by Ronnie Estoque
Tascha Johnson was a graduate student at the University of Washington in 2018 when she was first introduced to CHOOSE 180, an organization focused on keeping youth out of the juvenile criminal legal system and breaking the school-to-prison pipeline. Sean Goode, executive director of CHOOSE 180 at the time, was a guest speaker in one of Johnson’s social work classes.
“When I heard him talking about the juvenile diversion program that they offer, and, you know, the impact on the community and working with systems to make changes within those systems, that really resonated with me, because I have family that has also been impacted by the juvenile legal system that then followed them into the legal system as they got older,” Johnson explained.
Johnson came to CHOOSE 180 as an intern in 2018, and now, with Goode stepping down from his position, she has transitioned into becoming the interim executive director, succeeding the speaker who inspired her years ago.
According to Johnson, referrals for mental health therapists have increased.
“We have a program called Choose Freedom that specifically focuses on violence and gun violence in the communities. … Our program navigators have definitely been busy,” Johnson said.
Last month, a teen was killed at the Creston Point Apartments. Following the incident, King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay organized a community meeting at the Creston Point Apartments, and he described that meeting while presenting the Martin Luther King Jr. Distinguished Service Award to Donnitta Sinclair-Martin, who founded the organization We Got Us Moms to support mothers whose children were killed by gun violence. Her own son was murdered in 2020.
“It’s impossible to list all of the systemic changes that need to occur to reduce or eliminate shooting homicides,” Zahilay said in an email statement. “A few that come to mind are ensuring people have everything they need to live healthy, happy lives before they commit or become a victim of the violence. That means increasing our investments in affordable homes, connected communities, behavioral health, food security, good education, youth enrichment programs, good jobs and workforce development.”
He continued, “It also means reducing the ubiquity and accessibility of firearms — we need universal background checks, waiting periods, safe storage, and removing guns from the hands of youth and various categories of offenders.”
CHOOSE 180 receives referrals for its programming from the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office in Seattle and through community referrals from relatives and local leaders.
“These are youth that have been impacted by violence and gun violence and want some further guidance or mentorship,” Johnson said. “This year, we’re having difficulty keeping up with the community referrals. … It’s definitely impacted the enrollment, because it’s increased a lot.”
In addition to providing guidance, CHOOSE 180 creates a space where youth can meet and express themselves and engage in dialogue through peer groups. Navigators assist in facilitating meetings where youth discuss issues affecting their communities, and how they’re processing things that are affecting them.
“I think that one of the biggest needs right now would probably be mental health support,” Johnson said. “I don’t want to gloss over the fact that we are coming out of a pandemic that has affected everyone, but affected school-age young people probably the most.”
Last February, the Emerald reported on student advocacy for the funding of more counselors and mental health resources for students in Seattle Public Schools (SPS). In response to the students’ grassroots advocacy, teachers, staff, the City, and SPS have committed $4.5 million to allow for more bilingual staff, mental health clinicians, and trauma-informed training. Rainier Beach and Aki Kurose are two of the five schools that were selected for the pilot program.
Johnson says CHOOSE 180 witnesses the impacts of the lack of resources the students are demanding. “A lot of what we have identified and that we are seeing is a byproduct of a long-term systemic oppression of BIPOC communities. Some of the things that could help in those areas are providing a living wage, having safe housing, well-funded schools, providing physical and mental health services,” Johnson said. “Some of the schools that we do go into are also being overrun with requests for mental health services.”
Currently, CHOOSE 180 has a summer internship program where youth are learning about business development while also learning “soft skills,” such as public speaking and crafting resumes. Its school-based diversion program, which is one of its largest programs, will start back up at the end of August, and the organization is looking to involve community member volunteers to support students across all grade levels.
“What we’re doing is working up towards police alternatives. So that there are options, so that we do give people a different way to work within to transform the systems so that they are much more restorative rather than punitive,” Johnson said. “One of the harder things right now is that we don’t know what the funding is going to look like from year to year. … But if there can be some sort of security in the funding and the funding streams … we can make sure that we are here for our community.”
Ronnie Estoque is a South Seattle-based freelance photographer and videographer. You can keep up with his work by checking out his website.
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