Home News Center YJLI Fellow Alycia Castillo Helps Young People Find Their Place in the Arc of Justice.

YJLI Fellow Alycia Castillo Helps Young People Find Their Place in the Arc of Justice.

November 29, 2021
Courtney M. McSwain

Photo of Alycia Castillo with article title and quote

What got you into youth justice reform?  

One night many years ago at 3:00 AM, I got a call from an 800 number, and something in me knew instantly that it was a loved one of mine calling from jail. I just knew it. It was one of my family members who was 17 at the time. I was in school and had just learned about some of the challenges that 17-year-olds experience in the criminal legal system in Texas. For all intents and purposes, 17-year-olds are minors except in the criminal legal system, where they are automatically sent to the adult court system. That personal moment coincided with all these new things that I was learning.

After that moment, it felt like everything started to click. Things from growing up in the community that I grew up in, plus learning what I was learning and unlearning about the criminal legal system, all culminated in this focus on young people and ensuring that we stop the cycles of harm that have been perpetuated forever.

What are some of the issues you have worked on as an advocate?

As an intern at my current organization, I worked in a legislative session on general adult criminal legal system reforms. I worked on a bill to adjust jury instructions to be more accurate to create more just outcomes. I worked on drug policy reform efforts and helped with our women-specific policy. During that session, I also got a glimpse into the youth justice policy arena. Before that, I had been teaching as a special education teacher, so following my internship, I went back to teaching briefly but felt the pull back to policy work and came back to my organization to take over our youth policy agenda. I've been running that for the past two and a half years, trying to affect more parts of our criminal legal policy and continue to help build up leaders, particularly those who are closest to the issues including, more recently, those still in school.

How do you feel about where we are in the youth justice movement, especially after the past two years?

I've been reading a lot of Mariame Kaba, and something she talks about is how our timeline is merely incidental in the arc of justice. While the past couple of years have been so traumatizing and so jarring and shocking in many ways, I think it's also nothing new. I've heard the movement described before like a flowing river. It's been there before us, and it will be there after us. Essentially, we have the opportunity to either sit on the bank and watch it flow by or to jump in and be part of it.

I feel an incredible privilege and honor to be able to jump in this arc of justice that's flowing with or without us. It reminds me of how important and special it is to get to do the work at this moment. 

Can you tell us about your advocacy project? 

When I first got into the nonprofit advocacy world, I noticed it was mainly reflective of existing power structures. Over the past few years, my organization has been more intentional about hiring and empowering formerly incarcerated folks or people who have a direct system impact. We've launched two coalitions - one called the Statewide Leadership Council, which is all formerly incarcerated folks working on specific policy issues together. The other is a women-specific justice-involved coalition.

For my advocacy project, I want to do the same thing for youth. Maybe especially having been a teacher for so long, I have this conviction that youth can speak for themselves. They know what they need and are experts in their own experience.

I want to formalize that through a paid student leadership fellowship with youth who are systems-impacted themselves. Hopefully, this would be a fellowship where they can gain meaningful tools and opportunities to engage in the work to advocate in their communities.

What motivates you in this work?

I think once the curtain has been pulled back and you've seen all the moving pieces of social inequity, it's hard not to see them everywhere. We're all constantly seeing things on the news, and in our communities that are a result of institutional and systemic oppression, and I'm just reminded of what a privilege it is to be able to spend most of my waking hours actually working towards justice.

I'm motivated each time there's a little bit of change or someone realizes that they can be a part of the change. Those little moments offer glimpses of what's possible, and that keeps me going.

What is your dream vision for youth justice?

My vision for justice is a world where everyone gets what they need. Starting with youth is important so that they can end the cycle and the patterns of harm in their communities. To create that in the world, we have to be liberated enough to choose not to harm one another but instead choose love, repair, and healing in our own relationships, and simultaneously tear down the institutions and systems that perpetuate harm. That will create the public safety that we're all hoping for, for youth and everyone else.

<- Go Back