How One Teen is Changing the Youth Justice System From the Inside
Photo of Cayden Brown courtesy of Kim Brown Photography. Videos and family photo taken by Tyler Parlor.
Youth today have complicated, demanding schedules. With so many things for them to juggle, it’s hard to imagine how 17-year-old Cayden Brown also manages his obligations as a Juvenile Defense Attorney with Oakland County Teen Court. The Teen Court program aims at keeping youth out of the court systems by trying their cases in a court of their peers. Youth serve as prosecutor and jury for each case. The program is designed around the philosophy that a jury of one’s peers is more influential in redirecting behavioral patterns than any other method.
I caught up with Cayden during his family outing to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra; he literally stepped out of the theater to chat. He stood tall, was poised, and appeared quite accustomed to being in front of the microphone. He was accompanied by his mom, who had an air of elegance about her.
Following some initial introductions, in a manner just as adventurous as our conversation, Cayden and I talked while we walked.
TYLER : What does a typical day in the life of Cayden Brown look like?
CAYDEN : A typical day in the life of Cayden Brown? Hmm, well I am still 16-years-old so I do have school. But the days I go to court are usually just an extension of my day. So I go to school from 7:15 a.m. to 2:10 p.m., and then I usually have to rush right over to the 52nd district court because session usually starts at 2:30 p.m. That means that I am preparing my case as I am in school! That can be a challenge, but it’s also a blessing. So, that’s my usual day in the life when I have to go to court.
TYLER : Wow that is such a short time to transition from student to attorney. I’m wondering how you like to talk about who you are and the work that you do?
CAYDEN : When I talk about who I am, I always reach back to lineage. I don’t think I could stand here without acknowledging those who came before me and that transitions into my work beautifully because all of my work is really just a reflection of self. Really reflecting everything that I am, what I’ve been woven into, what I’ve been molded into since I was born. I come from a long line of activists, educators, and people who are always working towards change, so that is the reason I am the way I am.
TYLER : Mmm, powerful. You seem very centered in your ancestry. How do you find space to continue your connection with your classmates and to not disconnect with your understanding of what supports will have meaningful impact for today’s youth?
CAYDEN : It’s definitely a balance. I find myself kind of walking a tightrope when it comes to that. I stand in the center of all of those things that are going on around me but it’s always great to get perspective from my peers who I go to school with, and then there’s a different perspective when I go to court and see other youth. So I remain connected in those two ways and blend the two when it comes to my work.
TYLER : I feel many people can relate to having to find a good balance for where we give our energy. Have you experienced any moments that truly taught you how meaningful and powerful your presence and representation in the courtroom is?
CAYDEN : Absolutely. I think the moment I realized and really reaffirmed what my presence looks like in court for kids who look like me is when there was a client who looked just like me. And he did not expect, one, a child, but also a Black child to represent him and understand his struggle from his perspective.
And that’s when I knew I could not stop.
TYLER : You knew you could not stop. Hmm, that feeling of belonging, of understanding your power to make a difference. Thank you for sharing that, Cayden.
CAYDEN : When I show up for these kids, they see themselves. They see somebody who can truly fight for them and what they need.
TYLER : Why should other youth who may feel powerless or defenseless due to the cards life has dealt them seek to understand their own agency and their power to create a brighter future?
CAYDEN : I think all of us together, when we unite, we have a collective power. But before you can come together you have to understand your own [power]. That’s something I had to step into. I had to understand ‘What is my calling?’, ‘Why was I placed here?’.
As soon as they find that, as soon as they find their role and what their contribution to society is, what they can do to activate change, as soon as they find that, that’s when they’ll be able to find true change reflected around them.
TYLER : What about in spaces like courtrooms doing advocacy or policy work? How can youth begin to build their own power and sense of belonging in those spaces, similar to how you have?
CAYDEN : Contradictory to what we’ve always been told as children, that politics is taboo or we don’t need to worry about it until we turn 18, there are so many ways to get involved politically that have nothing to do with the ballot. That’s something I’ve recently learned. What I would say to other children is, before you enter that space, understand the system. I actually have an article on my website called ‘Understanding the System’ that teaches you just that.
