Institute for Economic and Racial Equity

Janelle Ridley

Janelle Ridley

Janelle Ridley is Associate Director of the Racial Justice x Tech Policy Project and a doctoral student in the Economic and Racial Equity concentration. She has dedicated her career to serving youth in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. She has been a social worker, a teacher, and the founder Transition HOPE, a program designed to give system-involved youth purpose, pathways, and encouragement.

Born in Boston and raised in Winthrop, Mass., Janelle started her career as a social worker for the Commonwealth. When speaking about her time as a social worker, Janelle said, “I had such a strong urge to move [the system] and to change it. When I was a social worker, young people saw me as part of the problem, even though I was trying to be part of the change and part of the help.” In her work, Janelle wanted to not only build relationships, but build up young people. “So, I decided to leave the child welfare system and become a teacher. Through that, I was able to really start building the relationships with the young people. I was able to encourage them the way I wanted to when I was a social worker, but it was falling on deaf ears, because, again, they looked at me as part of the problem.”

As a result of her time as a teacher, Janelle was able to listen to these children differently. She became involved in social justice, joining the Boston chapter of the NAACP’s Executive Board.

“Through that, I started the first (recorded) High School NAACP chapter, which gave young people the power to start making decisions, but also really be at the table – to be in the room. One of my mentors once said that, if you’re not at the table, you’re on the table, and a lot of these young people, especially those who are system-involved, are not at the table,” Janelle said of her work.

Janelle was then recruited by the school district to look at how they were doing transitioning system-involved youth. Her time at the school district and seeing gaps would lead to the formation of Transition HOPE. She fostered partnerships and relationships with numerous stakeholders in and around the City of Boston and was asked to join at the city level and work with the Office of Public Safety.

“Transition HOPE is a program I created for young people who are system-involved – whether through themselves, their siblings, or family members who have been incarcerated or just have a generational history of being involved with the justice system in Massachusetts. So, it’s really me creating a specific program designed to give them purpose, pathways and encouragement on their future trajectory. Really taking a look at the roadmap of where they’ve been in their life so far and where they want to go.”

Transition HOPE focuses on more than career and educational trajectories. It’s about meaningful change. The program “…partner(s) with colleges and universities who are likeminded in the social justice and equity that we are all so desperately looking to have that would educate and bring more awareness, but also give the young people context as to the history and the plight and the oppression that young people of color have faced in this country. So, it gives them more of that systemic background and vocabulary when discussing their lived experiences, because they’re very limited in [how] they’re able to speak because they haven’t been given that opportunity to really learn all of the systemic inequities – they haven’t been given the opportunity to understand the deep-rooted racism beyond what is taught during ‘Black History Month,’ they haven’t been given the opportunity at second chances around their education especially… So, HOPE encompasses all of that. It’s really about high expectations for these young people because for so long they are just looked at as whatever’s written on their profile, their paper, their record with no push in their future, at least not educationally because they are seen as youth who aren’t capable.”

After a 16-year career serving youth, Janelle is excited to begin tackling research critically with a goal of finding the next direction for her work and youth services in general. Janelle said that she hopes her time in the doctoral program will “… allow me to think about the direction for HOPE and for the work moving forward. And joining the staff at Heller is exciting because I get to share what I’ve learned over the past 16 years with other young people… sharing the positives, but also the negatives to this work – the joys you get when you know you make an impact, and the burden you carry when you see that these systems are so dysfunctional.”

 Janelle is also excited to connect the next generation of young people with Heller students. She wants to find opportunities to foster reciprocal learning between young people and the folks who will be developing the policies and programs with them in the future. “I definitely see my PhD being a joint degree with the young people who I work with. I couldn’t have gotten where I am without them, and I don’t see myself going anywhere without them. So, for all my young people, it’s why I’m here, and it’s why I’m continuing my education… so I can continue to be a door for them.”