Noran Sanford

Ashoka Fellow
United States
Fellow Since 2016


This profile was prepared when Noran Sanford was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2016.
The New Idea
After years as a social worker and counselor pushing young people to see themselves differently, practice greater self-efficacy, and expect ‘behavior change’ to ripple out from the artificial and aloof context of a counselor-client session, Noran realized that the key to realizing lasting mindset and behavior change was to provide the most-at-risk young people opportunities to actually practice being different in the community. The same holds true for legislators, educators, and leaders in the justice system; the lack of opportunities to do and think differently – both with and about “troubled youth” - and the narrow and largely negative context in which these leaders interact with “at risk” youth results in a limited range of extremely harsh punishments.
Noran’s solution is to link disempowerment or “troubled” young people to the disenfranchisement of the communities they come from, and in evoking the sense of shared struggle, rally paroled youth and community members around new opportunities.
Noran has created a model centered around “Reclamation Teams” led by young people on probation and charged with helping “flip” a local symbol of our broken justice system like, as is the case in his rural North Carolina, a decommissioned ‘work farm’ prison. The “flip” becomes a hub of civic activity, and an opportunity for young people and community groups to work side-by-side, immediately changing the context within which they are interacting and – over time – tackling the barriers young people and the disenfranchised communities that they come from are facing every day. By working shoulder to shoulder, church leaders and the young people kicked out for their adherent behavior, universities professors and high school dropouts, and legislators from the capitol and their rural constituents are directly addressing their own biases, changing their behaviors, and developing a deeper sense of civic imagination and societal efficacy.
Building on national momentum to “end the era of mass incarceration” and to ensure that his model is widely adopted, Noran is working with state agencies to create the step-by-step regulatory process and set of standards for productively repurposing a growing class of assets: decommissioned rural prisons. University researchers are running clinical trials on the effectiveness of the ‘group therapy’ that happens across reclamation teams so as to improve the “youth at risk” therapy field. Rural leaders across the region are buying into the collaborative model as a vehicle for bridging their own isolation and tackling local systems of oppression. And juvenile justice advocates around the world are reaching out to learn more about the key principles of putting young people in charge, rallying various stakeholders together, and “flipping our prisons” so that the local context can change and young people stand a chance of returning to their community in an empowered way.
The Problem
The Strategy
The Person

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