard in all decision-making spaces. Reaching out to young leaders in the community should be an act of reflex from our governing institutions.

We the youth have the perspectives, the forms of experience, and the energy necessary to make meaningful contributions. We are not only the future, but we are also the present. Our voices should hold weight now, and always, not just for our own sakes, but for the sake of all our community members.