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Youth Leaders Making a Difference Honored by The California Endowment

Blue lights with confetti | Jordon Conner / Unsplash
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In high school, Daniel had some difficulties. He was running the streets and dropped out of school multiple times because he was fed up with being labeled a problem by his educators. But today, Mendoza is working to give a voice to the youth who have been through the juvenile court system and institutions. He's transitioned from his troubled past to leading youth curriculum, being a youth mentor and creating policy with the Communities United Through Restorative Youth Justice (CURYJ). CURYJ is an Oakland non-profit empowering youth to lead in creating change using restorative justice practices.

"The biggest teaching and lesson I got was compassion," said Mendoza.  "The people around me were able to pull me aside or model how to show up to those spaces." He draws from his own experiences as guidance for youth to lead the way in juvenile criminal justice policy reform with the Dream Beyond Bars Fellowship.

Years ago, Mendoza found his path when he transferred from San Francisco Unified School District to Dewey High School in Oakland and met his mentor, George Galvis, Executive Director of CURYJ. "I just needed some good mentors and somebody who really cared about me. That was my motivation for staying in school all day."  At 16, that mentorship would be the first step towards the work he now does with CURYJ.

Then Mendoza was incarcerated for two years, one week after his 18th birthday. Mendoza said incarceration made him feel powerless in his circumstance and the legislation that governs the juvenile criminal justice system. "I think for me restorative justice in my personal life, the full circle looking back at it, was the ability to sit at tables with probation officers, police officers and elected officials," said Mendoza. Restorative justice means acknowledging not only the crime but also the harm it causes on a larger community scale and bridging the gap through communication between parties.

Upon his release, he was given the opportunity to be that bridge when he was hired to work at CURYJ. He was able to pick up on his journey to becoming a leader for restorative justice. "It really gave me a chance to shine and really show them I'm bigger and deeper than just that six-digit number County Jail number."

In a virtual ceremony held on December 9, 2020, the California Endowment (TCE) will present Mendoza and eight other youth honorees with awards for their inspiring activism within their communities.

Daniel Mendoza with other members of Communities United Through Restorative Youth Justice (CURYJ) | Courtesy of Daniel Mendoza
Daniel Mendoza with other members of Communities United Through Restorative Youth Justice (CURYJ) | Courtesy of Daniel Mendoza

Now at 25 years old with a child of his own on the way, Mendoza is one of seven youths and two organizations recognized in the TCE Youth Awards. Because of his work on the Dream Beyond Bars Fellowship with CURYJ in Oakland, Mendoza is the recipient of the Brandon Harrison award, which is presented to a youth that has overcome an obstacle and used the barrier as a tool to serve their community better. "I personally knew Brandon Harrison," said Mendoza, "So just to be honored under his legacy and under his name to me means a lot."

Mendoza helped organize an 18-month intensive study led by formerly incarcerated youth, the Dream Beyond Bars Fellows. It was a project in partnership between CURYJ and UPM (Urban Peace Movement). Rather than rely on experts to write their stories, he and the fellows poured over public information such as budget reports, incarceration rates, criminal justice reports locally and statewide; conducted focus group studies with young people in the criminal justice system and their families; and distributed surveys at town halls. All of this to get a real picture of what is happening on the ground and the effects the current juvenile criminal justice system is having on Alameda County. "We can't be at a table with [people who have] never had any experience with the criminal justice system, who doesn't look like us," said Mendoza, "They can't be at the table making decisions for us."

Peter Elias giving a speech | Courtesy of Peter Elias
Peter Elias giving a speech | Courtesy of Peter Elias

Their findings were published in a report last year. It found that the current system isn't solving the root cause of the problems, and even negatively impacts the youth in the system and their families. Instead of incarceration, it advocates investing in more community programs, which it points out cost $75 a day in Alameda County versus $240 for the former. It also recommends specific changes in the current system, such as eliminating probation, ankle monitors, group homes and detention for minor offenses and finding more alternatives to probation violations that further criminalize youth.

All the Fellows are youth who have been through the juvenile criminal justice system and were able to make a contribution toward taking control of their narrative. "We really need to advocate and make space for the formerly incarcerated and for the systems impacted [youth] to take leadership," said Mendoza. The study hopes that the inclusion of voices who have firsthand knowledge of the systems will lead to more inclusive and equitable solutions for those who had been formerly incarcerated but for the community as a whole.

Mendoza isn't alone in his efforts as an agent of change in California. Peter Elias is also being presented the award for Ending Mass Incarceration by the Youth Awards, for his work with Fathers & Families of San Joaquin. Elias says in a statement we received that he also felt powerless in his interactions with law enforcement officials, "This caused me to advocate for the bills I felt most resonated with myself and my community."

With the award, Elias plans to continue to advocate for his community with the guidance and support of Fathers & Families of San Joaquin to dismantle the School-to Prison Pipeline.  "I will continue what my late brother Brandon Harrison had introduced me to fight alongside him in," said Elias.

