The Youth Justice Coalition (YJC) works to build a movement led by system-impacted youth, families and formerly and currently incarcerated people. The organization is challengingLos Angeles’ and the nation’s addiction to incarceration, and aims to dismantle the injustice of race, gender and class inequality in the criminal and juvenile justice systems. YJC uses direct-action organizing, advocacy, political education, research, transformative justice and activist arts to build community power and bring about change.
We spoke with organizers Gloria Gonzalez, Jared O'Brien and Lupita Carballo to learn more about their roles, the work of YJC and why young people are the true force behind holding the juvenile justice and probation systems accountable.
How did you get involved with the Youth Justice Coalition and what is your role?
Jared: I originally became involved in 2017 after being pushed out of school for being on probation. Once I returned to school, I became involved in the youth policy committee, where I met members of the YJC. They were working on this beautiful idea of divesting from law enforcement across the County and investing in to a youth development department. I decided to take part in March for Our Lives, which ended with us on the steps of City Hall, putting forth some of our policy demands. Since then, I have been organizing with YJC, and involved with their youth development work.
Gloria: I am a youth organizer with YJC and have been involved since I was 15. I was pushed out of school when I couldn’t make it to class on time because I couldn’t afford the bus fare. It was after this that a friend told me about a school where they don’t have police intervention and educate you about policies and systems that directly impact youth. I couldn't believe it but, sure enough, it was true. The school makes us go to Sacramento with a 50 mile march every year, and that’s where I got involved.
Lupita: I am a lead youth organizer and my role is dedicated to youth development. I went on a field trip to City Hall around Valentine’s Day, where someone was holding a sign that said 'love the youth'. In the beginning, I wasn't sure why I was there. I had read plans and heard conversations about the LA for Youth campaign, which talked about divesting from the police and investing in to youth and remember thinking ‘I’ve thought of this my entire life, and now I'm at a school where someone is actually saying it’. I was asked if I was interested in a leadership program that focused on the ‘injustice system’, mobilizes movements and passes laws, like Prop 57. I fell in love with the work. Now, I have a job where I am learning about policies, the rights of individuals and the complexities of the court system.
How is the organization involved with the Positive Youth Justice Initiative?
Jared: We are involved in numerous ways, from the work that we're doing with probation, to pushing the County to create the Probation Oversight Committee and attending meetings to ultimately be part of the body that’s creating change.
Gloria: We’re organizing young people and breaking down the work to them to really create youth justice and alternatives to 911 where not just young people, but everyone in the community, can come and learn about their rights, how to de-escalate situations, treat wounds and become a peace builder. We’re leading transformative justice circles where young people have a different method in figuring out conflicts that is getting to the root cause of the issue rather than resorting to punishing people. And, we’re looking at what accountability looks like and how it can transform people's lives, ensuring that young people are accountable to themselves and have a space to heal rather than being back in the streets.
Jared: YJC ensures that all initiatives are youth led. Everyone we work with is system-impacted, young people who want youth development programs that are led by system-impacted people instead of resorting to police intervention.
The Youth Justice Coalition played an important role in advocating for the creation of the Oversight Commission for LA County’s probation department. Could you tell us about why this is such an important step and how you worked with other community partners and advocates to achieve this historic win for juvenile justice reform?
Gloria: It was beautiful to see different organizations plan and prep to hold the County accountable. There’s always an excuse for probation to lock up young people and reinforce the school to jail track. It was important for young people to be part of the public comment process and to share our stories. These may be policies to some, but it becomes reality when young people aren't getting water or aren’t allowed out of their cell. Probation has not been doing their job correctly for over 20 years, nor has there been oversight of the department to hold it accountable. At the end of the day, it’s not about funding community based organizations or funding probation officers - it’s about funding what would allow young people, most of who are youth of color, to be free and excel. We see youth being punished and being sent to camps not because they are using drugs or breaking the law, but because they are late to school. These violations become a trap and makes someone feel like they are running in circles. Probation is not making sure young people are excelling; they are just transferring the work.
What still remains to be done?
Gloria: There is a lot more to be done to stop the criminalization of young people. We can celebrate the victories but we’ll never stop pushing. Ever since the Probation Department was established, there has never been a way to hold them accountable. If we divest from law enforcement, we'll have so much more to create a youth development system. The system we grew up in had no access to resources, and thrived on a system of punishment vs. a system of care and development for youth. We still need to close youth prisons and make sure that the County is no longer incarcerating young people. Regardless of age, status or our past, we need access to transportation, jobs, opportunities and education.
Lupita: We need to hold the juvenile justice system accountable to ensure that the money from the state is ending up in the hands of community based organizations that are doing the hard work rather than the probation and school police departments that have no experience with young people.
Anything else to add?
