YouthLab ingredients


During the exchange sessions, there are a lot of things happening that might go unnoticed to an inexperienced observer. However, the different elements in place are essential for the success of your YouthLab. You can see them as ingredients to be adapted to your own context, so take them with a pinch of salt and reflect with your team on what each one might bring to your YouthLab, how it can be brought to life, and which new elements you might want to bring to the mix.

1. Safe space, safe pace


A youth x justice exchange follows a deliberate gradual approach. This approach is all about building and playing with the tension and energy of the group. The right kind of tension serves all present (both young people and participants). Too much tension, however, will shut down all opportunities for growth and reflection.

Tension is a friend

In youth x justice exchange, tension is a friend. The tension you are after, does not lead to a destructive fight or conflict. Rather, we mean that it’s ok if it’s uncomfortable, confrontational, emotional or difficult. We learn that a person grows in these moments, as long as they are happening in a safe and controlled space.

A safe and controlled space

A YouthLab facilitator nurtures trust and safety. A facilitator always knows if the tension is still serving members of a group. If it is hurting instead, a facilitator will intervene or adapt the program accordingly. A safe pace is one that nurtures trust and openness; knowing that this takes time and cannot be rushed into.

YouthLab feels like a family to me now. We have fun and trust each other.

Youthlab Experience expert, Netherlands

Story: Different energy levels

It’s Yousri’s first time participating in a youth x justice exchange. He met YiP while he was in detention, but he doesn’t know the other boys very well. He is a bit nervous and has a ‘wait and see’ attitude.

Samet is participating in an exchange for the 4th time. However, he is still quite new to the YouthLab . The previous time, Lamyn (the facilitator) had a little talk with him about finding a balance between taking the stage, but also leaving space for the other boys to participate in group discussions. He will address this again before the start of the exchange.

Valon has co-hosted several exchange sessions together with YiP, he is familiar with today’s target group as well as the location. He knows the drill and is excited to start. Mo is running late because his train is delayed. He arrives 10 minutes prior to the session. He needs to take a moment to unwind and tune in to the exchange. He’s a senior, so it’s easier for him to step in and start participating.

Lamyn notices that every boy arrives at the location with a totally different energy. By engaging in a relaxed conversation with them, guiding them through the program of the day, and allowing them to get acquainted with the location, he is able to ensure that everyone is at the same energy-level when starting a session.

As soon as the boys feel comfortable with the location and each other, they start to feel a connection and feel confident, which allows us to start the session as a team. This ‘tuning-in’ with each other and becoming comfortable in the space we’re in, is of great importance to create a safe atmosphere for the youth-x-justice exchange.

2. Creative forms: a shared language


We use creativity in exchanges as a way to come together. It has a connecting effect, but it is also an accessible way for a young person to position themselves in a different way. They are on stage for a while and can tell what is going on in their own text/rap.

Meet in the middle

A rap, spoken word or poetic text makes it easier for the storyteller to share his vulnerable personal story and easier for the listener to understand. Creativity produces a language “that lies in the middle, which belongs to everyone and can be understood by everyone”. Sometimes a rap also helps to distance yourself from your story because it is difficult to articulate what you feel in real life. Furthermore, the listener can take a step towards the narrator more easily, with empathy and sometimes recognition.

Creativity x Empathy

American philosopher Martha Nussbaum believes that empathy, the capacity to put ourselves in another person’s shoes, is a capacity that is strengthened by our encounter with art. She argues that art can provide us with different outlooks, because art takes us into the world view of someone different to us. Narrative art especially, invites us into the life of someone else, and allows us to look at the world with different eyes. This broadens our own view of the world, changing our way of thinking, and provides us with new perspectives on our own lives. In short, it engages our imagination.

Nussbaum also shows that art has to be a little bit strange, but not too much. It must to some extent match the experience of the spectator, so they are willing to go along with it, but it must also deviate from their experience in particular ways, such that they feel estranged or perplexed. How to strike the right balance between familiarity and estrangement is of course different for each person.

Story: “Can I get a copy of your story?”

Shayro is an experienced YouthLab participant who gave a spoken word presentation at the beginning of the youth-x-justice exchange. His text was about the (healing) conversation he had with the victim in court. The victim admitted to forgiving him for what had happened. Shayro expressed in his text what that has done to him. It was sensitive, personal and humane, so the audience was very moved by his presentation.

So much so that after session, officers asked for a copy of his text because it was so powerful. An officer later said that she always carries this copy in her briefcase, as a reminder of the youth she has in front of her in the courtroom. This spoken-word text, the creative narration of his vulnerable story, made it easy for the audience to empathize and perhaps even identify with the humanity behind his story. In this way creativity blurs the boundaries between us/them – after which a connection can be made.

