This story was produced in partnership with MindSite News, an independent, nonprofit journalism site focused on mental health.
On a cloudless San Francisco afternoon, I scrambled to keep up with Lucero Herrera as we climbed seven flights of stairs in a South of Market office building. Earlier that morning, Herrera explained, the elevator had lurched to a sudden halt, leaving her heart pounding. It stalled for only a few seconds, but it took Herrera – who spent much of her adolescence inside a locked cell – much longer to recover from the terror of being trapped.
This time, she said, she wasn’t taking any chances.
Our destination was the main office of the Young Women’s Freedom Center, a
statewide organization that has helped lead the decades-long movement to close
California’s youth prisons and local juvenile halls while supporting thousands of young women in their journey to healing. We arrived at the light-filled office slightly winded, and Herrera, in bright green sneakers and a “Movement Warrior” hoodie, raised her arms toward the ceiling and took a deep breath before settling into a history of the Center’s work and her own transformation.
Like her colleagues, Herrera is thrilled that the campaign to shut down youth prisons is finally bearing fruit. Once a sprawling web of institutions that held more than 10,000 young people, the California Department of Juvenile Justice is now down to just a few hundred youth. Soon it will be obsolete.
A California bill signed into law in 2020 requires the department to shut its doors entirely by 2023. In San Francisco – where the Young Women’s Freedom Center was founded nearly 30 years ago – the Board of Supervisors has also voted to shut down the euphemistically named Youth Guidance Center (YGC).
After helping write the legislation that will close YGC, the young women at the Center – many of whom were themselves incarcerated – are now coming forward to make sure their voices are included in the complex process of designing alternatives.
But as they work to change the system, this new generation of activists is also struggling to heal from their own traumas. In the process, they are pioneering an organizing model based on the premise that personal healing and political transformation go hand in hand.
Herrera is emblematic of this sea change. With her wavy brown hair, youthful face and striking blue-green eyes, the 32-year-old mother of two could pass for one of the teenagers she works with. But as she spoke, her years of experience became clear.
Born in El Salvador during that country’s civil war, Herrera emigrated at age 3 with her mother and older brother and settled in San Francisco’s Mission District in the 1990s.
By the time she hit adolescence, the city had decided to raze the projects where she lived and her family was forced to relocate. When her older brother was arrested and deported to El Salvador in 2008, things began to unravel. Despite working multiple jobs, her mother could not support the family on her own.
Through their eyes
“I didn’t have what I needed to survive,” Herrera wrote in Through Their Eyes, a
Freedom Center publication based on interviews with young people. “In the process of acting out, I hurt myself and I hurt my community.”
At 14, Herrera was placed on a gang registry under civil injunctions that swept up entire neighborhoods during the 2000s. At 15, she landed in YGC, then so overcrowded that kids slept on the floor or on cots in the dining hall. Everyone she saw there was Black or brown. Inside, she wrote, “Most of us experienced abuse or neglect, from being overmedicated to being attacked by guards.”
Herrera asked for aftercare when she was released but received nothing. Within a
week, she was locked up again.
This time around, something new happened. A group from the Center showed up on Herrera’s unit and invited her to what they called a freedom circle. Herrera had never met these young women, but they treated her like family. Soon she was leading freedom circles herself.
This time when she was released, Herrera went straight to the Center’s office and threw herself into organizing work. Today, she’s a program manager, responsible for raising up the generation behind her. On a recent afternoon, she sat beside 21-year-old Tenaya Jones, who was recently promoted from an organizing intern to a self-determination coordinator, tasked with helping up to 40 young people define and reach their goals. As Jones made cold calls to invite people to join an upcoming rally, Herrera offered encouragement and gentle suggestions. Jones’ tone took on more confidence with every call.
One of six siblings raised by a loving single mother on a low income, Jones entered the system at 14, when she was arrested for stealing a sandwich from Safeway. A security guard tackled her in the parking lot, she said, breaking her arm, and she was taken to the hospital in handcuffs. Her good arm was chained to a chair while she waited to be seen.
