Home News Center YJLI Alumni Mar Velez Works to Protect and Increase Opportunities for Youth

YJLI Alumni Mar Velez Works to Protect and Increase Opportunities for Youth

November 13, 2018
Sarah Bryer



Recently we had a chance to talk with Mar Velez, YJLI alumni class of 2018.   Mar is currently working as a special assistant to a Councilmember Noel Gallo District 5 in Oakland, California having recently left her position at Communities United for Youth and Restorative Justice (CURYJ).

She started by talking about what got her involved in youth justice work.  “As a young person growing up in South Central California, I saw a lot of discrimination and lack of opportunity for myself, my siblings and my friends.  When I left the neighborhood, I saw the stark difference and how absurd that difference was.  I’ve always had a connection to young people and have been passionate about fighting for them.  In this way, I’ve always followed by heart.  I love how young people will just tell you what they need.  Youth work has to be front and center in all of our social justice work.

“While I was a fellow with YJLI, I was managing and coordinating a statewide campaign out of CURYJ to create better life outcomes for youth in California.  We focused on the ability of prosecutors to direct file youth into the adult court, without any judicial oversight.  We researched who was being direct filed and saw that it was mostly black and brown youth, and that white youth who were committing the same crimes weren’t being sent into the adult system.  CURYJ, as part of NJJN member, California Alliance for Youth and Community Justice, created a campaign to get Prop 57 on the ballot.  Then in 2016, the Governor’s office endorsed it and made it part of his proposition.  We were in a time crunch to gather two million signatures in only four – six months.  We put all hands on deck to meet that number.  Once it was on the ballot we did a lot of voter education, convening town halls, and educating people who were directly affected. 

“After Prop 57 passed, we worked on a Positive Youth Justice Initiative (PYJI).  We worked with formerly incarcerated youth in Alameda County to conduct research on the juvenile justice system’s policies.  We saw that judges were transferring youth to the adult system, and we wanted to end that practice.  We also wanted to shut down the juvenile detention center in Alameda County and promote community-based alternatives.  We talked to the youth and parents and asked them what would work for them.  We also surveyed about 200 Alameda County residents, who showed overwhelming support for alternatives to detention for youth.  We promoted these findings in a report with formal recommendations.  Then in our DA race in Alameda County, we used this report to educate voters in order to get a more progressive DA in office.  Even though the incumbent won, everyone, including the DA’s are more educated and informed.” 

In discussing what motivates her, Mar talked about how this work is really needed.  That we need everyone creating spaces and really investing in young people to reach their potential.  “There are moments when I see myself in the young people – their passion and dedication.  These youth are trying to prove that they are more than a statistic.  Helping these youth in turn helps me stay grounded and feel fulfilled.  To do good youth work as a true ally and advocate, you need to be able to stick with them; you have to be a long-distance runner.”

We asked Mar what her dream youth justice goal would be.  She said that she wanted a world where young people would not face poverty and other root causes of these problems. 

“We should have a system that’s preventative, that gives people jobs and opportunities to excel.  I frankly wouldn’t want this system at all.  My work in juvenile justice was a training ground; it tested me.  There is nothing else like it.  I feel like I can do almost anything because my teachers were young people.  They gave me a huge lesson; I’m so grateful for my experience.” 

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