NGF Voices: Building Collective Power for a Better Future

Tina Curiel-Allen

Last summer, I was a fellow for the first cohort of the Next Generation Fellowship (NGF) put together by CJCJ and MILPA. It was a highlight of my year, and a place I ended up meeting individuals that would unexpectedly change the trajectory of my life.  At the time, I was a 35-year-old undergraduate transfer student at UC Davis. I often sit in classrooms full of students at least a decade younger than me. What took me so long to get here? The short answer is my re-entry took some time. The slightly longer answer is that I, like many formerly incarcerated young people, was the product of a lot of systems. And sometimes re-entry is actually building a healthy life for the first time. That type of building is rarely easy, or quick.

Angela Davis writes that prisons (and I would add jails) are where we warehouse our social problems. I was one of the housed, marked as a problem on many levels. Addiction, PTSD, and anxiety were just a few of my struggles on paper beyond just my record. One of my parents was also incarcerated for a substantial amount of their youth. The effects of long-term incarceration on a young person shaped my parent, which in turn vicariously shaped me. I have come to believe that long-term incarceration of young people is cruel and inhumane treatment (but that’s another blog entry).

Add race, class struggles, and chronic adversity to my story, an unorthodox education that never had me in a traditional high school classroom, and the fact that I had no template for what a healthy life of education and love of community could look like, and you start to get a fuller picture. I say these things to highlight that just as wealth and privilege are passed on, oftentimes so are struggles. Team that with the way opportunities are given or withheld, as well as how folks are treated by institutions and policed, it’s no wonder I ended up where I did.

I started using drugs heavily at the age of 12, and by 18 was a heroin addict. None of my teenage years could be categorized as “normal” or productive. Between 18-24, I was in and out of jails in a few counties. When out of jail for the last time at 24, in lieu of a prison sentence, I took a yearlong program called Drug Court. It was there I received the social, emotional, and psychological help I needed. I learned about the hierarchy of needs that says you need to fill your belly and be safe before you can begin to think about self-actualizing/self-determination. All of these things took time and effort on my part and by those around me who were invested in my future. I offer some of the particulars of my story to highlight that re-entry is messy, often painful, and frankly at times very hard. I was trying to build a future that I had no template for. I didn’t have role models when I got out that shared my story and future ambitions. I wouldn’t find those of similar class, racial, and political understandings for some time.

It took me a long time, a ton of books, papers, and classes to find opportunities for advocacy and community building for which I was uniquely qualified for. School at a local junior college took me seven years as a part-time student due to my lack of funds and the need to work full-time. I don’t regret any of my timeline though; my education from the streets is of equal value to me (if not more) than the UC one I am currently getting, and it can’t be bought.  My deepest pain and long-term struggles have become my greatest sources of strength, catalysts for change from the ground up. I was already doing community work for a while before I started to consider myself an activist and an advocate.

There are few spaces I have been in that recognize all of me, long, complicated story and all. NGF was one of those places. Those closest to the problem(s) are closest to the solution, and the inspiration, possibility, and collective power that comes from bringing folks like me together is necessary for effective change. Shared backgrounds and understanding of chronic adversity and the labels that come with it, teamed with a common hope for the future, are just a few of the gifts I received last summer when I was part of the NGF. A breakdown of how advocacy and legislation works at the Capitol, and an introduction to cultural healing and life experience working in tandem are a few more.

I will never forget after we introduced ourselves and went over our backgrounds unabashedly that one of my fellows (Gabe Rosales) said he felt as if he were in the company of the X-Men—I agreed wholeheartedly! We were each selected for the knowledge our pasts had given us; no apologizing or denying our backgrounds, no minimizing our pain and struggle to make others feel more comfortable. This was about mining our experiences to assist policy change and owning our stories as sources of strength and resilience. It was a beautiful opportunity for which I am eternally grateful for. It assured me that if the motivation is love for the community, discipline, and social justice, our path leads us to where we need to be to grow, heal, and assist others in changes for our future. For me it happened to take a long time to get to that kind of table. Hopefully for others, that type of opportunity and experience can be offered sooner rather than later.

With laws changing to get people out sooner, public conversations shifting towards ending mass incarceration, and campaigns like the “Schools Not Prisons” movement, it is imperative that fellowships such as NGF exist. These fellowships are created to allow those with experiential knowledge to assist in policy change and social justice work, not as bystanders or tokens, but as integral contributors to the work. We need to go beyond slogans and create genuine opportunities and hold space for formerly-incarcerated and system-impacted folks. See what kind of ideas we come up with, and how we can tell our stories better than research alone ever could.

This is the kind of camaraderie that moves mountains and builds bridges; the kind that kicks in doors for others and lifts as it climbs. NGF was built with an understanding that we are each other’s teachers, comrades, and mirrors. Fellowships such as this, and organizations such as CJCJ and MILPA in particular, give me hope and confidence that together we can build futures in our favor. As more folks like me get out and start the re-entry process, those out here already need to be visible, and extending a hand/space/fellowship to those that need it. Collectively, we build strength for the long march towards freedom and liberation. As Malcolm X once said, “It’s Freedom for Everybody, or Freedom for Nobody.” Hasta La Victoria!