When Starcia Ague speaks to youth groups, she usually starts like this:
“If you had told me – when I was six years old and living in homeless shelter after homeless shelter; or when I was 12 years old and living in a meth lab; or when I was 15 and facing felony charges for robbery and kidnapping; or when I was 20 and still fighting the system to get the education I knew was my only hope for a decent life – that I would one day describe my life as a success story, well, I guess saying, ‘That is just plain crazy,’ doesn’t quite go far enough. But here I am.”
No question the 26-year-old program coordinator for the UW School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences had a dangerous and dysfunctional childhood. Her mother was a drug-addicted and often homeless prostitute, who beat Starcia whenever she tried to get help.
Starcia left her mother’s house when she was 11 to move in with her dad, who ran a meth lab. She slept on the couch in the living room, and watched the parade of users wander in and out. “I thought that if they wanted to see my dad badly enough they’d pay for it,” says Starcia. “So I started charging them at the door.” $1 to get in, $5 more to see her father. Starcia saw even then that education was her ticket to a better life. Fleecing her father’s clients seemed like a good way to start a college fund.
When Starcia was 15, drug dealers tore up her mother’s house looking for the $5,000 she’d stolen from them. The owner of the house took a pay-up-or-get-out stand. Starcia’s mother, who was in rehab at the time, ordered her daughter to fix up the house. Starcia talked three acquaintenances into robbing her father’s clients. When things went south – the clients were unexpectedly home – she was charged with felony robbery. She spent six years in juvenile detention.
Starcia arrived at the Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration’s Naselle Youth Camp in remote southwestern Washington with a third grade reading level, a fourth grade math level and monster chip on her shoulder. “I lashed out at everyone, refused to communicate,” she recalls. “I burned a lot of bridges.”
Then one day a woman visited Naselle to speak about her life. She’d been raped, addicted to drugs and alcohol, committed to a mental health facility. But she’d turned her life around. Her story was harrowing. Starcia was inspired. “I thought: If this woman could do it, so can I.”
From that moment, Starcia Ague was a woman possessed. After earning her high school diploma, she approached the prison school’s principal about taking college classes. “He just laughed at me,” she says. So she went over his head, agitating within the system, and then outside the system, writing letters to a counselor, to her middle school math teacher, the Tumwater police officer who had befriended her, the governor, Oprah. “I got myself in trouble,” she says. But JRA officials finally relented and Starcia had almost completed her Associate’s Degree by the time she was released at age 21. (She went on to finish her bachelor’s degree – in criminal justice – at Washington State University.)
Starcia received the 2009 Spirit of Youth Award for her efforts to rehabilitate juvenile offenders, and was part of the MacArthur Foundation's Models for Change, a juvenile justice reform initiative. Governor Chris Gregoire eventually pardoned Starcia, the first juvenile offender ever pardoned in Washington State. She was on a roll.
After graduation, she applied for 35 jobs. She got calls from two prospective employers and an offer from one. But when that firm learned of her felony conviction, they rescinded the job offer. It was the same story with housing: Three landlords refused to rent to Starcia because she couldn’t pass their background check.
Washington State is one of only eight states that sells juvenile records to real estate agents. Starcia has testified and lobbied for a measure (HB1651) that would seal certain juvenile records. The state’s juvenile justice system is supposed to be about rehabilitation, she argues. Yet even young adults who have managed to turn their lives around are handicapped by an indelible juvenile record.
Fortunately for Starcia, she rented a house with a college friend and landed a job at the UW.
New degree. A pardon. New home. New job. She could have stopped there. But Starcia just couldn’t turn her back on all the other kids still languishing in the system. She began sharing her painful life story with young offenders and policymakers around the state – and country. Her message to both: “You can actually change.” And input from young people can provide the necessary spark. Starcia has spent the last five years giving at-risk youth a voice, inspiring them to turn their lives and the system around.
Starcia Ague’s courage is not the flashy, heroic moment kind of courage. It’s the day-in, day-out slog of courage. The courage to persist against overwhelming odds, which in her case read like the checklist from hell. In circumstances where many of us would have folded our tents, Starcia Ague fought back. For herself, and for other kids like her. She stood up in public and told a life story that most of us would have kept under lock and key. She marched back into the juvenile justice system and re-confronted the officials who had denied her requests and aspirations.
“No one wants to air their dirty laundry,” says Starcia. “But telling it was the only thing I could do to make people realize that you can actually change.”
Walking back into the juvenile justice system was one of the hardest things she has ever had to do. But even harder, says Starcia, was realizing that the same injustices were still going on. “That no one cared to make it different,” she says. “To make it better. To figure out how to make it happen.”
Starcia Ague wants to be that agent of change. And if anybody can do it, she can. “She’s like the kid who stands up to the playground bully,” says Rachel Rice, the Community and Media Relations director at the University of Maine-Presque Isle who invited Starcia to speak as part of the school’s 2013 Distinguished Lecturer series. “Being courageous enough to stand up and make the case that something isn’t fair, and agitate to make changes. That’s a really special quality.”