Jared: Young people who are systems impacted will lead the revolution and movement for change within these systems. Whether in Sacramento or at every Board of Supervisors meetings, young people should be at the table. We understand that the system is flawed. When we bring individuals who have unfortunately lived through these experiences and have had to go through the systems that have failed them - that have taken away from their freedom and youth - they are ultimately the ones that hold the power and answers to make a change for others and their communities.
Gloria: We need to divest from law enforcement. We have been saying this for over a decade, it didn’t just happen overnight. It’s because of young people who have used the term ‘youth development’ for years that an organization like YJC can exist. Young people from anywhere can come together; they can build relationships and we don’t need someone with a gun or a badge to “help” us.
Finally, we need to train people on following policies and court decisions that can impact their future - get data on ethnicities that are most impacted, sit in on court hearings, understand the bail system. Young people need to have a better understanding of the system. Most importantly, we need to have young people be there every step of the way to take ownership of what they have created and achieved.
In the first in a series of spotlights on each of our grantee partners across the state, PYJI spoke with Tere Flores, director of organizing for Sacramento Area Congregations Together (Sacramento ACT), a multi-racial, multi-faith organization based in Sacramento County, about an important victory for the safety of Sacramento City Unified School District students.
Tell us about your role at Sacramento ACT, and how the organization is involved with the Positive Youth Justice Initiative.
I work with the other organizers at Sacramento ACT around the issues we focus on, including education, immigration, housing, healthcare and violence prevention. I get to see the intersection of the issues we work on.
Sacramento ACT is the lead organization for PYJI in Sacramento. Part of our role is to help convene other organizations working around juvenile justice issues in the region, especially in Sacramento County.
Can you describe the community you live in and work with?
Through PYJI, we work with youth in communities most impacted by violence and inequity. They are youth with a lot of potential, but also in neighborhoods where there is deep inequity in terms of the resources that young people, and the schools they attend, have access to. A number of the youth in the neighborhoods that we work with have been impacted by juvenile justice system. Either they have been in juvenile hall, or have siblings or parents that have been incarcerated.
How do you define school safety?
We conducted a number of listening sessions with youth and parents about what school safety means to them. Youth and parents believe that preventing potentially violent or dangerous situations from escalating by providing access to resources like mental health resources creates a safer environment.
We also heard that restorative practices can have a positive impact on school safety. Convening peer courts or creating another system for discipline that isn’t punitive but is focused on understanding the impact of your choices, and finding a solution that brings some relief for the person that was impacted but also for the person who caused it, creates a safer school environment.
Tell us about any recent "wins" you and your organization have been a part of.
We heard from our listening sessions that one of the issues impacting young people the most was the presence of school resource officers (SROs) on campus. They reported many incidents where SROs intimidated or harassed students.
Last year, the Sacramento City Unified School District was considering renewing the $3 million, two-year contract they have had with the Sacramento Police Department for years to keep SROs on campus. Sacramento ACT, along with our partners, went and spoke against the contract at a school board meeting and raised a number of questions.
In addition to questioning whether we needed SROs on campus in the first place, we also challenged the contract itself. For example, in the eight years since the City of Sacramento has had this contract, there has been no requirement for data collection. There are no demographics on the youth that the SROs interact with or what caused the interactions.
As a result of our advocacy, the Board decided to hold off on voting to renew the contract for 2020 until they could get more clarity. Since the district didn’t have a process in place to hear from the community, we held forums to hear from young people and understand what students, parents and community members wanted from this process and to get their help in defining school safety.
After hosting a series of forums that included school Board members, the Board voted in August 2019 on a school safety plan that included a contract for three off campus SROs. We also got the board to commit to a community hiring panel for both the Director of School Safety, who is in charge of implementing the school safety plan, and for the SROs.
While we advocated for the removal of all police presence from campuses, we consider keeping them off campus and reducing the total number of officers from eight to three a huge success and an important step in the process to reduce police presence on school campuses.
What still remains to be done to ensure that young people in Sacramento feel safe and supported on campus?
The immediate next step is ensuring that there is youth presence on the community hiring panel so that the youth have a direct say in both the SROs that get selected and for the selection of the Director of School Safety.
Are there any lessons from this work you might share with organizers in other parts of the state interested in engaging on this issue?
Collaboration is key, Sacramento ACT certainly did not accomplish this work on our own. We worked closely on this with Brown Issues, Hmong Innovating Politics and the Black Parallel School Board. We were really intentional about creating a diverse coalition to ensure that those diverse voices were represented. It’s not just about Black students or brown students or AAPI students; this is about all of our students.
What are the elements that you think helped you be successful?
Staying consistent in our messaging and keeping the voices of students at the center has been critical for this work. Initially, there were folks in our collaborative that felt that schools should have SROs but that they should be required to collect data, that there should be guidelines for them to adhere to in their work. But the youth pushed back and said no, we don’t want SROs on campus. Continuing to center the students helped us move people from what we thought we wanted or needed to the true priorities of the community.