Heather Ukaonu ’22 and Maggie Pfeffer ’21 collaborated on a research project with Dr. Michelle Lelwica, professor of religion, last summer that focused on a compassionate approach to juvenile justice. Funded by a Concordia Centennial Research Grant, they researched how the juvenile justice system works and how youth are affected by it. 

“The Compassionate Justice research project emerged from a sense of responsibility I feel to better understand the young peoples’ lives, to examine the systems in which they are caught, and to explore alternatives that might foster compassionate justice and healing – one that takes seriously the layers of suffering surrounding the lives of at-risk youth,” says Lelwica, who started visiting the West Central Regional Juvenile Center (WCRJC) in Moorhead in January 2018. “Young people are more motivated to stop blaming others when they are not worried about being harshly judged or punished for what they did. And they are more inclined to take responsibility for their harmful actions if the painful circumstances that contributed to those actions are acknowledged.”

The trio met with a group of 12 youth twice per week at the WCRJC. Their work centered on mindfulness practices such as meditation and yoga, book club and well-being discussions, and writing projects to develop skills that facilitate critical thinking and introspection. In the course of the research, some of what they found was that compassion and accountability are not mutually exclusive but, in fact, need each other.

Heather Ukaonu

“We spent time with youth to gain firsthand knowledge on what they think about the current justice system and how they respond to a more compassionate approach that Dr. Lelwica constructed,” Ukaonu says. “During our time with them, we saw a caring, strong, intelligent side of the youth that many people don’t normally see.”

Ukaonu, a psychology and Spanish double major from Kulm, N.D., says the project fueled her passion to work with at-risk youth. She plans to return to the WCRJC to visit with the youth she spent the summer with, continue to research approaches to juvenile justice that are constructive and compassionate, and spread awareness about the issue.

“Every youth has the potential to be successful if given extra attention by those who really want them to succeed,” Ukoanu says. “Their skills for understanding their feelings and handling difficult situations in safe ways need to be cultivated more than ever. They need more mentors, and their families need more professionals who will help the family get on the right track.”

Maggie Pfeffer

Pfeffer, an English and global studies double major from Alexandria, Minn., says she learned what it means to be brave, honest, and strong, that life isn’t easy, and that laughter heals.

“There is such power in listening. The youth taught me to erase boxes, to not make assumptions, to keep trying, to dream bigger, to be true to myself, to trust, to forgive, to be better,” she says. “I am grateful for knowing all of them. They made a mark on my heart and an imprint in my memory that I will never, ever forget.”

Read more about the project from Dr. Lelwica

Published January 2021