The first act of social change…is to listen.

This installation is the culmination of months of listening to the stories of young people and their experiences in the New Jersey Criminal Justice System.  

The work presented here was created by young people from the Youth Advocate Program (YAP) in partnership with staff and advocacy experts from New Jersey Institute for Social Justice (NJISJ) and artists and teaching artists from coLAB Arts.  

Participants were given a supportive space and creative outlet to explore the meaning of home, as well as an opportunity to reflect on the personal choices they made, and the resulting consequences of their actions.  

Some of these stories are simple expressions of the normalcy of everyday teenage life. Others are reflections on despair, and the hope for personal resilience.

Participants were given the freedom to create images, write their personal stories, or orally record their experiences.

We welcome you to spend time with the stories and images that follow, hear their voices and engage with their stories.

teaching artists: Dusty Ballard, Heather Holmes, John Keller, Brandon Rubin

Videography by Jessica Nicole Dotson

Graphic Design by Emma Gordon


Have you ever had a problem you couldn’t solve and not had the support you needed?

Well having a future is hard sometimes, because sometimes family members don’t give you the support and motivation you need. I had a future - to go to college and get my BA. But the only problem is, I didn’t have the support.

You see four years ago It would be easy for me to just dorm and move away from my family. My eighth-grade year I had everything planned out, go to culinary school, then get my masters and move to another city, but not now.

My ninth-grade year I got pregnant and the worst part was what happened next.

I was on my own with hardly any help. I had my mom, but she refused to stay home with my baby boy while I finish school. I gave up on myself, got depressed and just felt so foolish. Another year passed, and my aunt gave me motivation and helped me pay for daycare for my baby, so I could finish school. The funny part is when I finally figured myself out I realized I didn’t want to do that either. I wanted to study psychology and now I know I want to do criminal law.

I now have a scholarship to college. I also have an internship and feel good about myself. The things I have accomplished in 3 years are amazing and as a single mother it’s hard, but I don’t let people dictate how I should live my life. Life is a rollercoaster.

I was fourteen, fifteen at the time, and I had just found out that my girlfriend was pregnant.

At the time I didn’t have a job, I couldn’t work because I was going to school. I was selling weed around this time. I was making money because nobody in my family had a job. I am African, my family moved to this country from Ghana when I was six or seven. My mom couldn’t work, my dad was in college. Throughout this whole time my mother and my father couldn’t work until my father was done with college and we all could get papers.

That’s why I couldn’t, too. Because I didn’t have papers either. I gave all of the money I had to my girlfriend because she was going to grab weed after work and then bring it home for me to sell. It happened that the person she was supposed to go get it from wasn’t around, so I had to find a new guy, so I could go make my money.

I sent her to someone that I don’t usually go to and this person ended up taking eight hundred dollars from her and running off, and we didn’t get the marijuana. It was a lot of money for us. When she came back home, I called the guy and tried to talk to him and tried to be reasonable. Tried to be nice about it. He didn’t budge. At the time I was heavy on prescription pills. I would take them to numb whatever thoughts I had going on. I was high at the time. This time I was off on xanax. I got in the car with my girlfriend who was two months pregnant. I went and got a gun that my uncle had given me. When I started selling drugs he told me I was gonna have to protect myself. I never really thought I was going to need to use it, until that day.

My girlfriend knew where they guy lived. She drove me to his house. I shot him. I had never shot someone before that day. I shot him three times, in his arm and abdomen. None of the shots were fatal. He stole eight hundred dollars from me which was everything I had. We got back in the car and drove away.

My girlfriend was driving, we got caught in the car and they arrested us. They locked us up. I was a minor and she was eighteen. So now they charged her with endangering a minor and me with aggravated assault. She bailed out and I basically took all of the charges. They gave me the gun charge for the shooting. They still charged her with endangering a minor, so she still had to go to prison for that too.

