Home News Center Luis Hernandez Fights to Amplify Directly Impacted Youth Voices

Luis Hernandez Fights to Amplify Directly Impacted Youth Voices

September 29, 2020
Sarah Natchipolsky

How did you get into youth justice reform work and get involved with The Gathering for Justice?

I think for me, it was really about being directly impacted. At the age of 14, my brother, who was 16 at the time, was wrongfully arrested and charged for a crime he didn’t commit. And for over a year, my family fought not only for his release, but also to get the charges he was held under dismissed. Unfortunately, my brother not only was held in Rikers for over a year, but the reason why he was there for so long pre-trial was because he was under an extreme bail that isn't at all affordable to any low-income family. We garnered some local media attention and then, eventually, national media attention on my brother's case. Then Justice League NYC, which is a coalition and a task force of The Gathering for Justice, really brought together a larger coalition of 40 plus organizations, elected officials, and representatives of the community to work together to get my brother released. In under four days, he was not only out of Rikers Island, but we were actively working on building up a campaign to really get justice for my brother. That meant dismissing all of the charges and seeing some sort of retribution from the system for the harm that it had done to my family. Within a few months at the next court appearance, the district attorney announced that all the charges were being dismissed.

Ever since then I've been an active member of the Justice League. Eventually I came on with The Gathering as a coordinator for Justice League in 2017. And in 2018, I became the youth leadership and engagement coordinator at The Gathering. I was really focusing on advancing youth leaders and youth activism, particularly with young folks who were directly impacted by the system. 

Oftentimes, our president and CEO, Carmen Perez reminds us that there's a lane for everyone. And really, what I understood at its core was that the lane in youth activism for directly impacted young people was blurred. The lines around what spaces they can and cannot access were blurred. We're creating a direct pathway for young leaders who were impacted and oftentimes left out of these conversations to be centered and brought into these decision-making rooms.

Most recently, about a week ago, I was promoted to the National Director of Youth Campaigns and Leadership. I'll be working together with our regional organizers to advance campaigns for youth justice all throughout the country. In particular, I’m working on cases of police brutality, including that of Alvin Cole, who was murdered at the hands of Wauwatosa police in Wisconsin, as well as working with the Monterrosa family and getting justice for Sean Monterrosa, who was murdered at the hands of Vallejo PD. Additionally, I’m building up a national campaign and a children's agenda for what we'll see for the future of legislative policy and groundbreaking movement-building amongst young folks all throughout the country.

Can you tell me more about some of the projects you’ve worked on with The Gathering for Justice?  

One of the largest projects that we've worked on was a back-to-back convening modeled after the initial gatherings that were hosted by our founder, Harry Belafonte. We had a civil rights convening here in New York City, where we brought together elders of the movement, as well as some of the most prominent stakeholders and thought leaders in the movement for a two-and-a-half to three day conference. At this conference we discussed the plethora of issues that we're working on, and what we see as justice in the coming years for our movement. This was followed by a gathering of the youth, which I planned. It happened at the National Black Theatre in October of last year, and so that really brought together over 100 young people into one space to work on finding solutions that disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline – one of the largest systems right now leading young folks into the juvenile justice system that we're all trying to dismantle. 

Off the back of that conference, we've led campaigns for police-free schools and to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline, actively working in Stockton, New York and other cities and counties all throughout the state of New York and California. These are the two coasts where we have both Justice League task forces and most of the presidents in our team. A lot of work particularly happened over the last couple of months. 

At the start of the pandemic, we launched “Our Voice, Our Power,” a virtual town hall series and training program. For this, we bring young leaders together from all across the country to not only have conversations and solution-focused discussions around what's going on in our country and the things that are impacting us as young people, but also to really impart on them the robust advocacy and training skills that they need to do the groundwork in their cities. We are working with folks from the Navajo Nation, Alaska, Boston, and so many places and regions all throughout the country. And obviously, with the support and relation to the National Juvenile Justice Network, we've been able to tap into and expand that network of young folks that we're not only reaching, but working with, to find solutions and that work for young folks, particularly those impacted by the juvenile justice system. 

What motivates you to keep fighting for youth justice when times are hard?

