Home News Center YJLI Fellow Melissa Centeno Creates Community Spaces of Support that Center Girls of Color

YJLI Fellow Melissa Centeno Creates Community Spaces of Support that Center Girls of Color

April 29, 2021
Courtney M. McSwain

What got you into doing youth justice reform work? 

I've always been someone who has, what I call, a bleeding heart. Injustice anywhere doesn't really sit well with me. I have a background in organizing and working on social justice issues, particularly focusing on injustices faced by Black people, Black women, femmes and gender nonconforming people. Shifting into youth justice work, I started thinking about the support I got as a young person. I was lucky enough to have people see me and say, "We believe in you. You deserve opportunities and second chances." I think that's something that really stuck with me, and I always wanted to pay it forward.  

While previously working at a foundation that focused on ending violence against girls and women, I worked on an initiative addressing adolescent girls' rights and it became clear that youth are the most forgotten - particularly girls of color and [within that] Black girls who are systems involved. That's why I do this work - to center the most marginalized and center the most forgotten. It feels important to focus my efforts here, especially because of the opportunities I've received.  

You mentioned your organizing background. What types of organizing work have you done before?  

I was involved in a lot of campus activism. After graduating and moving to New York City in 2013, I joined the NYC Chapter of Black Youth Project 100 (BYP 100). Through BYP 100, I gained a firmer understanding of my abolitionist lens, and it was my first introduction to transformative justice, which is central to the work I do now. That's [also] where I got my feet wet in building campaigns, focusing on the issues on the ground and learning how to center the voices of the folks who are most often left out of the conversation.  

That's the thing that drew me to S.O.U.L. Sisters. I had the opportunity to visit the S.O.U.L. Sisters Miami office. When I walked into a Black Lives Matter Coalition meeting, I remember seeing girls in the center of the room, with the adults on the outskirts offering support. Young people were in the center with a giant piece of flipchart paper, writing out the issues they saw at their schools. [I thought] this is the type of work that I want to be a part of...being in a room full of young people who realized that they had the tools to respond [to inequities] and being surrounded by adults who were there to support them but not to talk over them.  

This is what feels important to me - not speaking on behalf of young people, not trying to create solutions that I think would work for them, but amplifying what they say and lifting up their expertise, experience and knowledge.  

In all those things that you've done, what are some of the lessons you carry with you that have helped you keep going and endure?  

When I transitioned into youth work, I was nervous about doing more harm than good. I reached out to a bunch of people who had done girls work before and asked them how to prepare. What books should I read? What workshops to attend? They told me that it was good to think about that, but I just have to show up and be authentic.  

I was diligent about doing trauma-informed training and all of those kinds of things, but showing up and being honest allowed me to form genuine relationships with young people who don't often receive honesty or transparency. Young people are not expecting perfection; they expect you to keep it real. So that's something that I carry with me.  

The other lesson I've learned is to turn to community and not try to hold things by myself. This is hard work that we do, and I am somebody who tends to cave inward when I'm going through a hard time instead of letting people support me through that process. I've realized that's not a sustainable practice. And there's only so many times that I can say to a group of young people, "You deserve support," until I have to realize that I too deserve support. In trying to help young people build a community that feels good for them, I've been reminded to turn to the community that I have to feel supported.  

Tell me about the advocacy project you're working on for YJLY.  

I'm the Restorative Justice Manager at S.O.U.L. Sisters Leadership Collective. For the past two years, my main body of work has been developing a service called "Circles, Not Cells," that addresses conflict in facilities between youth or between youth and staff.  

The service was initially conceived through conversations with partners in the field and our own collective experience witnessing and talking to girls we worked with. When there's a conflict in facilities, particularly in foster care group homes and in detention and placement facilities, the staff aren't sure how to best address it, so they use punishment. Youth have privileges revoked, or they get upgraded to a new level or something like that. In the worst-case scenarios, police are called, and the young person gets further entrenched in the legal system. We wanted to help bring a restorative process to find a different solution.  

One of the things that happens in these facilities is that youth and staff get put into a box, and they aren't encouraged to understand themselves outside of that box, nor are they encouraged to understand the people they're interacting with outside of those specific roles. The community building circles are a way to deconstruct those boxes and emphasize that, whether they are staff or youth, they are whole people. How can we encourage engaging with each other as whole people?  

We're also doing intentional capacity building and space holding to train nonviolent communication and restorative practices that might help de-escalate conflict. My goal is to build out a manual to train staff on things like youth development and help them understand what's going on in an adolescent brain and why it's unfair to expect young people to make the right decisions all the time. The manual would also include information on trauma-responsive care, restorative practices and nonviolent communication tools that would make navigating conflicts a little bit easier.  

These are skills people can take back to their neighborhoods. The hope is that this model can also be adaptable to various community spaces so that communities have the tools to turn toward each other to resolve conflict without needing to rely on outside agencies.  

What would you say is your dream vision for youth justice?  

I envision a complete shift away from the current system that we have. Young people deserve support and the space to make mistakes and to learn from them. Adults don't get things perfectly all the time, so why are we expecting young people to be perfect? I also want to see young people centered in their definition of what justice is and where they can really live lives of authenticity and freedom; which is not to say there are no consequences. I don't think we should live in a world without consequences, but I do think we should live in a world without punishment, especially for youth. Punitive treatment shapes the way people move through the world in a way that is really, really hard to undo.  

What does it look like to approach youth in a way that, even if it isn't perfect, demonstrates a commitment to their humanity, potential, and their right to be free, whole, messy human beings? What does it look like for accountability to be held within community instead of being outsourced to a larger system that has no understanding of people's lives or the historical roots of the things they are experiencing?  

It's about returning power and agency into the hands of young people and working with them in partnership as opposed to working from the top down. We have evidence everywhere that the top-down approach hasn't been working, so what does it look like to try something different? Even if it won't be perfect, it will be better than this, and we can learn from new approaches and continue to build.  

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