3. Translating between the ‘system’ and ‘lived’ world


Everyday experiences of YouthLab participants are exclusively in the roles of ‘young offender’ and ‘justice professional’. This relationship and its roles are reaffirmed with powerful symbols and rituals, such as a courtroom, clothing and language. A youth-x-justice exchange is a unique experience to meet and exchange outside these rigid roles and patterns.

Take your coat off

A high-ranking member of the prosecution told YiP once that she appreciated the exchange because both prosecutors and young people are ‘taking off their coat’. In this quote, the ‘coat’ is a symbol for the often-played and formal roles. Taking that coat off and engaging as ‘yourself’ can feel extremely uncomfortable and vulnerable. Active listening, then, becomes a challenge if you are not yet used to listening in this new role – one where you cannot fall back onto the things you learned in college or in the streets.

I noticed the young trainers speak freely, because the parole officers are not ‘their’ officers.

Parole Officer & Youth x Justice Exchange participant, Netherlands


YouthLab facilitators speak both the ‘formal’ or ‘system’ language of professionals, and the ‘lived’ or ‘popular’ language of young people. Without interpreting or twisting words, they are able to nudge and clarify with the purpose of growth and reflection. A YouthLab facilitator translates as a friendly mediator, never taking sides – but always sensitive for traumas and personal difficulties.

Story: Talk-a lot

Remy is very enthusiastic during the exchange. When the trainer asks the YouthLab – group ‘what helped you maktensively about his treatment and other intense experiences. While telling the story Remy goee a positive switch?’ he wants to respond immediately. After getting the floor, he starts talking exs into all directions and his emotions, at times very negative, begin to overtake him and his story. The trainer notices that the group becomes a bit restless and defensive, and intervenes to help Remy to make his point.

The trainer asks Remy short questions such as: “what did you like during your treatment?” and “who helped you stay positive?”. Through this, Remy gets his story back on track. It gets more clear and more layered. While the story was overtaken by his (negative) emotions, it seemed that it was incoherent and one-sided, thereby pushing the professionals into a corner. With the help of the trainer (who knows Remy very well) his point became clear: he found it difficult at first to listen and to move along with the rules of his new inner world. But after a while those rules were exactly what helped him to stay positive and accept help.

4. Walk in my shoes: an empathic approach


A youth x justice exchange is designed for professionals to ‘walk in the shoes and see through the eyes of young people’. A pitfall of young people telling their personal stories is that they are evoking sympathy (feeling sorry or pity for), and not empathy. In the YouthLab , we are striving for moral empathy. That is because while sympathy drives distance, empathy drives connection. Feeling and acting out of empathy allows us to feel with peopleI and connect with them by connecting with feelings within ourselves.

Check out this short animation with Brene Brown about the difference between sympathy and empathy here.

“Instead of asking questions ‘by the book’ (what did you do, why, etc), you are listening because you are attending the session as a human being.”

Parole Officer & Youth x Justice Exchange participant, Netherlands

Moral empathy

Moral empathy, the ‘active’ type of empathy, is different from Cognitive Empathy or Emotional Empathy. Cognitive empathy is knowing how the other person feels and what they might be thinking. Moral empathy is also called ‘perspective-taking’ and is concerned with thought, understanding and intellect. Emotional empathy is when you feel physically along with the other person, as though their emotions were contagious. This type of empathy is concerned with feelings. Moral Empathy, then, is not only knowing and feeling what someone else has been through, but also acting upon that – because you know it will make someone else feel better.

Universal truths

In the stories young people tell professionals, it is the universal truths that we are after. Universal truths are feelings or experiences that are the same for almost everyone and therefore easy to imagine and understand. Being explicit about universal truths will help to evoke moral empathy. Because no matter where you grew up, or how life has treated you, everyone will understand feelings and experiences such as:

  • Once you get into something, it is hard to get out of it – even if you know it’s not right for you;
  • Wanting to feel respected, and the frustration or hurt if that is not the case;
  • Being willing to do everything for your brothers and sisters to be safe and happy;
  • How hard it is to ask for help;
  • That sometimes things can escalate quickly, without you feeling in control of it;
  • The feeling of being misunderstood;
  • Playing cooler than you actually feel.

Story: It just got out of hand

Delano tells his group of officers during training how his youth and path to crime went down. “It actually all went wrong at home, with a lot of arguments and unrest, which led me to child services. But even over there I could not settle, due to the changing of rules and of people who are in charge of you, so I was still troubled with aggression problems. I was transferred many times. In the end, everything went wrong when I was by myself somewhere on the street, cooling off from being angry, when I was tapped on my shoulder. I was so angry that I turned out of reflex, and gave that someone a fist on his head. It was an agent. That’s why I was inside for 4 years, from social services to detention.”

