Wandering through a room where adults are embodying the roles of children and youth from across the world, we saw the magic of discovery and bursts of understanding. That is what the Youth Justice Simulation was designed to bring to life.  On May 31 at the World Justice Forum in the Hague in the Netherlands, my colleagues, Brian Blalock of the Youth Law Center in the US and Cedric Foussard of the Terre des hommes and the Global Initiative on Justice With Children, were honored to share our experiential learning model with a collection of global human rights leaders.  The participants bravely accepted our invitation to take on the lives and experiences of young people and then navigated through our live simulation where they tackled the challenges that children we encounter in systems this worldwide.  They saw how different aspects of our justice systems fail to work together, how people in them are often overburdened and under-resourced in their system roles that they sometimes cannot meet their needs, and that the frustration of failing to achieve even their basic needs leads to palpable feelings of hopelessness.

In the reflection session of the simulation, we all resumed our real life identities and reflect on what everyone just went through. This is where the metaphor if a constructed reality comes face-to-face with real life.  In the World Justice Forum, it did that with the passion heart and soul of so many willing to share their own personal, raw experiences. A gentlemen from the Gambia describing a lifetime of experiences similar to what he just went through in the simulation and how much it reminded him of what it too to overcome those circumstances in order to become the student and leader he is today. An NGO leader from Lebanon shocked at how much emotion the simulated experience brought back to his life of loss and parallel experiences to the young person he had been 'playing' in the simulation. He praised the experience for reminding him and others of the change that is still needed for young people. Individuals from every continent bravely shared how the experiential learning helped that viscerally remember their own privilege and experience.  It was not just a an exchange of intellectual and professional interaction with the topics of the simulation. It was a very personal, emotional and empathetic sharing of how just a short time "in the shoes" of a young person in these circumstances had a profound effect.

At the World Justice Forum, a greater truth was confirmed for those of us who helped build the experiential learning simulation with young people with lived experience several years ago. It reinforced our expectation that the experiences of so many youth are, sadly, universal.   It did not matter that our original design of the simulation was in California, Illinois, Florida and Texas because the experiences of youth who must fend for themselves in a system that fails to serve them is just as true, it seems for youth in justice systems in Colombia, India, France and Tanzania.  Systems that may envision a way to address issues for the youngest children, fail to embrace the needs of teenagers who are experiencing homelessness and living street-dependent, teens that are accused of crimes or victims of it, and young people who still should be given alternative care when their families cannot or do not care for them but for whom foster care and other alternatives fail too often. The issues of teens facing discrimination because of their gender, gender identity, race, disability or ethnicity cross all boundaries and borders. While justice systems in different parts of the world differ in so many ways, their universal inability to address the needs of those children and youth forced to navigate the world without caretakers or families seems to be shared across so many cultures, jurisdictions and geographies.  

All this made the final discussion in the simulation -- hopefulness -- a remarkable surprise for everyone involved.  As people shared their thoughts about what had occurred in the simulation as well as what they reflected in real lives, there was an interest in taking these learnings back to their own systems to make things better.  There was an excitement that these understandings could help realize rights for young people in systems who have to endure so much more than a simulated experience can deliver.  There was, in fact, a community built during the active, on-your-feet, session despite the fact that the experience had made everyone's child and youth identities feel so isolated and alone. This community translated to a room of change-makers sharing ideas as they left the simulation about how they could do things differently and bring the simulation to their own geographies to have their colleagues and fellow change-makers experience things the way did to inspire change. 

As has happened so many times when we conducted the Youth Experiential Learning Simulation, we learned as least as much as we shared, and we left with an understanding that though we all suffer from systems with similar needs to change, change is surely possible. 
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