Jonny Perez used to steal cars—which you wouldn’t expect from looking at him. He’s like a young Mario Lopez, complete with thick dark hair parted on the side, baby face, white teeth and dimples. “Imagine me at 15,” he said, shaking his head.
That’s how old Perez was the first time police arrested him. He did a week in juvenile hall. Three years later, he spent his 18th birthday on the run before turning himself in. After another stint in juvenile hall, Perez returned home an adult.
Now, at age 20, Perez sounds like a different man. “Some of us caused damage here in this city,” Perez said, addressing a roomful of six other young people. “It’s definitely time to take control of our own city.”
Richmond’s youth are in trouble. One in four families with children under the age of 18 are living in poverty. The Richmond schools have been struggling with teen vandalism, sexual harassment and bullying.
In this difficult environment, many young people feel they have no choice but to join gangs, steal, sell drugs—get on the school-to-prison pipeline. Perez said he used to feel that way, but things started to change for him when he met Richard Boyd, a member of the Safe Return project—a group that works to help adults returning from incarceration.
Perez was applying for a job when he met Boyd. During the interview Boyd asked him, “Have you even been incarcerated?”
Perez reluctantly admitted that he had. That didn’t disqualify him, Boyd said. In fact, it was one of the requirements. A few weeks later, Perez started working for Safe Return.
Now, Perez is starting what he hopes will be a coalition of youth who can advocate for themselves, participate in their futures, and help to “make the city a better place.” They call themselves the Freedom Fighters.
Contra Costa’s Chief of Probation, Philip Kader, was somewhat skeptical of the Freedom Fighters, saying there is little evidence that these type of groups work. Research has shown that the once-popular Scared Straight program actually had a negative influence on participating juveniles, Kader said. But he left the door open. “We will entertain any option.”
At their first group meeting, on Thursday, November 21, six young people showed up including Perez. The youngest was 16 and the eldest 24. Discussion topics ranged from their histories of incarceration to the inequalities in the education system. At times they sounded like revolutionaries, at other times like kids.
Though Perez instigated the Freedom Fighters, he was quick to point out that he is not their leader. “This isn’t about me telling you what to do, or you telling me what to do. This is a team.”
William McGee, Assistant Principal for Richmond High, met with the Freedom Fighters the Monday following their first meeting. McGee said he thought the group could be really positive for some of his students—especially those who are on probation or parole. “It would be unique,” he said, “letting the children advocate for themselves in a peer to peer program.”
The Freedom Fighters still have a lot of work to do to get off the ground. Perez said they are planning to work with all the high schools in Richmond, which will require some politicking, but the main thing they need to accomplish is getting other kids to buy in. Perez said he has no set goals for the Freedom Fighters. “I want to let them decide what’s most important for them.”