An Interview with Daniel Mendoza – The California Endowment’s Harrison Visionary Award Winner

Daniel Mendoza is the Dream Beyond Bars Coordinator at Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice (CURYJ) in Oakland, CA. CURYJ builds community relationships and mobilizes young leaders to organize in the movement to end mass incarceration and youth criminalization. As the fellowship coordinator, Daniel is dedicated to humanizing the lives of young people of color who have been impacted by various punitive systems, equipping them with the knowledge, tools, and wisdom to become activated in their communities and bring forth positive outcomes. Daniel believes that those closest to the trauma of incarceration, are closest to the solutions. He was awarded the Brandon Harrison Visionary Award from the California Endowment Youth Awards, an award that uplifts one young leader who has overcome significant adversity to place themselves and their community on a path toward success.

Maya Carlson, Bioneers: Tell me about yourself, Daniel. What makes you who you are? 

Daniel Mendoza, CURYJ: I’m 25 years old.. I often feel like I’m 60. I’m definitely an old soul. I was born and raised in San Francisco, in the Mission District, and my grandparents have a house in the Bernal Heights area and in the Mission District. My parents were high school sweethearts. They were also born and raised in San Francisco. At some point in my younger teenage years, we moved to Oakland, but I was still a part of the San Francisco Unified School District. I’ve been in multiple different schools since elementary. I had what they called learning disabilities, auditory processing, and speech impediments, so all these different things that were obstacles for me in my young school years. When I went to high school, I was labeled ADHD because I couldn’t focus. I went to five high schools in total and I was labeled a problematic student. Looking back, I think it really stressed out my parents. My mom didn’t know what to do with me because she was so used to the normal education system. Me not being able to learn in that system was really difficult for her. 

All of those experiences led me to a high school called Dewey High School in Oakland where I met George Galvis and others who  were teaching a youth positive male development class through Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice (CURYJ). Most of the people in my class were young Latino men. It was one of my first experiences in a space with so many people that looked like me and one of the first times that I was excited for class in school. They gave us the space to discuss things that were important to us, ranging from the police brutality we saw on our way home to how we felt when our friends, loved ones and our family were dying from gun violence or drugs.

The week after I turned 18, I was incarcerated. And after being away for a total of two years, George Galvis offered me a job at CURYJ. My pride didn’t want to ask for it, but he saw I had a spark and he made space for me. He wanted to bring me in so I wouldn’t fall back into old patterns. He wanted to show me that there are people who look like me and come from my community making an impact. He gradually gave me more leadership facilitating the youth groups and going to Sacramento where we were shown how legislation affects us locally, statewide, and nationally. This experience definitely politicized me. George saw my anger and gave me an outlet to express that in a positive way through advocating for policy change. 

I’ve been with CURYJ for about five years. I began as part of the Positive Youth Justice Initiative, which later became the Dream Beyond Bars Fellowship. The Positive Youth Justice Initiative was a coalition of  organizations throughout the state of California doing youth leadership development and political education for a large spectrum of change. But CURYJ saw a need for more sustained engagement in the lives of youth. Through the Dream Beyond Bars Fellowship, CURYJ deepened this political education work by scaling up the hours of youth engagement to 20 hours a week and paying each fellow $18 an hour. 

Maya: Tell me more about the Dream Beyond Bars Fellowship.

Daniel: The Dream Beyond Bars Fellowship aims to heal and transform the lives of young people through political education, giving them the power to create change and advocate for themselves. There are so many things left out of our education system. The fellowship aims to offer youth the life skills they aren’t offered in school in addition to bringing them in as experts in their lived experiences of youth criminalization and incarceration in their own lives and in their communities. 

One of the most meaningful things we do is provide accountability to one another. If someone shows up late, there’s accountability. We create a little family outside of your family. It’s that extra level of support that someone might have too much pride to ask for. We believe that relationships come before tasks. Before I ask anybody in the group to open up, I make sure we build a personal relationship first. We take hikes, talk about Warriors games, and go on retreats together. This personal relationship building is some of the more important work we do. 

We go to conferences and connect with our allies throughout the state. Many of our youth have never seen an elder who looks like them, who’s been through more than them, become a positive figure for change. That exposure to our allies is one of the greatest things about being part of the Dream Beyond Bars Fellowship, because youth see that they’re not just a part of the CURYJ family, they’re also part of our statewide family. 

Maya: Thank you for mapping out some of the work that you all do. I’d love it if you could say more what accountability means within the Dream Beyond Bars group.

Daniel: Palabra is one of the teachings that we share with our youth. The person on the block that gets the most respect is the person that you can depend on for their word. We take that same mentality that youth grow up with, and we transform it into our environment. Accountability is how you stick to your word. If you say you’re going to do something, do it, and communicate. If you can’t do it, just be straightforward from the beginning and we’ll work around it. Accountability is palabra

The second part of accountability is compassion. Everyone in the group, including myself, has struggles, has a life outside of work, and we’ve got to have compassion for each other. If we need to delay the meeting because somebody’s having a bad day, we need to work around that. Not one person creates change, it’s the whole team, so we have to learn to be more cohesive, hold each other accountable, be straight up with each other, and call each other out on stuff in a thoughtful way. 

The last piece of accountability that we talk about is that when you’re representing CURYJ in Sacramento and you’re an older person teaching to the young people, it’s not just a job. What does it look like if you did all that and then the minute you leave you do something that makes the organization look bad? That’s accountability too. Now that you’re part of our family, you also represent us, and you have to uphold yourself to a higher standard. We also recognize that we’re in the Bay Area where the cost of living is super high, and the career pathways can be limited for people of color. So we’ve definitely got to show up in a very professional way.

