The National Center for Youth Law — one of the nation’s longest-running youth advocacy law firms — named Shakti Belway as its executive director last week.
Belway, 48, is the first woman and person of color to lead an organization that for more than 50 years has advocated for vulnerable children and youth across multiple public systems, including the foster care, youth justice, immigration and education domains.
“I’m humbled to lead an organization in partnership with colleagues,” Belway said in an interview with The Imprint. “We always believe in young people. We work to advance the rights of children and youth so that they will be respected as the full human beings that they are and realize their full potential.”
She has been with the Oakland, California-based National Center for Youth Law (NCYL) since 2020, having served as deputy director of policy, litigation and programs, and as interim co-executive director. Before that, the Stanford Law graduate worked in the South with esteemed civil rights groups such as the Mississippi Center for Justice and the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The center’s board president Mary Bissell said Belway is well-positioned to advance the organization’s priorities.
“We are extremely excited about Shakti’s leadership,“ Bissell said in a press release. “Shakti is a talented lawyer who understands the complexities of NCYL’s work across litigation, systems reform, and programmatic work — and has experience in all three areas. She understands NCYL’s people and culture, as well as the significant opportunities for NCYL to shape the future of our national priorities for children and youth.“
For decades, the center has spearheaded or assisted in many class-action lawsuits and other broad legal challenges against dozens of child welfare agencies, school systems, juvenile justice departments and the federal government.
Examples include settlement of the landmark 1985 Flores v. Reno case, which created minimum standards for the treatment and placement of youth by national immigration agencies, and Katie A. v. Bonta, a 2002 lawsuit that confronted California’s poor record of warehousing foster children in group homes and institutions instead of providing them with community-based mental health services.
The center has overseen other notable litigation in recent years, including reforms to foster care systems in Kansas and Washington; an effort to curtail involuntary psychiatric examinations by the School District of Palm Beach County; and combating discriminatory punishment practices in Sacramento schools.
Belway said there is no shortage of critical issues facing young people today. Children and youth have frequently been subject to targeted political attacks, Belway noted, with governments telling young people they do not have the right to exist or that they are unwelcome based solely on their identity. And she said children are too often separated from their families because of poverty and detained by the federal government when they arrive at the country’s borders in search of help.
“So many of the public systems that are supposed to care for young people are not working,” she said, and “the costs and consequences for young people of societal, political and systemic failures are too great.”
Belway’s new role comes about a year after Jesse Hahnel announced he was stepping down after seven years as executive director. Prior to that, the organization was headed by longtime leader John O’Toole, who retired in 2015 after 35 years with the center.