Freedom 4 Youth

By Steven Libowitz   |   April 4, 2023
Freedom 4 Youth’s mission is to uplift and empower youth impacted by the criminal justice system to build safe and compassionate communities

Freedom 4 Youth’s Director of Development & Advocacy Dylan Griffith and Executive Director Dr. Billi Jo Starr knew immediately what they wanted to highlight in this week’s Giving List column focusing on the nonprofit, whose mission it is to uplift and empower youth – those impacted by the criminal justice system – to build safe and compassionate communities. 

Their chosen Giving List highlight? That would be the new Girls Leadership Program launched this year at La Cumbre Junior High School, which establishes two new beachheads in the organization’s efforts. Fourteen years ago, Dr. Billi Jo Starr – a Santa Barbara High School alum who later earned a PhD in Education from UCSB – brought a Toastmasters-style curriculum to local juvenile detention facility Los Prietos Boys’ Camp. That groundbreaking precursor became Freedom 4 Youth. Now a new program at La Cumbre Junior High is the nonprofit’s first initiative that takes place at a school, and also the first one designed and offered exclusively to girls.

“We’ve always wanted to start programming in the schools because obviously there’s a big connection between the schools and the justice system, and the school-to-prison pipeline,” Starr said. “We want to interrupt that stream and stop kids from getting pushed out of school or disconnected. This new program is a way for us to start doing the work that we’ve been doing at the boys’ camp – this time at a school; and for girls.” 

She said Freedom 4 Youth’s Girls Leadership Program grew out of a pilot for girls on probation that was funded by former Santa Barbara County Supervisor Janet Wolf years ago. The La Cumbre effort successfully launched through the support of the Women’s Fund, and was created through a memorandum of understanding with Santa Barbara Unified School District for this academic year.

It’s a long overdue outreach for the nonprofit, Griffith said. 

“There is a huge lack of gender-specific programming both within school settings and juvenile justice settings, and the narrative is that most of the time boys are considered the problem,” he said. “So when new programs are created, normally it’s something like ‘let’s do a boys group’ or figure out how we can get more boys involved. The girls get left out of the equation. What we’re doing at La Cumbre is about addressing that lack and filling that gap for the girls.” 

Twenty-eight girls have been participating in the Girls Leadership Program this year, young women identified as “at promise” – Freedom 4 Youth’s preferred term for young ladies who may have had run-ins with the law. 

“We don’t identify anyone as ‘at risk’ because we find that the children that are facing a lot of challenges in school or challenges in the community are actually the most gifted ones, in that they’ve been through so much,” Starr explained. “We come from a strength-based perspective, so ‘no deficit’ language is important because we believe that the youth that we work with are incredible and amazing and so gifted and brilliant. They have smarts that you can’t learn from a book – life smarts. We see so much potential and we’re here to just empower and uplift them.” 

The Girls Leadership Program, spearheaded by Freedom 4 Youth’s Program Coordinators Lena Mallett and Lorena Ortiz alongside Dr. Starr and UCSB interns, has been doing that via weekly two-hour sessions that meet either in a classroom or onsite at a partner’s location to immerse the participants in growth opportunities. The nonprofit has collaborated with SBUSD, the participants’ parents and many other organizations in town. At Solid Foundations the girls did a self-defense class and learned to build things with power tools. They attended Lucy Firestone’s empowerment and mindfulness workshops. They visited the cosmetology school at Santa Barbara City College and toured UCSB. The program also brought in Planned Parenthood to offer insight and tips into fostering healthy relationships with others and their own bodies, and hosted a career panel – “a badass powerhouse group of women,” Starr said – featuring a lawyer, a mental health professional, a professor, and a business owner, among others. 

“Every week is really focused on communications, career skills, education and/or social emotional learning,” she said. “And we get them off campus as much as possible because we believe in space-based education – being out in the real world. It’s about exposing these girls to see what they like, and walking them through the steps of the process with lots of individualized attention and engagement so they get connected to the community.”

The pilot program has been very well received by the girls – who have told the leaders they’re going to miss meeting in person during this week’s spring break – as well as their parents and the La Cumbre administration, Starr said. While it’s too early for a full objective assessment when the program finishes in June, the organization has been more than pleased with the girls’ progress. 

“We’re focused on the process. For us, success looks like healthy relationships amongst the participants in the program, openness, willingness to participate, excitement about the program, and wanting to continue engaging with us, which is definitely happening,” she said. “According to the school, there’s been a lot more engagement as well, including a willingness to talk through any issues that come up, which is huge. We see their confidence improving, along with everything else.”

Freedom 4 Youth is looking to continue and even expand the program over the summer, which will require funding to secure two vans for transportation. And the organization is also exploring the opportunity to train some of the eighth-grade junior high students to serve as mentors to their younger peers, crystallizing the theme of leadership. The nonprofit also will provide ongoing tutoring, mentoring and addressing the basic needs of the program youth and their families, Starr said, adding, “The program doesn’t stop at the school.”

Meanwhile, other junior high schools are interested in creating similar programs on their campuses. 

All of that takes a lot of additional funding and resources, Development Director Griffith said.

“There’s a large level of need in the community’s schools,” he said. “Much more than we even have close to the capacity to do right now.”

Freedom 4 Youth
187 South Patterson Avenue, Suite A 
(805) 708-1292
Dylan Griffith, Development Director


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