Our mission was to build skills and knowledge with teens who have real-life experiences with the sex trades, street economies, and the streets on their rights, options, and healing so they can take power in their own lives and communities.

Represent started as a weekly leadership group in January 2013 for teens with life experience in the sex trades created and facilitated by Claudine O’Leary. The group created a space for youth to support peers, unpack experiences in the sex trade, and work on small projects together.

The work of Represent grew in April 2013 through another weekly group for girls detained at the Milwaukee County Youth Detention Center. This group evolved through girls’ feedback and group process to be called Real Talk and Sharing Real Life Skills and Knowledge.

We’ve been all-volunteer-run the whole time and all cash and resource donations went directly to young people who participated.

Teens took those resources like clothes, food, hygiene supplies, bus tickets, and condoms to meet their own basic needs and offer mutual aid to their peers.

Teens from Represent staffed tables at youth resource fairs and shared resource information with peers all over. Represent was always mobile – meeting young people at their homes, shelters, group homes, schools, treatment centers, youth detention centers, county jails, youth prison, and on the street – wherever we could.

Our work was grounded in deep harm reduction practice – building up the leadership of teens directly impacted by the sex trades and the streets. Young people knew they were accepted and loved without having to change at all.

Our programs were completely voluntary and we didn’t accept any mandated participation. Many young people sought us out on their own or through connections from friends.

We never turned young people on the run into the police and didn’t believe in mandated reporting. Everything we did was pro-liberation, freedom, and power to young people.

When we added it up, we led over 400 groups in the community and 360 more groups in the Milwaukee County Youth Detention Center reaching hundreds of young people with support and resources on their rights, options, and healing.

More than half of those groups were co-led by teens themselves who created the activities and facilitated participatory conversations on topics that mattered to young people.

In addition to all the support, skills, and knowledge young people found in those groups, they wrote and put together zines, handouts, a board game, and more written advice for other teens.

We supported over 480 young people with community-based advocacy. This looked like harm reduction ideas on drug use and safety planning when on run. It included emotional support, goal setting and connecting to resources, contacting lawyers and social workers as youth needed, and advocating for youth in court on placement changes, lifting warrants, and staying in the community.

We stayed connected to youth through countless worker and placement changes.

Teens learned how to advocate for their own rights and put their skills into action with caseworkers, police, and court hearings.

Teen leaders from Represent have spoken out in community forums and focus groups about necessary changes to the youth justice system, child welfare, healthcare response, and our community response to youth impacted by the sex trades.

Youth participating in Represent helped shape resource cards, informed researchers understanding why youth run from placement, improved a residential program’s intake process, shared knowledge with local anti-violence advocates, advised youth workers on how to best support teens impacted by the sex trades, spoke to reporters documenting girls’ experiences with youth justice and their recommendations and educated a Milwaukee County working group on girls in youth justice through a detailed report.

We’ve been so fortunate to sit side by side with young people through some of their hardest times.

We’ve made sure young people we know are connected to other local resources. We introduced a new collaborative of local partners called CRAY Chat to keep up group work with girls in youth detention.

Youth participants of Represent are showing their leadership in all kinds of ways including pursuing more education, running small businesses, raising children, supporting young people as up-and-coming youth workers, and making brave decisions every day. We’re happy to have been some part in making that more possible.

Claudine will be focusing on her work as a community educator and independent consultant. You can reach her at claudine@rethinkresources.net.