Home News Center Valerie Salazar Wants to Help Youth Write Their Own Story

Valerie Salazar Wants to Help Youth Write Their Own Story

January 28, 2020
Courtney M. McSwain

How did you get into youth justice reform?

I have a daughter who was completing her senior year of high school, and I was trying to talk to her about college. She wanted to take a year off, and I wanted to encourage her not to do so. During that conversation, I realized we didn't have anyone in my family who had gone to college to show her the way, so I decided to set that example. At 39, I registered to go back to school at our local community college, and it made sense to major in sociology.

During one of my courses, I watched a TED talk where the presenter discussed how in America, we say things like “the children are our future,” but we don’t do anything to make sure that's the case. The talk discussed our use of lock-up facilities versus rehabilitation and health facilities that can actually help young people. I got pretty fired up, mainly because I went through the system in my youth. The video brought it all back up. I felt angry and wanted to get involved, so I started volunteering as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) and then joined my local Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention Commission (JJDPC). After that, I learned about the YJLI program, and it has been nonstop ever since.

How have you been able to navigate the youth justice reform space as a community volunteer?

I’ve just been following the breadcrumbs and pushing my way in. I’m lucky that I like to connect with people anyways – that’s what I’m good at. Going and finding email addresses and reaching out to people to get information is what I’m used to doing. That’s how I started a conversation with Sarah Bryer (former NJJN executive director). I emailed her and asked how I can get involved, and she got on the phone with me for an hour to try and connect me with people in the Los Angeles area. I then signed up for the NJJN newsletter, and that's where I saw the information about YJLI.

Can you describe your advocacy project?

My advocacy project involves empowering incarcerated youth through storytelling. I'm developing a six-week workshop where I will work with youth who are incarcerated and create space for youth to tell their story through art and writing. I hope that, by making myself vulnerable, the young people I work with feel empowered to take ownership of their own stories and realize they can still write the rest of it.

I’ve talked to an organization called Arts for Incarcerated Youth in Los Angeles to get training on working with youth in facilities. The hope is that eventually, the project can turn into a website where stories help persuade decision-makers at the policy level and humanize youth who are going through the justice system – especially for youth of color. Too often decision makers at the top have good intentions, but use a one size fits all, ethnocentric method because they are not familiar with the complex needs of our kids in the margins, which makes it especially important for their stories to be heard.

My ultimate goal would be that these stories provide evidence that incarcerating young people creates more trauma and re-victimization. I hope that a mentorship program organically grows as a side-result of this program for youth who come back to update their stories and potentially get an opportunity to mentor youth still going through the system.

What motivates you?

I'm motivated every day when I read about a young person who has been arrested and then reading the comments from ignorant people; that motivates me to want to change the system of locking up kids. Just thinking and reflecting back on sitting in a jail cell and what that meant to me – I want it to stop. I have a 14-year old son, and he's the age I was when I first went into lock-up. And I can't take it. Watching films like “When They See Us,” just kills me. It all has to change.

What is your dream youth justice vision?

We need processes where youth get the resources they need much earlier – before they have to go through the experiences they’re going through that lead to them being in the system. My dream vision is that everybody gets the help that they need through healing centers and that there are no more lock-up facilities for anybody.

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