Spotlight Exclusives

Credible Messengers Serve As Transformative Mentors For Youth

Clinton Lacey Clinton Lacey, posted on

With three decades of experience helping youth navigate the juvenile justice system, Clinton Lacey founded the Credible Messenger Mentoring Movement (CM3), an organization devoted to providing mentors who can help at-risk young people manage short-term crises and put together full-scale life plans. The organization is now training credible messengers and implementing the program in more than a half-dozen states and Lacey spoke with Spotlight recently about the CM3 model and how it can work. The transcript of that conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Clinton, we want to talk specifically about the work that CM3 is doing in Mississippi, but why don’t we start with some general background and context about the organization?

Sure. I come to this work through the youth justice lens — understanding that young people and families that are impacted by the justice system see disparities in all kinds of care, from housing to education to employment. CM3 focuses on youth and families impacted by the justice system but with an understanding that there’s this broader array of issues. And so, the support that we bring is mindful of that and intentional about the full picture of people and what they’ve experienced.

I started working with youth 30 years ago at Rikers Island in New York City in an organization where we went into the jail and then worked with young people in the community as well. Some dozen or so years later, I joined a group called the Hayward Burns Institute in Oakland, which is named after Hayward Burns, who was an attorney, law professor, and civil rights advocate. Our work there was to address racial and ethnic and gender disparities in the youth justice system around the country. And that work gave me an opportunity to see firsthand not just how racial disparities were impacting young people and families, but it also allowed me to see firsthand that even at the tables of reform, the youth and families and communities most impacted were absent from that conversation. It was about them, but they weren’t there.

From there, in 2011, I was recruited to become Deputy Commissioner of the Probation Department in New York City. The commissioner at that time wanted to bring community focused people to the higher levels of authority at the department and it was there that we really launched the work that I’m doing now — to focus on and engage with the communities that had the highest levels of crime and the highest rates of people on probation. And in those communities, we believed that there were people who we now commonly call credible messengers, people who themselves had been directly and indirectly impacted by the justice system, had experienced marginalization, and the various issues and challenges in the community. But these were folks who were very passionate and very talented and very poised to play an important part in creating solutions, who were engaging youth and families and were doing peace-making work or restorative work informally or formally.

With that in mind, we launched an initiative and put 20 grants into New York City communities that funded organizations, mostly grassroots organizations, to hire what we now call credible messengers who could be the transformative mentors for our 16- to 24-year-olds on probation. It was a very non-traditional, out-of-the-box approach, particularly for a law enforcement agency that had a history of being pretty punitive and having antagonistic relationships with the community. So, it was a radical shift, but we brought in people who were positioned to really be positive role models, life coaches, transformative mentors. These were paid positions, in order to have these intensive relationships and to really work with people, not just to help intervene in crisis, but to proactively be navigators with them in a process of healing and restoration and connection to services and education and workforce. Long story short, the Urban Institute conducted a study on the program that showed a 60% reduction in recidivism, which was unprecedented.

I left New York in 2015 to become director of Washington D.C.’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, where we continued to expand the initiative. In D.C., we were fortunate to be able to significantly expand the size and depth of the initiative and provide these credible messenger relationships to not just our young people, but to their families. Mom, grandma, caregivers, and siblings were receiving their own dedicated credible messengers, so our narrative really continued to build around this newly found sense of hope and trust that something better was possible for them.

I resigned in 2021 and launched Credible Messenger Mentoring Movement, or CM3 as we call it, for the purpose of taking these ideas and these experiences to help support people on the ground around the country. We developed a curriculum that we used to train credible messengers, and over the course of time, we evolved a framework for engaging young people and families. So, through that course of time, we met Rukia Lumumba in Jackson, who runs the People’s Advocacy Institute and is the daughter of the former mayor and sister of the current mayor. Through our continuing relationships with the Kellogg Foundation, we were able to get a grant from which we sub-granted a significant amount that helped launch Strong Arms of Jackson, which is the credible messengers organization there. I had previously known Rukia when she worked in New York — and Strong Arms had already been launched via the People’s Advocacy Institute by the time we got the Kellogg funding, but we helped expand their reach & capacity.

Some people use the term credible messenger and think it’s more focused on violence prevention, but our model is on a longer-term, deeper, goal-oriented process that is intended to last over time — at least two years.

Very helpful. And in Mississippi and other areas, the credible messengers continue to be paid?

Correct. In New York, initially it was part-time, but it became full-time there. And moving forward, the intention is always full-time, paid credible messengers.

And the full family focus you mentioned has also continued?

Exactly. In D.C, we had this really great window of opportunity where we had the resources to fund these robust teams, but not all of our programs are fully resourced to have the ability to engage the family. But that’s still our preferred model and approach.

 And the age range for people receiving these services is up to 21?

We’ve worked with youth as young as 14, but the general range is 16 to 24.

And how many credible messengers have you got now operating in Jackson?

 Approximately 8.

And are these people that have all been touched by the justice system in some way?

Some directly, for sure, and others who are perhaps more indirect family members. I’m glad you asked that because you don’t have to have been incarcerated to be a credible messenger. In fact, it’s ultimately about who has the credibility, the trusting relationships in the community.

I want to go back just to where we started about Jackson in particular. It’s a very challenging place in every way. And I don’t know how you build that into your work because, a young person there is facing significant challenges even if they’re not incarcerated.

It’s a huge challenge. And so really, in one sense, it’s highly individualized in terms of every young person. We help them to develop their own life path plan, helping young people and their families to first of all, try to alleviate or address any crisis— stabilize housing, hunger, that kind of thing. Credible messengers themselves don’t have all or many of those types of resources, but they continue to grow their capacity to respond directly to some material needs, such as clean water bottles, etc.

We try to be connectors to services that people need. And in a place like Jackson, that’s unusually challenging. There are certainly not enough resources, so our work becomes about both connecting people to what does exist and then being part of trying to advocate for more appropriate types of services and resources for folks. So, it’s hard.

Part of what we’re doing with our Kellogg funding is to embark on a community mapping process where we’ll be able to actually hire young people and families to help us develop a big map of resources and needs. We know there are going to big gaps and it’s very challenging work but it’s something we think can really help the people of Jackson.

How many other states are you in besides Mississippi?

I should know off the top of my head, but it keeps growing. So, we’re in Texas, Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, California, Washington state, Illinois, South Carolina, and Connecticut. In some places, it’s a full-blown project or demonstration of the CM3 model and in other places we are providing various forms of support and technical assistance like training and supporting people on the ground and as well as educating and trying to support governments that are interested in this by helping them with community engagement and getting the needed voices at the table.

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