Elias receives one of the six awards in the category Voices for Change. "Winning the Voices for Change Award has shown me and those around me that our hard work is not only being recognized but also that it is feasible to reap the rewards of liberating our youth," said Elias when asked what winning the Youth Awards meant to him. "The rewards being having a sense of dignity and respect again; to walk the street with pride because we have purpose and were always sacred."

The California Endowment Youth Awards is a celebration of young leaders who inspire their peers and communities while embodying the values and commitment of The California Endowment to building healthy communities. "Our intergenerational Selection Committee of youth activists and adult allies looked at four elements in each application: leadership, sustainability, innovation and impact," said An Nguyen California Endowment Program Manager in a statement to KCET.  "Our winners stood out on all fronts."

Youth Award recipients are leaders between the ages of 13 and 26 whose actions impact public policies, create innovative models of service, strengthen local institutions and inspire youth power in communities across California.

"California Endowment's mission is centered around improving health outcomes in communities across the state. In the last 10 years, we have really focused on fixing broken systems and outdated policies and ensuring that the balance of power is with the people," said Nguyen.  Health is not limited to individual physical health but contributions to the ecosystem of the communities.

Jennifer Licos and other members of Central American Resource Center (CARECEN) | Courtesy of Jennifer Licos
Jennifer Licos and other members of Central American Resource Center (CARECEN) | Courtesy of Jennifer Licos

Winning the Youth Award for Immigration, 16-year-old Jennifer Lico of Los Angeles is being honored for her activism work with the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN). "I have worked on many projects when it comes to immigration such as making 'know your rights' videos for immigrants when Donald Trump was elected," said Lico. "Winning this award lets me know that I am making a change. I am happy to know that I have been able to do so many things for others and that this award shows them and allows me to reflect."

Leading the way for a community safe from toxic pollutants from Long Beach is Kimberly Amara. Amara has been passionate about protecting the environment since middle school and receives the honor of Environmental Justice with East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice (EYCEJ). "It really means a lot to me," said Amara.

Amara has a long list of accomplishments in her work, including co-founding environmental group YA! (Youth in Action) at her high school, giving presentations at the West Long Beach Bike Toxic Tours, taking part of the Protecting Mother Earth Conference and researching refineries for Marina Pando Social Justice Research Collaborative before she began studying for a Bachelor of Science at CSU, Long Beach in Mechanical Engineering. "I tend to undermine all the work I've done and sometimes it feels like I am not doing enough. But this has helped with my feelings and reminded me of all the work I have done and the work I still plan to do."

"Winning this award is an incredible honor and a dream come true," said Chiqui Diaz, a high school sophomore from San Rafael. Diaz receives Voices for Change honor as an activist in the category of LGBTQ & Gender Justice. Her work with Beyond Differences is a youth-led social justice movement working to end social isolation. She is also a social justice fellow at the Spahr Center, an agency dedicated to advocating for the needs of the LGBT community and people living with HIV/AIDS.

Chiqui Diaz at work advocating to end social isolation | Courtesy of Chiqui Diaz
Chiqui Diaz at work advocating to end social isolation | Courtesy of Chiqui Diaz

"This recognition truly inspires me to keep fighting and telling my story, and to recommit myself to my community, even more than before," said Diaz. Her fellowship work with the Marin school district advocates for systemic school change, including mandatory cultural competency trainings for teachers and staff, more inclusive sex-ed curriculum, gender neutral facilities such as restrooms and locker rooms, better supports for transitioning students and general support for LGBTQ+ students. "I feel so lucky not only to be able to be out as a lesbian and have a supportive family and friends, but to be actively awarded for proudly speaking my truth and pushing for the change that I and other LGBTQ+ people deserve."

Bernadette Lim believes that healing is an act of justice and resistance. As the founder of Freedom Community Clinic (FCC), Bernadette calls her organization "a movement that provides direct whole-person care to underserved communities in the Bay Area." The third-year UC, San Francisco medical student says FCC values the strengths of both ancestral, Indigenous healing practices and Western medicine. Since its beginning in 2019, FCC has served over 2,000 people and held more than 50 community healing clinics, workshops and education programs for communities in the Bay Area.

Bernadette Lim and members of the Freedom Community Clinic | Courtesy of Bernadette Lim
Bernadette Lim and members of the Freedom Community Clinic | Courtesy of Bernadette Lim

"Winning The California Endowment (TCE) Youth Award in Inclusive Community Development is life-changing because it truly affirms how much our love for creating healing spaces and rest spaces for Black, Indigenous and People of Color communities is important and worthy," said Lim. "Our motto at the Freedom Community Clinic is 'Healing is Justice. Healing is Resistance. Healing is Freedom.' The TCE Award has provided us with even greater confidence to make this a reality for people who are often deliberately silenced by greater society."

The Youth Awards was created in 2018 to recognize the impact youth voices have in creating change throughout California. "So often, young people are leading that transformational work that is ushering significant changes in their communities and at the state capitol," said Nguyen.  "And so often, their contributions go unnoticed and unrecognized. We want to make it clear that we see them, we respect them, and we could not be achieving progress without them."

Top Image: Blue lights with confetti | Jordon Conner / Unsplash

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