Home News Center YJLI Fellow Jennifer Ubiera Pursues Justice and Possibility for Young People

YJLI Fellow Jennifer Ubiera Pursues Justice and Possibility for Young People

November 25, 2019
Courtney McSwain

Interview with Jennifer Ubiera, Organizing and Advocacy Fellow, Georgetown Juvenile Justice Initiative 


What got you into youth justice reform? 

In 2012 when Trayvon [Martin] was killed, I was in law school in Orlando, which is about 30 minutes away from where he was murdered. It shook us. A bunch of law students from the Black Law Students Association went out to march, and we wanted to have an event on campus to talk about racism and the way black people have to move and live through it every day. Our administration told us that they didn't want any politically charged events – particularly around, I'm guessing, lack folks.  

This was around the end of my second year, and I was thinking about what area of law I would work in after law school. The pushback from the administration was discouraging, and it left me looking for a "safe" way to work on racial justice that also allowed me to provide for my family.  

I graduated the next year and got a fellowship working on racial justice through the housing and homelessness clinic at FAMU Law. The day I got my legal license, April 14, 2014, was the happiest day of my life. Then on April 16, my baby brother was arrested with felony drug charges. He was 19 at the time, had no previous justice involvement, and it just freaked me out. That changed the course of my life. I ended up moving back home and working on his case for three years. Working on that case exposed me to what the criminal legal system was really about in a way that law school never could have. They were teaching us legal “theory,” but not critical race theory or what the law looks like in the life of people who were working-class and poor. After having that exposure, there was no way I could move forward in the same way that I was when I left law school.  

This was an incredibly traumatic time for me and my family. None of us had ever been involved in the youth legal system growing up. It was hard for me, but at the same time, it was building up my sense of power – what I could do in the courtroom, because I started advocating in different ways for him. I started paying attention to how the prosecutor was talking about my brother and making sure that those things weren't just sliding by me. Every day that I went into court, the judge was white, the prosecutors were usually white, the court reporters and the public defenders were all white – and the people who were charged were Black and brown. While working on my brother's case, I was also doing organizing work with Dream Defenders in Miami. Together, those experiences were radically transformative.  

My focus went from wanting to do employment law, which I felt like was a "safe" area to practice, to criminal legal work and youth legal work, and doing organizing and strategizing around a larger vision for justice.  

Tell us about your advocacy project. 

Partnering with national organizations, I am working on a youth justice advocacy academy. Each session includes technical skills-building  with healing circles around trauma. Our target population is young people who have been impacted by the criminal and youth legal systems. During the six-week academy, the sessions focus on storytelling, advocacy and social media, organizing 101, power analysis, budgeting and access, and a final session on how to do a comprehensive strategy.  

My vision is that young people will walk away with belief in their power, knowledge on how to access local systems of power, and the skills needed to advocate around legal system issues directly impacting DC youth. I also hope we're creating a replicable and sustainable model that others can adopt.  

What motivates you? 

Knowing that we can transform and have the possibility to change and be our best selves motivates me. Also believing that youth don't belong in cages. 

My mom always worried about me as a kid – she said I was a bleeding heart. When I see things that are not right, I feel compelled to want to engage and somehow offer up what I can to advance justice and fairness. What motivates me daily is knowing the possibilities of youth - and human beings really - but also the power of transformation, change and possibility. The youth legal system cuts short what is possible for young people - not just physically and financially, which it does, but also mentally. Once you're designated as a "certain" kind of person, you start to carry it within yourself. It doesn't have to be that way. I want to be a part of letting young people know that system-involvement doesn't have to be the only part of their story. There is so much more to them.  

What's your dream youth justice vision?

All children are living in communities set up with basic resources – access to healthy foods, affordable housing and an education system that teaches practical as well as cultural education focused on building children up. Also, making sure there are opportunities for young people to have a career where they can apply their talents and be who they want to be. There's no youth justice vision without focusing on the family. We grow up in community, so whatever vision I could have for youth justice has to be a vision for families, because families need to be supported.  

There's something I saw when I went to Cuba - they have a social worker and a doctor assigned to child , who then follow that child up until adulthood. That  in protection around youth development and offers someone for the parents to talk to when it comes to issues involving their child. That is the beginning of my dream youth justice vision.

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