For me, it goes back to my personal story – understanding that someone showed up for me, someone showed up for my brother and for my family. Who is going to show up for the next couple thousand children who are currently in the system, most of whom are being held pre-trial, pre-sentencing, pre-anything? They are still innocent in the eyes of the system, because we do have a constitution that categorizes folks who are arrested or charged with a crime as innocent until proven guilty in court. We have what I like to call an injustice system that currently operates on its own tri-fold of issues, negatively impacting the lives of young people. Who's going to show up to make sure that there is true justice in these cases, that young folks are not being thrown away? Who's going to make sure that these detention centers and prisons that children as young as 12 are being held in are shut down for good?

I truly look at detention centers, prisons, jails, and other places in which children are being held as places that we need to abolish. We've seen it in California, with some of the efforts of our Regional Organizer, Jasmine Dellafosse, who's actively worked and built a coalition to shut down juvenile juvenile facilities. They're now working to shut down the DJJ, which is the next step to closing down youth prisons in California. But for me, it’s my personal story above everything else. I know that someone showed up for me at a time in which I was hopeless, at a time in which I thought that there was no real light in a room of darkness. I want to open those doors and show the light for other young folks who are currently in the system and need that wraparound support. And it goes beyond direct service. It's really about creating a standard in which the system recognizes young people as human beings deserving of morality and human rights. I'll continue to do this work until we truly see that in a system-wide lens.

How are you currently feeling in this environment as a justice advocate since racial justice has been brought to the forefront of conversation following the death of George Floyd?

I think in a lot of ways, I'm feeling hopeful. It is really a time right now in our movement where we're seeing more people show up than ever before. As someone who's now been doing this for four-and-a-half years, you often don't see folks show up by the thousands in the streets. This past June, we were able to galvanize over 35,000 people in one single day demonstration, to raise five demands that were all achieved within a one week span. It shows that there is collective power.

Not only in our voices, but when people show up together, when we strategize, and not only show up to the streets, but strategically show up with specific calls to action and demands that we want to see answers to. That includes things like the passage of 50A, which has opened up a Pandora's box of police transparency here in New York. We now are able to see the records of police officers that are actively brutalizing members of our community. It opens up discussions about what funding looks like in our communities. The conversation around defunding the police wasn't a cliche catchphrase for the movement. It wasn't something that just came out of dust. It was something that really was invigorated by the active calls for reform that didn't result in any change in our communities or society. As we were actively calling for these changes in legislation and reforms, what we saw was that more of our city's budgets were going towards police departments to do these anti-bias trainings and some sort of racial justice analysis. These police departments are not equipped and don’t have the tactics or resources to actually provide safety and justice for our communities.

For too long, policing was equated to safety, and what we know as Black people and people of color in this country is that in reality, we keep us safe. It's another large conversation that we also have a virtual town hall series for.
This present movement raised the visibility on so many issues that we had been working on for so many years. So while I'm hopeful about the thousands of folks that have showed up, I'm also pushing people to stay in the movement as long distance runners. We can have folks show up for one march by the thousands, but if that energy isn't consistent, if folks aren't continuously involved in the movement, then we won't see the long term wins and justice that we need.

What is your vision for youth justice?

My vision for youth justice would certainly have to be a world in which young people can grow up in safe and just environments. As someone who organizes at the intersection of racial justice and violence prevention, I understand that there's a constant need for true safety in our communities; safety that looks like an abundance of resources, attacking the root causes of issues like gun violence, and dismantling the systems of oppression that exist in our society that for too long, our children have bore the brunt of.

Right now, we live in a country where Black and Brown children specifically bear the brunt of structural injustice. We exist in a society where young people are being impacted the most by issues like climate change. Right here in my own congressional district, we have the highest rates of asthma, most of which are made up of young children. We have redlining and food deserts – what I also like to call food apartheid systems – that really prevent young folks from having access to healthy foods, markets, and places that allow them to thrive. So my vision for youth justice, specifically through the lens of liberation, is really a world in which young folks aren't incarcerated or over-policed, rather young folks have the opportunity and the resources to thrive in their schools, homes, communities, and in the world as a whole.

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