The Honorable Judges Stephanie Mitchell, Lisa Green, Shequitta Kelly and Amber Givens-Davis meet youth offenders in their courtrooms every day. Though none of the women are native to the Dallas-Fort Worth area, they all bonded over a shared desire to counteract the city’s thriving school-to-prison pipeline, a problematic phenomenon wherein American schools’ zero-tolerance policies push children from the classroom into the criminal system.
Together the judges formed Pipeline to Possibilities, an empowerment program aimed at the city’s most vulnerable teens. Since its inception in 2016, Pipeline to Possibilities has guided approximately 300 at-risk youth in Dallas County toward a path to a better future.
What is the mission behind Pipeline to Possibilities?
Shequitta Kelly: We each have programs in our courts to rehabilitate young offenders, but we’re trying to prevent them from getting here. Most juvenile [offenders] don’t come from great homes. I don’t know how we expect them to succeed if we don’t give them the foundation that they need. Pipeline is designed to give them the keys to making better decisions despite their environment.
The program begins with an introduction to the criminal justice system. How do you integrate this into the rest of the sessions?
Amber Givens-Davis: We begin with an icebreaker skit during which the kids witness two felonies and two misdemeanors. They’re amazed how within seconds something can change your entire life. We thread that skit through the rest of the program, walking them through what crimes they witnessed, the punishments and the bonds and sentencing processes.
SK: Session two focuses on changing mindsets. Pipeline is not just teaching them about the criminal justice system, but also about life.
Here you explore modern media. What do kids learn?
AGD: What so many kids don’t realize is that the stuff you post online never disappears, so they use it haphazardly. It’s different today: It’s a 24-hour news cycle and 24-hour bully cycle.
SK: We teach methods for conflict resolution. Sometimes if you don’t think there are other options, you fight. But there’s always another way.
What can kids expect in session three, presentation and appearance?
Lisa Green: This is a lot of the kids’ favorite session. For the boys, we bring in male mentors to teach them how to tie ties and give advice to help them grow into responsible adult men. We bring in a gynecologist so that the girls can ask questions. Sometimes we’re a bit shocked by how candid they are, but it’s so important that they can talk openly and get real answers.
The final installment is dubbed college explosion, but it’s more than a school fair. What do you hope kids understand about their futures?
AGD: The idea is to show them that college is about more than the books. We’re all in sororities so we share that experience. But college isn’t for everyone, so we also have young entrepreneurs come in for the session. They didn’t take the traditional path and we encourage that. You can do what you love, but it will take hard work.
Is it difficult to connect with the kids in Pipeline to Possibilities?
LG: No, they see all four of us and think, “Well, they’re just like us.” We didn’t come from perfect backgrounds either. We go through life—but at the same time, we don’t let our mistakes define us. We don’t let our circumstances limit us, either. [Pipeline] is a way to make them understand that they can do it too.
AGD: The four of us really depend on each other. Television shows that it’s spectacular to throw wine bottles, curse each other out and compete with each other. But they see the four of us together, and we really love and support each other.
What is in the future for Pipeline to Possibilities?
SK: Right now we are in DISD, and our goal is to expand all over Dallas-Fort Worth. We are also looking to turn this into curriculum in schools so that this can touch so many more students than what the four of us can do.
What can people do to get involved in Pipeline to Possibilities and help at-risk youth in their community?
LG: If you have a skill or an insight to offer these kids, we would love to have you involved. We’re always looking for volunteers.
AGD: Society doesn’t really teach kids about philanthropy, but through this program, we’re hoping to teach them to give back. I recommend people get involved and volunteer in any way that helps the next generation.
SK: Tupac has a phrase that I live by: “It’s like a rose growing out from concrete.” If you see a rose in concrete, you don’t ask why its petals are bent or why it’s not leaning perfectly. You see its beauty and power, and that’s what we see. We see people who have come from tough situations. I would recommend people to be more compassionate. It could be something as simple as saying, “Have a nice day.” You don’t know how much that could mean to someone.