After the interview, the officers held a presentation about Delano’s story to the group. The officers take Delano’s vulnerability and background very seriously and, with additional questions, want to make sure they tell his story as best as they can to the group. They present the story in the i-narrative. This gives the officer the opportunity to do a step-into-the-shoes-of assignment, while being removed from his own ‘jacket’.

This assignment helps to learn how to 1) understand and replicate the language of the youth, and to 2) empathize with / feel the young person’s experiences. Being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes leads to (more) connection and understanding of each other’s perspective.

5. Healing through exchange


A key part of the YouthLab program are the personal (life) stories of young people. Whereas they may only be telling a fragment during interviews with professionals in the actual exchange, lots of ‘homework’ with the YouthLab team happens prior to a session. Young YouthLab experience experts are invited in tailored storytelling and spoken word exercises to learn how to tell their (life) stories.

Narrative Identities

‘What is your story?’ ‘Why did you commit a crime?’ ‘How did you feel when you committed a crime?’ ‘How do you feel about me?’

These can be big and difficult questions. Young people learn to tell their stories in different ways, sometimes with new eyes. An important objective is to be able to ‘edit’ these stories with the YouthLab team. What are the important elements to tell? What were moments of strength; what stories convey that you are more than your crime?

“Just like a book”

A professional participant told us that she appreciates how the experience experts of YouthLab ‘can flip through their story like a book’. ‘They are able to open the book at a certain chapter, move to another, and then close it again. That takes a lot of skills, and it makes you feel comfortable to ask all those questions.’

You also learn about the ‘good things’ that happened in a young person’s life. There is always so much more to tell than just the crime.

Parole Officer, Youth x Justice Exchange participant, Netherlands

Story: “Painful story, man”

Today is the first time for Jaimy to participate at a YouthLab exchange for prosecutors. His team has just presented his life story from the “I”-perspective to the group. The trainer asked him if he was pleased with the presentation and if the team has presented everything accurately. He said: ”Yes, they have told my story exactly how I have told it to them. But wow, I am also a bit shocked to hear my own story back like this. I listened to it and my thoughts were: this is a pretty focked up childhood and youth actually. It almost felt like it wasn’t my own story, but then I realised: this is about mé. If I hear the story back, like just now, i-don’t-know, it really affects me,man. It’s a painful story.”

The young people may experience and feel fiercely and painful emotions by telling and hearing back their own story. Clearly, this exchange might revive some heavy experiences, which might have a healing contribution to their process, but only when there is (after)care and attention for the openness and vulnerability (of the stories) of the young people.

6. Flipping the script, a multitude of scripts


When coming in contact with one another, ‘the young offender’ and ‘justice professional’ often have ‘static roles’ that they play. With these static roles go static scripts too: scripts dictate what you are saying and how you are behaving.

The role play triggered me to think in a different way. It feels awkward, but you will definitely remember when a similar situation happens in real life.

Parole Officer – Youth x Justice Exchange participant, Netherlands

From the books

For professionals, this script is often learned ‘from the books’ and protocols. A professionals’ script gets enforced by the inherent unequal power relationships between youth and professionals. And when you are working as a professional for quite some time, it is easy to think that ‘you have seen it all’:

Young people, as well, have often mastered a single and static script. This script is often based on what they have heard from others or strategize to what will serve them best in the judicial process.

Bruce, member of the YouthLab, and Susanne, a participating prosecutor, explain in this short movie how they were stuck in their scripts:

Bruce: “It used to be like a cat and mouse game. Because I am playing the ‘bad guy’ and for me, they are the evil ones.”

Susanne: “The pitfall is when you think you already know exactly what this boy will be like.”

A multitude of scripts

However, these static scripts hinder meaningful contact. The YouthLab is to inspire professionals to work with a multitude of scripts; one that is tailored for a multitude of relationships, with young people for whom not one story is the same despite their many similarities.

Tailoring each and every contact takes effort and practice. In a youth x justice exchange, professionals receive tips and practical tools to start tailoring scripts in their professional lives.

Story: “I’d rather serve my sentence than see this man every 2 weeks”

“When I was released, one of my conditions was that I had to check in to my probation every two weeks. But this man from probation – I really didn’t like him. He never asked how I was doing, nor did he show any other form of interest. He only asked me his standard questions. It felt that he was working with a standard check-list and he did not see me at all. He didn’t take into account what was important for me. Therefore, I was not motivated to open up. Nor did he. After a while, we had more discussions and finally I thought: I’d rather serve my sentence than see this man every 2 weeks. So then I stopped going to probation.”