Maya: I can really feel the impact of the values that you’re sharing – the palabra, the compassion, and the importance of upholding yourself to a higher standard as you move through the world. The three things you mentioned made me think about how we hold police accountable. What does it mean for police to be true to their word, be compassionate and uphold a higher standard. 

Daniel: Young people want equality and equity. If one of our young people killed somebody and they were sentenced to life in prison, that person has to live with that punishment every day in their life. But when a police officer kills somebody, they can go back to work a few weeks later. If they get fired from that job, they can still get a job being a police officer in a different county. Where’s the accountability in that? Where’s the equality? Where is the humanity? Being a police officer has a great deal of responsibility. They carry weapons that can take lives and they often escalate situations to be life or death that don’t need to be life or death, situations that could just be talked out or resolved non-violently. 

You can become a police officer in less than two years, but you have to go to medical school for eight years. In addition to that, officers are often hired from outside of the communities that they’re serving. They don’t have the relationality so they don’t feel accountable. They look at the people they “serve” like they’re different. We should train people who are formerly incarcerated to intervene and bridge relationships in their own communities. . 

The issue is also bigger than the police officers. We have to hold the decision makers who make the rulings to defend the police officers accountable as well. They’re shielding officers from accountability and rubber stamping the police departments’ budgets. Somebody who uses EBT or collects unemployment can barely get their basic needs met by these social programs. And yet, police budgets are growing all the time. Where is accountability and equality in that?

Everything I’m sharing are things that our elders have been saying for many years. 

So much harm has been done by police, that our communities don’t look to them for safety. We know what we need to be safe. 

When we talk about police accountability, we also talk about the fact that you can’t take down a system without implementing a new one, which is why we bring young minds together to imagine a world without police. Who is going to step in if there is a life and death situation? 

That’s our outlook on police accountability. We have to put pressure on and work with decision makers but at the same time, we have to be at the table with people from our communities to create the solutions.

Maya: Last weekend was the first weekend of the 2020 Bioneers Conference. I organized a panel on Dreaming Transformative Justice and Abolition, and the facilitator was a person named Liz Kennedy. During the panel, Liz quoted Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha from a Roundtable Discussion on Abolition and Disability Justice who said that, “Abolition means replacing a gun with an ecosystem.” I really hear that sentiment in what you’re sharing about police accountability, and how communities are building the relationships, processes, and structures to take care of themselves and their communities. In your work with young folks, how do you see personal healing connecting to collective healing, especially for someone who has experienced or perpetrated harm in their community? 

Daniel: I think we can’t go to the next step without focusing on ourselves and our healing. It’s unfortunate that a lot of times when people get incarcerated, it’s a pause in their healing journey and it doesn’t have to be.

Here’s one way that I explain personal healing to my young people – you know those days where you’re just angry, and you’re just mad for anything? Sometimes you’re mad for your ancestors, it’s not necessarily your own pain. It’s generational trauma. We can feel that pain from seven generations before us. And if you don’t resolve it now, then you can pass it down to your seed, and you’re going to keep spreading that in our community. We have to decide when it stops, and it stops with us.. 

In the beginning of doing this work, I would go to a legislative staffer, spill my guts out and share how I felt, just to barely see a head nod. I’d go home to my community where all these things were happening and it was traumatic. 

Relationships before tasks. Work on your relationship with yourself before you work outside of that, work with your family before your community. If you’re not in the right headspace, I can’t expect you to show up and share your story with a legislative staffer. To me, this personal healing is what makes our other work all the more powerful. It’s a journey. It’s not just a week or two years or five years. Healing is a process for the rest of your life. You’re going to continue to experience trauma and you’re going to continue to experience healing. It’s how life is. We have to know the mechanisms to cope with it.

Maya: What do you learn from the Dream Beyond Bars fellows?

Daniel: I learn to treat every day like it could be the last. Every day, I learn something from the fellows. I cherish the relationships, not just with them but everyone, because you honestly don’t know if it’s the last day you might see somebody. 

Maya: What gives you hope right now? From where are you drawing strength?

Daniel: Right now I’m drawing a lot of strength from my family – my partner and the baby to come. We have some new dope staff members and all these young people in the program who are stepping into their leadership. Looking at it from this perspective, my life really amazes me and makes me happy. There are moments that I feel like we’re just constantly losing and fighting a battle we’re never going to win. But seeing younger generations fight for what’s right, voting, and hitting the streets really motivates me to show up harder for them.

Maya: On that panel I mentioned earlier that took place at the Bioneers Conference on transformative justice and abolition, the four speakers were really feeding off of each other, and they kept on saying, “We’re on the winning team! This is the winning team right here! We’ve got this!” There’s so much work that’s been done around abolition and transformative justice for so many generations. It’s not an easy road to do both on the ground interpersonally and on a structural level in a still very white supremacist country. To hear how these four organizers were affirming each other and believing in this work gave me a lot of hope too. 

 How is your work with CURYJ changing moving forward? 

Daniel: Our organization is at a growth point. The pandemic made us realize that we could be hit with something at any moment and there’s always going to be crisis modes. So CURYJ is working on a capital campaign to buy a building in the next couple years. As an elder of mine always says, we’re land based people without land. CURYJ is really trying to become a more stable and permanent fixture throughout East Oakland. You’ll be seeing more of us in the next years to come. 

Maya: What vision do you have for your work? 

Daniel: My vision for the work that I do is to close youth prisons and build youth leaders. I hope to one day see a society that invests more in education, prevention and alternatives compared to incarceration. We can’t reverse the trauma caused by colonization but we can make changes to improve the lives of young people and their families by showing young people how to heal themselves. I envision a community that throws away old punitive practices of shame and embraces and prioritizes healing and humanity. 

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