I was in prison in Jamesburg - I had just come out of lockup, for like two days. I remember this like it was yesterday. Lockup is when you get in trouble, you sit in the cell several hours a day. I had just come back to population which is more like dorms with bunk beds. The social worker came in and told me my mother wanted to talk to me. Usually, you get four collect calls a month at Jamesburg, so I didn’t have any left. So, the social worker let me call my mom. She told me my girlfriend was in labor. They let my mother go to the hospital even though my girlfriend was still incarcerated. My mother was basically telling me everything that was happening. When my son was born they let me talk to my baby’s mom. I heard my son’s voice and they let me name him. I missed everything. I missed his birth, his first words, his first steps.

That was a turning point, when my son was born. It hit home that he doesn’t have his mother and his father with him because of a choice I had made. That was the point for me right there. I just came home and just tried to make it right every chance that I get.

This is a story about a time I screwed up.

The weekend was coming and I had been asking and begging my mom to go to a sweet fifteen with my best friend. She said no, because it was my first time going to a big party. If it were a small party she’d say yes, but since there was gonna be drinks and all of that she didn’t have enough trust in me. She knew I would’ve had drank or something like that.

It was a Saturday afternoon and the party was gonna be the next day (Sunday) night. I was still trying to convince my mom. Since I couldn’t really convince her I asked my mom’s boyfriend for help.  I asked him to give me a chance to show I’m responsible (like that I could come back on time and not be drunk or high). He said he’ll try but I got keep my promise to not screw it up.

The next day my mom called me over to her room. That morning I woke up early did chores and made breakfast. When she called me over first thing she asked me was, ‘where was this party? What time it starts? What time it ended? Who was gonna go with me? Whose sweet 15? Do I know anybody there?’ I answered some of the questions.

She said yes I could go but to be careful with what I do.

At 6pm I got ready. I was about to leave but my mom stopped me and went to see who I was gonna go with. She saw who I was going with and she already knew one of them who was my best friend. We left to go to the party and had a great time.

We got lit and did something they told me not to do. I went home in pretty bad condition, but it was better to go home then stay at my friend’s house. If I did I would’ve had gotten in much more trouble. I got home around 12:30. I went straight to the bathroom and threw up three times… and forgot to lock the bathroom door...

I was home with no money or food in the house. So, I got dressed in black and grabbed my .38.

I was fourteen. My mom wasn’t around. My dad got locked up by this time. My aunt was supposed to be looking after me but wasn’t. So, I didn’t really have anyone. The people who were supposed to take care of me weren’t really taking care of me.

I left the house with the idea in my mind that I was gonna rob somebody. Not anyone specifically but someone. I was waiting around for hours trying to find the right person to rob. I was walking down 18th Street and Springfield Ave. I had seen this guy was in this driveway getting out of his car with a lot of jewels on. He just looked like he had a lot of money. I walked up behind him and pulled my gun out and told him to give me all his stuff. I didn’t notice until late that he had a baby inside the car seat in front of him.

I felt this sinking feeling. The baby was literally watching me rob her father. Not really knowing what’s going on. I told him to give me all his stuff. I ran off and I got something to eat.

Three hours later. I got tracked down because his iPhone had a GPS on it. I got charged with possession of a weapon, robbery, endangering a child. I got charged and went to jail. I remember I was so skinny. So little. I was away for four and a half years.

Being away was hard for my family. It was hurtful. I couldn’t see anyone. And it’s like - I was going through this thing where I was wondering why I was hungry before the robbery - to now I was being given three free meals a day from the jail. But what about my family? How are they holding up? How are they getting through? I know it was hard when I was in there. Now I got a free meal, a free place to stay but what about my family? The realization that I was doing to my kids what my parents did to me. Being in there you really just feel helpless. It makes you crazy. Numerous times I felt like committing suicide. So many times, you feel like there is no coming back. I was locked up until I was eighteen.

Now I am working. Buying my own food. Working is different. Doing something positive and legal to be able to get what I need and be able to help my family. I work as a custodian and every time I fix an air conditioner or fix something I am doing something positive for my family. There ain’t nothing like the feeling of being able to take care of people. Having my kid, being able to feed them and have everything be right.

I feel as though I overcame the mistake that I made because I think more. I think twice. I want to tell this story now because it was my experience, my life - for other people who are going through it to have a better outlook.

There ain’t no right way to do something wrong. I never got taught that. I had to figure that out.