The court sent Jones to an out-of-state group home, where she quickly reached the conclusion that she was “a bad kid. Don’t nobody give a fck about me. My family can’t even be here to support me,” she said. “It’s like these systems were set up to make me fail.” Jones was back in juvenile detention when Herrera and another Center staffer showed up to lead a freedom circle on her unit. “They were just hella real,” Jones recalled, her face lighting up at the memory. “Right from the start, it was like ‘Hey sis.’ They were talking to us like they knew us already! I’d never met any type of place that would come to you like they already had love for you.” From that day on, Jones had a singular goal: “I gotta get the fck out so I can go to the Center.”
Hot meals and encouragement
Born in 1993 as the Street Survival Project, the Center has expanded its mission while remaining true to its roots. It keeps a food pantry for those who are hungry, and the refrigerator is stocked with plates of rice and chicken. Outreach teams make the rounds on Market Street, providing hygiene packs and words of encouragement to young cis and trans women and trans men struggling to keep afloat in San Francisco’s street economy.
For Ifasina Clear, the Center’s deputy director of culture and healing, supporting others’ wellbeing is a full-time job. Now 39, she qualifies as a Freedom Center elder, but the inspiration for her work goes back to her teen years in North Carolina. She had just graduated from high school when her mother discovered Clear was gay and put her out on the street. For the next two years, she was homeless, spending nights on friends’ couches, Salvation Army shelters and city buses.
Eventually, Clear enrolled in college. After graduation, she spent several years
registering voters and fighting for marriage equality. “By the time I was 27, I was
exhausted,” she said.
Then, at a support group she was facilitating, a fellow organizer asked her a pointed question: “You’re too young to be this tired. What are you doing to sustain yourself?”
“In that moment, I shifted my focus away from activism and towards being a healer for the movement,” Clear said. “I knew I wasn’t the only young person who was exhausting myself trying to fight the power.” She trained as a Reiki practitioner, became a certified life coach, and moved to California, where she found the Center – “the first place, in my honest opinion, to take me seriously as a healer.”
Helping young women to ‘get their mind right’
Even in the midst of crisis, young people understand their own need for healing,
observed program manager Morgan Booker, an Oakland native with a master’s degree in applied theater. Booker described a young woman who recently tumbled in from the street with a daunting list of needs. When Booker started listing various resources the Center could help provide, the young woman cut her off.
“Y’all can give me a house, y’all can give me money, but if I don’t have my mind right, I’m gonna lose it all,” she said. “I’m literally gonna go crazy.”
Helping traumatized youth get their minds right, Booker said, requires “having 360
awareness at all times.”
Another young woman recently lost one cousin to suicide and a second to drugs. Booker helped her channel her rage, grief and “amazingly powerful voice” into rap. “She’ll be freaking out and I’ll be like, ‘Put that in a rap, right now, go!’ I’ll put on a beat and she’ll start throwing bars while I’m typing. She’s just gotta get it out.”
A few days after my first visit to the Center, dozens of young activists gathered in the cafeteria of the June Jordan School for Equity in San Francisco. Balloons and brightly- colored placards – “Abolish Cages” and “No More Stolen Sistas” – adorned the walls.
The goal of the event was to bring young activists together with “OGs” in the movement to abolish youth prisons. The mood was upbeat, even joyous, but no one was declaring victory yet. The young organizers were also there to acknowledge the trauma they had experienced and to chart a new path towards personal and collective healing.
As the number of incarcerated youth plummets and the last of the state’s juvenile
lockups near closure, organizers are looking inward, weighing what years of non-stop struggle have cost them. Freedom, they’ve come to understand, requires breaking down internal shackles along with physical walls.
