Our President Ray Colmenar spoke with Young Women’s Freedom Center’s Co-Executive Director Julia Arroyo about supporting systems-impacted young women and trans youth of all genders.
This year, we are spotlighting leaders from our All In for Oakland grantee partners, and I am thrilled I had the opportunity to speak with Julia Arroyo, Co-Executive Director of Young Women’s Freedom Center. Since 1993, Young Women’s Freedom Center has provided support, mentorship, training, employment, and advocacy to young women and trans youth of all genders in California who have grown up in poverty, experienced the juvenile legal and foster care systems, worked in the underground street economy, and experienced significant violence in their lives.
Read my interview with Julia to learn more about her and YWFC’s work to empower systems-impacted young women and trans youth to transform their lives and their communities.
— Ray Colmenar, President of Akonadi Foundation
A: Our peer-to-peer model truly emphasizes that those closest to the problem are closest to the solution, so we have a person-centered, individualized approach. We believe that by transforming your own life, you can transform others and cultivate the next generation of leaders. That leadership pipeline allows us to do the internal work to break down structural barriers and hierarchies. We also do our best to resource other community-based organizations that are doing similar work, sometimes even better.
We are constantly evolving to create an organization that is an inclusive and safe place for all participants and staff. Dr. Marilyn Jones, an author and Executive Director of Because Black is Still Beautiful, created the Araminta Approach, a social-emotional, culturally affirming model for criminal justice-involved Black women created in love. She came on to our board/staff a couple of years ago to improve outcomes for Black participants and staff members in our organization. She has been training and working with our team, assessing, and introducing new concepts and practices.
A: In recent years, I have seen young entrepreneurs who are eager and excited to pilot projects and bring forth new business ideas. Because we now have social media as an outlet and because of Oakland’s landscape, more young people are becoming engaged, innovative, and visionary thinkers. We’re also seeing an increase in community organizing and civic engagement, with many folks interested in shifting structural power as it relates to their personal experiences.
Unfortunately, there are still some barriers, like approaches to helping Black and Indigenous girls in Oakland navigate gender-based violence and the carceral system, violence amongst trans youth, punishment-based culture, and lack of resources to support and unite families separated by the foster care system. We can and should be taking money away from the incarceration system and replacing it with things like guaranteed income to fund families to truly win.
A: We piloted a guaranteed income program in various counties, and it was an absolute success. There’s a harmful and inaccurate stereotype that folks will be frivolous when you give them money without any stipulations, and that is just not the case. We had parents pay for things like college tuition and PG&E bills. We would also share with them that the money can be used for whatever they want, including restoration and healing, because our communities deserve that.
Having access to healing and wellness practices allows folks to relax and step away from always having to think about surviving. Investing in restoration and healing was successful because young people were able to take care of their personal needs and show some love and affirmation to their mental, physical, and spiritual wellness.
A: We help young people drive change by putting them in the driver’s seat. Through our Freedom Research Institute, young folks are able to collect data to inform structural change, such as increasing resources for young parents in their communities, transforming city budgets for greater investments into alternatives to incarceration, and changing harmful policies. We also have a peer leadership pipeline, so that leaders of Young Women’s Freedom Center include folks who have completed our programs. I was actually someone who completed one of the programs.
We also have young people going out into the community and meeting folks where they are at, and encouraging others to get involved. We want to cultivate an ecosystem led by young people and have older folks move out the way. We’re working to expand young people’s world and give them more opportunities and options so that they understand their potential is limitless.
A: Data has been historically used in so many harmful ways, including to build school-to-prison pipelines. With Freedom Research Institute, we are encouraging young people to use data and research to humanize what is happening in our communities. Through the program, our young people are generating reports on women, girls, and trans youth of all genders experiencing criminalization and on how young people are experiencing the underground street economy and incarceration. Young people are becoming certified researchers and pursuing it as a career. They are also going to City Hall and advocating for policies with the data to back them.
A: I started this work in San Francisco, helping to close the San Francisco County Jail and advocating for alternatives to incarceration. When I came over to Oakland, even though it doesn’t seem far, I had to prove myself in the community. At Young Women’s Freedom Center, we have a statewide approach to reduce incarceration among girls and trans youth of all genders by offering alternatives and ultimately, ending it altogether. Alameda County spends
roughly $493,000 (Source: Reimagining Youth Justice, pg. 4) per incarcerated youth a year. We want to shift from the punitive and push resources back into the community.
Since I was a baby, I was in the foster system and felt no real sense of stability. I had queer family members who tried to step up to take care of me and faced discrimination based on their sexuality. Instead of staying with my family or community, I stayed in a group home and it never truly felt like home, especially knowing someone was receiving money to take care of me. My first sense of freedom was when I was able to sign my first lease and be independent. It gave me the opportunity to fail and figure out life without punitive measures or hyper surveillance.
I was once a young girl, 13 or 14 years old, living and working in the streets in East Oakland. There is no young person that should have to decide what is the best option for them because they lack opportunities. I don’t want young folks to have to struggle or have to live in a jail cell because people think it’s safer than working in the streets. It is criminalizing people who need help and support.
A: The death of Banko hit home for me because I had worked with him since he was 12 years old. It was difficult to read all of the coverage where he was misgendered and not referred to by his chosen name. Banko took on a lot of mental labor to educate people in Oakland and was involved in so many impactful policy changes, while fighting his own battles with things like unstable housing. Because of his work and dedication to the town, Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao declared May 26 “Banko Brown Day.”
After losing Banko, Akonadi provided us with a response fund to focus on healing and wellness in Oakland for those mourning Banko. It is heavy when you lose someone so young, especially in a tight-knit community like ours. Banko also inspired us to move faster on our pilot project, Beloved Community Housing, which will offer housing, wrap-around services, guaranteed income, and family-finding services for participants.
A: The campaign originally started in Oakland in 2017 with the convening of more than 200 formerly incarcerated women and trans youth of all genders. During the convening, we asked them how systems impacted the trajectory of their life. Together, they created a story about someone named Hope who is navigating the healthcare and welfare system, housing and foster care. From there, we drafted a unifying bill of rights that became our Sister Warriors Freedom Charter, which is a 12-point North Star plan on how we will reduce the number of young people inside the carceral system. It includes things like economic mobility and ending the separation of families. You can learn more about our campaign at youngwomenfree.org.
A: Over the last three decades, we have made great strides, but we know in order to reach our Freedom 2030 goal, we need real alternatives. That is why we are expanding our work through Reimagine Freedom, Beloved Community Housing, and Sister Warriors. Through these new initiatives, we are creating safe and dignified housing, economic opportunities, meaningful jobs, holistic and sustainable re-entry support, and overhauling policies that restrict our self-determination.
A: We are hosting a Harm Reduction conference next year that addresses healing justice work and harm reduction. It will be youth-led and provide space for youth to share ideas. We’re excited for it and will be sharing more details as the date approaches.
Also, this year we are celebrating the 30th anniversary of Young Women’s Freedom Center. Help us continue our work for another 30 years by donating today at youngwomenfree.app.neoncrm.com/forms/donations-ywfc.