It’s hard to believe that Bobby Tsow has only been back in the community for eight months after his six-year incarceration in Oregon Youth Authority facilities.
Already, he has flown to New York City, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta. He’s spoken to Oregon legislators in Salem, to law students in Seattle, and to juvenile justice professionals in Portland at a diversity, equity, and inclusion summit.
While he was incarcerated, the 23-year-old found a passion for making positive changes in the community. He’s wasting no time getting started.
Tsow got a boost for his activism while he was still at MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility, when he applied for and won a prestigious Soros Justice Fellowship from Open Society Foundations.
The fellowships are for “outstanding individuals to undertake projects that advance reform, spur debate, and catalyze change on a range of issues facing the U.S. criminal justice system,” according to Open Society’s website.
Tsow was the first person in the award’s history to earn it while incarcerated.
For his fellowship project, which he titled “Unlocking Justice,” Tsow partnered with Next Up, a Portland organization that works to amplify the voice and leadership of diverse young people.
“My project deals with the harsh punishment and the harsh perceptions of society and Oregon’s communities toward juveniles,” he says. “I try to flip it and show that we’re not monsters; we’re not animals. I’m trying to change us to a more rehabilitative state, through restorative justice practices that can heal communities.”
Tsow has three focuses:
- Educating and informing: He plans to organize public events — including art shows, public lectures, and poetry slams — that allow young people who have been incarcerated to educate the public about their experiences.
- Healing: He plans to organize a restorative justice group that brings together youth who have been in the juvenile justice system with their victims. The goal is for them to find understanding and healing together.
- Empowerment and leadership building: He is working to organize a voter registration project inside OYA facilities that would educate youth on their voting rights. In Oregon, youth who were adjudicated in juvenile courts are still allowed to vote while incarcerated. Youth who were convicted of felonies in adult courts are not eligible until they are released.
“I plan to instill inspiration in these young folks and show them there is hope for us,” Tsow says. “If I can show them that their voice is power, and it can be heard, it will empower them more and more to want to do better things.”
Tsow’s fellowship led to his cross-country trips. He flew to New York for a fellowship training program. Then he went to Atlanta for a conference with the other fellowship winners, followed by his trip to D.C. for a youth action summit.
All three trips happened within his first few weeks after he paroled out of MacLaren. It was a lot for him to take in right away, he says.
“The re-entry process has been hard for me emotionally,” Tsow says. “When you come home, you go through a little depression stage. Life is hard. We are experiencing different emotions that we haven’t experienced for a long time.
“A lot of people who know me are surprised that I’m doing this type of work. I did my time, I came home, and I’m doing good. But I want to pay it forward, and I want to change the system where it’s flawed, so the ones who are in the system have a better way of navigating it and a better success rate.”
Tsow first heard about the fellowship from a volunteer who was running a group he participated in at MacLaren. The group was part of Hope Partnership, a program run by Janus Youth Programs that provides a multitude of enrichment activities for youth.
“When I got to MacLaren, I was in a vulnerable mindset,” Tsow says. “When I got put into Hope Partnership groups and experienced the atmosphere they were creating, it changed something for me internally. Hope Partnership transformed my life.”