Before you can enter a space, before you can trespass into a space to create change, you have to understand what you’re walking into. There are so many roles and places within our system that need to hear your voice. Understand that you’re the only person who can suppress your voice. If you raise it, if you uplift it, if you band it together with somebody else, you can make change no matter what anyone says.
TYLER : What is the perspective and approach you bring to the work of advocating for youth in the criminal justice system?
CAYDEN : The angle I approach law is so drastically different from what most lawyers do. Many lawyers may approach law from the perspective of money or the social status they might gain. I approach law from the perspective of my people’s pain and suffering and what I can do to help, to reform, to change what’s going on. I found that law is one of the most effective ways to do that, to make change, long-lasting change.
Also, I don’t get paid to show up after a long eight hour day of school. But I show up anyway, and the reward for that will come back in abundance.
TYLER : I hear themes of selflessness, duty, and commitment to healing for future generations of your people. As a criminal defense attorney, how would you reimagine the local judicial and punitive systems that have the potential to irreversibly impact the paths of youth who pass through them?
CAYDEN : The more and more Cayden Browns that we start to see in these courts, there’s going to be an entire shift of the narrative of criminal defense. Also, when we talk about punitive, punitive systems, I would reimagine them so that they’re not. I would lead them with empathy.
I think that’s what’s missing right now is we act as if youth are in positions of crime, but I view crime itself as a location. I don’t view crime as an action that a youth will commit, I view it as a location, where they have been in their lives and where it has led them to. So I think if we lead our system with empathy we will be able to change it from the inside out and stop youth in their tracks.
TYLER : Let’s say you were tasked with designing a system that would: a) bring youth deeper into community, tying them to a sense of belonging and ownership of their own communities, and b) help to redirect youth away from a culture that might promote criminal activity as a viable means for social mobility.
What values would you center?
CAYDEN : When we are talking about the culture of civic engagement, I think we have to acknowledge the source before we can medicate the symptom. So many of our youth are emulating what they see, they are following a pattern of what has been designed. And so, I think that the best way to attack that is to change their location. We talked about crime, thinking about it as a location, so we need to change their mental location.
TYLER : Hmm.
CAYDEN : So that they’re no longer in a state of, ‘okay I am oppressed and this is what oppressed people do.’ When we change that narrative to say ‘I am not oppressed’, ‘I am strong’, ‘I am resilient’, and place them into those roles [of power and advocacy], that will change the system from the inside out.
The more youth working inside the system, the better it will be and the better it will be for them.
TYLER : How would you communicate with young Detroiters, specifically, about shifting their mentality around civic engagement in a way you think might truly resonate?
CAYDEN : I think what it always boils down to is literacy. If someone does not understand the language that something is written in, they’re not going to want to engage with it. So I think the best way to communicate with our youth is to rephrase what we’re saying into terms that they understand such as through music that they’re already listening to. Engage them that way, engage them through social media. Engage them through the things they are already on but are feeding them negative things. Put that stuff in there and put it in terms that will make them understand it and want to be a part of it. So that they will understand, this could be my life. This could be our lives, collectively!
TYLER : Cayden, this work is heavy. How do you protect your heart, spirit, and health while battling injustice?
CAYDEN : The best way I armor myself is by reaching back to my lineage, understanding that where I am currently is not nearly as difficult as it was for my ancestors. I understand who I am today, where I stand, and the fabric I’ve been woven into is merely the remains of those that came before me. I have a long history of advocates, activists, lawyers, and educators, who stood before me and went through much worse so that I can stand here and be here for other people. So, that’s how I cope with that. I understand that, this is why I was birthed, my purpose on Earth. I meditate, I pray, but I also reach back to my lineage to understand that, ok, this is my calling and I was built for it. Literally.
Photo of Cayden Brown with mom and siblings.
Cayden chuckled as he spoke those last words, channeling deep joy rooted in his understanding of his purpose and having found belonging as a Juvenile Defense Attorney. We walked back to the entrance of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and reunited with Cayden’s family. His mother awaited proudly, surrounded by several other family members including his brothers.
An altogether enlightening conversation, Cayden’s stance that ‘the more youth who understand their power to redefine our systems, the better’ echoes the work of organizations like The Skillman Foundation to expand youth voice and power.
The transcript style of this piece was inspired by Cayden Brown’s organization, The Trespass Project. Read more about Cayden’s work to help prepare his peers to create meaningful change and avenues for belonging.