Home News Center Meet the Fellows: Rene Casas

Meet the Fellows: Rene Casas

November 17, 2015
Zoe Schein

Recently, we spoke with Rene Casas, Program Coordinator and Strategy Analyst at Motivating Individual Leadership for Public Advancement (MILPA). Rene 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? 

My dad was a community organizer. He mobilized people around issues that affected workers in the fields, like low-income housing.  As a little kid I’d follow him around—I didn’t know what I was doing, I just wanted to follow in my dad’s footsteps. As I got older, I started becoming more involved in community issues like education. But it wasn’t until I was in college and I started taking classes in criminal justice that I became aware of the issue of the over-incarceration of men and women of color. When I graduated, I was transitioning from working at the Boys and Girls’ Club into a leadership role in charter schools. That’s when I started seeing the disproportionate number of students of color being sent to alternative schools—the pipeline to prison. I thought, “I’ve got to do something about it.” So I started creating a program that helps students stay on track in school, encourages them to seek higher education, and to be more involved in the community--to work on the issues that affect them.

When I came back to Monterey County, where I grew up, I saw various issues that had a direct impact on boys and men of color and our communities: the expansion of the county jail and the building of a new juvenile hall. That’s when I really started becoming more active in youth justice issues. But it was through learnings from Jerry Tello and the National Compadres Network that allowed me to ground myself and confront these issues of intergenerational trauma with culture and healing at the forefront.

What drove you to return to work in your home community?

That’s one of the questions people always ask me: “You went to school, you have a degree, why’d you come back?” It’s like, if I don’t come back, who will? We have to start motivating our youth by being the examples and returning to our communities to show the youth that it is possible to succeed.

You have to understand that here in Monterey County, we have a demographic that’s so ridiculous; if you look at the area where I live and work, the median age is 23, and when you look at the areas most affected by violence, inequities and police brutality, the median age is 19. It’s a very young city. The highest number of homicides we’d had in a year was in 2009, and that was, I think, 29. This year, we’re already at 31 or 32, with a month and a half still left in the year.

One of  [MILPA's] initiatives is “Cultivating Change Makers for the Next Seven Generations.” Whether it’s individuals coming out of incarceration, coming back from college, in college, or just community members who want to be more involved, those are the people we want leading the community and addressing the issues that affect it most.

For example, the infatuation with “gang prevention” in Monterey County. One of the things we stress is that it’s not an issue of gang prevention, it’s an issue of social determinants of health—lack of jobs, resources, education etc. We need to step up and call it out as it is—it’s a public health problem. We want to make sure that our communities are getting the same resources that other communities have. We need a real upstream approach to solve issues, not just to place a Band-Aid on a gaping wound.

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

At first, my project was to create a Youth Fellowship that was focused on individuals returning from incarceration, specifically focusing on young Latino men. As time progressed, my advocacy project shifted toward creating a collaborative of organizations that are:

  1. working with formerly incarcerated individuals;
  2. employing those individuals; and
  3. creating a coalition to throw weight behind our advocacy—to create a powerhouse that can be really effective at both the local and state levels. The coalition will work primarily to:

                                                i.    eliminate school push-out; and
                                                ii.    eliminate the criminalization of youth.

Right now, one thing we may want to get into is looking at Proposition 21, which allows youth in California to be tried as adults. We’re also focusing on cultivating leadership. In our work there’s a three-phase approach. We focus on culture, consciousness, and movement building. When individuals are familiar with where they come from, their culture, when they acknowledge their parents, elders, partners and ancestors, they’re able to work on the next phase—consciousness. What’s going on in your neighborhood? It starts creating this thinking process, and from there it creates the movement building. You’re comfortable with who you are, you know about the issues, now you can go advocate. You can advocate from a place of love and compassion. That’s what we want to instill in our communities.

This work is no joke, this is really hard work. You have to have drive, you have to have passion, you have to have your heart in this work. We want to bring up those individuals already dedicated to that work—who are already leaders.

Why do you think the Youth Justice Leadership Institute is important? On a personal level? On a movement level?

On the personal level, the Institute is giving me the tools and the network to push the work I’m doing forward. The first meeting that we had, it’s shown me some of the ways the work I do is unique. For a lot of the other fellows, they work in a system where they have a boss, and so there are certain limitations on what they can do. But for me on the ground, face-to-face with community members, I’m here to represent the community. They’re my boss.

As for the movement, the network-building at a national level is very powerful. For example, I could call another fellow and say, “Hey, this is going on with my work, the judge is doing this,” and the other fellows—they’re experts. So I can draw from their expertise on issues that most affect the people I work with. This network also allows me to partner with my mentor to create local and statewide strategies to address these issues that are affecting our communities of color.

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

I’m a people person! I like talking, meeting new people, I can go to the grocery store from buying an item to inviting someone to an event—so the work is always in the back of my head. But I also like playing sports, especially soccer, which I’ve been playing since I was a little kid. I like painting, and I really want to start doing poetry. Then also writing—just writing about my experiences—it’s something beautiful.

Learn more about our YJLI Fellows here


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