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Meet the Fellows: Carlos Cruz

December 16, 2015
Zoe Schein

Recently, we spoke with Carlos Cruz, Court Liaison at Learning Works Charter School in Pasadena, CA. Carlos is a fellow in NJJN's Youth Justice Leadership Institute, a year-long program that aims to create a more effective foundation for the juvenile justice reform movement by developing a strong base of well-trained and well-prepared advocates and organizers who reflect the communities most affected by juvenile justice system practices and policies.

What motivates you to work in youth justice reform? 

Being in the field—at Learning Works, the charter school where I work, and in the court system—I’ve worked with a lot of different kids in a lot of different situations. Sometimes I agree with what I see happening in the courtroom, but sometimes I don’t. Doing youth justice reform allows me to work on the parts of the system that I don’t agree with.

How did you get started in youth justice reform?

Initially I was hired to be an academic coach. When I came on, my boss and I started to see that many students had relationships with the court system, and that could really be a barrier to coming to school. If a young person was on probation, for example, school might be a place where they would be more likely to be picked up by police, so they wouldn’t go. That’s when my boss pulled me in to working with the courts. It’s not that I wasn’t interested in the work, but when you come from the streets, you have your own judgment of the justice system. I didn’t really want to be involved. But then I started seeing the dire need for students to have an advocate guiding them through the court processes—to complete what the court is asking of them to get off probation, for example. And it ended up being something I was good at. I’m a good listener, I understand what’s going on in the courtroom, so now I’m able to translate that “court language” for the students and their families to help them through the process.

Fellows in the Institute are expected to complete a yearlong advocacy project. Can you tell me about your project?

I’m actually in the process of changing my project. I initially wanted to write a policy to encourage the speedy return of academic and medical records from youth facilities to the outside agencies that help the kids with reentry, but I stumbled into another issue—one that makes it difficult to get young people into rehab for substance abuse in California. So right now I’m in the process of deciding if I’m going to shift the focus of my project to that.

Can you tell me a little about your experience in the Institute? Why do you think the Institute is important?

I’ve been advocating for the youth of Pasadena and greater LA for the past 7 years. I have to say that last year I was definitely to the point where I was questioning, “Is this something I want to continue doing?” Then my boss approached me with the opportunity to apply for this fellowship. To be honest I didn’t think I’d get it, but here I am—with more work than I’m prepared to deal with. But I’m rejuvenated! Just to know there are other people fighting the same battle, there are resources out there for us to succeed—I’m definitely rejuvenated and content with the situation. I’m happy to have the opportunity to sharpen my tools so I can better serve my community, and to learn from such an elite group of people. I’m learning so much. I never thought I’d be in a position to learn about mapping, writing policy, getting those projects into the community—and hopefully eventually taking those skills to the national level. It’s a challenge and a learning experience, one that I’m definitely willing to take on.

What do you do when you’re not advocating for youth justice reform?

Well, I work full time and I go to school full time. I’m working on my Bachelor’s in Psychology at the University of La Verne. On top of that, I’m the scholarship coordinator for the Gloria Lee Endowment Fund, so I have two cohorts of scholarship recipients that I’m responsible for. I make sure they’re doing things like buying their books and paying tuition. So that’s also a lot of work. Then the fellowship is a full-time gig too—with phone calls, making sure I’m communicating with everyone, doing the readings, taking care of business. My time is pretty full with everything that I have going on.




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