This case illustrates how the standard script of Sahil’s probation backfired. Sahil simply wants to be seen and feels he can’t be helped in an impersonal setting. Although many youngsters seem to be non-responsive at first, thereby making it look that they do not want to cooperate, this case perfectly shows that it is also important for a young person that the professional detects the needs of the youngster, adapts and, in this case, opens op. Then a young person will feel support and is more likely to open up and stay present.

7. Empowering relationships of trust


A YouthLab facilitator holds a crucial role in the program. It is not a role anyone can easily take over or replace, as his main strength is the long-term relationships of trust with the young people. Young in Prison mostly meets the youngsters whilst they are still in detention and these relationships often last for many years beyond as YouthLab participants.

A big brother or sister

We asked the experience experts of the YouthLab how they perceive the YouthLab facilitators. ‘Like a big brother’ is an answer often heard: ‘It is someone who is not judging you, but can be honest and strict with you as well. He knows me well and I know he wants what is best for me.’

Long-term commitment

A YouthLab facilitator – and the experience experts are committing for a long term to the YouthLab. It is only with this long-term and intensive commitment (with weekly contact) that lasting relationships of trust are built and can add value to an exchange.

According to facilitators, the youngsters “know we have their backs, and will never leave them behind”.

“We know what they have been through, what their strong and weak moments are. We are there to help them be the best version – most impactful on the professionals.”

YouthLab faciliator, Netherlands

Read more about the profile and role of a YouthLab facilitator here.

Story: “Aren’t you sorry?”

During an exchange session, a parole worker asked one of the boys in the group if he regretted what he had done. The boy answered with a short ‘no, I don’t’. You could feel the tension in the room and the atmosphere changed.

The facilitator knows this boy and his background quite well and helped him explain his thoughts. The facilitator asked him: “Murat, of course I know your story, and I believe you’ve said once that at the time, you felt you didn’t have any other option than to do what you did, is that correct?” The boy confirmed this and added: “Yeah, you know, I had asked the institutions for support and I just didn’t know what else to do anymore to get some money to buy food, so that’s when I got on the wrong path.”

The facilitator continued: “Imagine your situation had been different, would you have acted the same way?” Murat answered: “No, I never thought or expected that I would do something like this.”

The facilitator is helping the boy to find the words to express the way he experienced what had happened and how he reflects on it. With the support of the facilitator he was able to express that he had felt powerless in the situation and that he wished it had not happened. The facilitator asked a different question, but the parole worker got an answer to his question about regret, as well as a better insight into the boy’s story.

8. Who am I to you? New relational perspectives


A prosecutor who joined a youth x justice exchnage once said: This exchange humbles me. It reminds me of the power I have, that my decisions mean a lot to someone else’s life. I want to constantly remind myself of this.

This short testimonial is existential in nature: it reminds someone of who they are in relation to a young person. Other professional groups, however, have other take-aways from the exchanges.

Existential vs instrumental

For parole officers, for example, we heard less existential take-aways. Their responses are much more instrumental and action-oriented in turn: I now have a better understanding of the things I can do differently and we can do together.

Value propositions

The existential and instrumental take-aways represent very different values for participants, and make sense looking at the role they play in the judicial process. The YouthLab has a deep understanding of values for different professional groups and adjusts the design of the session accordingly.

Story: Officer: “What is your image of me?”

During an exchange session, an officer asked the youngsters what their view of their fellow officers was. She showed her vulnerability with this question, creating a nice conversation between the officers and the youth. They too are aware of the great task of their profession, for which they can experience difficulties in the choices they have to make. As humans, they also feel the pain of young people, but have to serve several involved (and affected) parties in the case.

In the group discussion, it becomes clear that the officers are also people who want to be understood. They too, want to show in their work that their heart is in the right place and that they wish the best for the young people sitting opposite them. Their intention is not always/only to punish harshly, but also for the young person to learn their lesson, to get the right help and to come out better.

9. Valuing youth’s experiences


A YouthLab experience expert gets paid for training justice professionals. Although this isn’t or – or should not be – the main motivation for a young person to join the program, it plays an important role in reaffirming the agency and value of experience and stories they share.

Value in reimbursing, value in listening

We reaffirm the agency and value of young people by:

  1. Paying a fee for their participating in the YouthLab program,
  2. Assuring that they will be taken seriously during the exchanges
  3. Emphasizing that policy-makers or justice professionals will put their insights and learnings in practice.

This combination is important in emphasizing that their stories, experiences and vulnerability is valuable.