Ifasina Clear was struck by this challenge when she joined the Center’s staff. Her first assignment was to go into YGC to work with young women there. “Then we got a contract with the jail in Alameda County, and I ended up doing it by myself,” she
recalled. “I didn’t know what the f*ck I was doing. I’m trying to talk about dreaming and hope and spiritual creativity, and these sisters are in here fighting for their lives.” She saw that young people struggling to make it through the night often didn’t have the bandwidth to think beyond their immediate situation. “All their capacity is sucked up either through navigating the system, navigating violence, navigating poverty, or navigating some other limitation,” she said. “So how do you move them through something that actually allows them to stand up straight again?”
Countering shame and stigma
One reason incarceration is so toxic, especially to the young, is that it instills shame and breaks down community.
The first time a young person comes into the Center, Clear said, “They’re going to get greeted in a different way: ‘What’s up, fam? How you doing? You need something to eat?’ It’s kind of like when you come to somebody’s house for the first time. That’s what you do; you welcome them into your home.”
The warmth at the Center is evident, but convincing deeply wounded young people that they deserve love and healing takes more than a friendly greeting and a hot meal. This is where the Center’s longer-term work – “not drug recovery but life recovery,” as Clear puts it – kicks in.
Young women who have experienced a lifetime of trauma need things like jobs and
housing and medical care, Center staffers understand, but if they are going to have a shot at holding onto those things, they also need access to ways of healing as varied as the traumas they’ve suffered. Some feel more grounded and connected after reading about the history of their people. Others find relaxation and expression through dance, yoga, or massage.
Spirituality, broadly defined, proves central for many. Professional psychotherapy can help too – if it is freely chosen, not mandated by the court.
The Center builds an individualized scaffolding of support around each of the newest members, many of whom come straight from the street or juvenile hall. The most crucial part is the supportive relationships the Center’s “siblings” create with one another – an emotional bedrock that makes their political work possible.
Avoiding ‘pain porn’ in the journey from trauma to healing
When the young organizers are ready, some join other Center siblings in giving
personal testimony about their experiences. Over the years, these stories have
awakened legislators and the public to the trauma that takes place inside locked
institutions. But the Center steers away from the “pain porn” that too often passes for youth voice in the political arena.
“Being paraded around and made to speak because your particular pain is needed for this particular panel is exploitative,” said Clear. What the Center teaches participants to do “is not just telling your trauma story. It’s telling your story in context.”
Back at the school cafeteria, a group of young women huddled at a scratched linoleum table to contemplate justice in a post-prison world. One participant suggested that YGC be replaced by “a little town, kind of like a college, but it would provide resources people need like mental health, medical assistance.”
Another woman of indigenous descent noted that dismantling old institutions can make room for new growth, much as her ancestors once used controlled fires to restore fertility to the soil. “When I think of burning, I think of regeneration,” she said. “When I think of abolition, I think of abundance.”
Like her colleagues at the Center, Lucero Hererra pours her heart into freeing the
generation behind her, but she has also spent years on a more personal endeavor:
liberating herself from toxic self-blame. By studying the work of the Brazilian writer and educator Paulo Freire, along with the history of El Salvador and the United States, she has come to understand the political forces that uprooted her and her family and ultimately drove her into the juvenile justice system. With that has come a deeply healing revelation: “Who I am is not the problem. Don’t try to change who I am. Change the circumstances that impact my life.”
Oppressive public systems, Herrera wrote in Through Their Eyes, “have stripped our families and communities of their rights to love us, raise us, and pour into us with care. Because of this, our healing has been disrupted. This healing is one of the main things we fight for. When we heal ourselves, we also heal our parents, we heal our children. We heal seven generations of ancestors and seven generations of future children to come.” For Jones, the sense of belonging and connectedness she found at the Freedom Center is at the heart of that healing.
“The Center opened my eyes to how the world really works,” she said, resting her hand over her heart. “We have to be in a situation of power in order to make a change, but until then, we have to start with ourselves.”
Nell Bernstein is the author of “Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison.” She is working on a new book about the movement to close youth prisons.