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From Sitting in Detention to Standing in Culture

Brayan Pelayo, a fellow in the 2017 Next Generation Fellowship, now serves as the Program Coordinator for the Youth Law Academy (YLA) as he pursues a career as an attorney. Prior to joining Centro Legal de la Raza, Brayan was an intern with Motivating Individual Leadership for Public Advancement (MILPA) and previously worked at the W. Haywood Burns Institute as an Administrative Program Associate. As a formerly incarcerated youth, he received his GED from juvenile hall, earned two A.A. degrees from College of San Mateo, and graduated from U.C. Berkeley in 2014 with a degree in Peace and Conflict Studies. 


It is six in the morning and I hear “bang!” Five S.W.A.T. police officers pummel our front door with a batting ram. They proceed to yell “police!” while running throughout our home, and begin yelling at my grandparents, mother, and me once they find us relishing in the warmth of our beds. We are swiftly huddled into our living room, where the officers proceed to arrest my abuelito (grandfather) in a ferocious manner, placing two knees into his spine while placing handcuffs on him.

One officer asks me to translate for my abuelito since not a single one of them speaks Spanish. Though fear was coursing through every vein and artery in my body, I translated as best as any bilingual 9-year-old could translate in a difficult situation like this.

The police were looking for my uncle, Uri, and just missed him leaving the house. They released my grandfather from their custody and wiretapped our home phone. The realization that strangers can barge into our house, point guns at us, and monitor our communications struck fear in my heart. This moment birthed my interest in the law, social inequalities, and mass incarceration.

My resolve to reform the criminal justice system arrives from witnessing the incarceration (and deportations) of countless friends and family members and my personal experiences with the carceral system. The police eventually caught my uncle Uri, imprisoned him, and deported him. This same process happened a second time with another uncle of mine, Miguel.

In my mind, these were two isolated events but through time, I began to realize the systematic hyper-policing of my home, neighborhood, and school where poor children and adults of color are systematically pushed out of education, barred from meaningful employment, and shut out from community-based programs. Little by little, as my awareness increased about these social issues my anger developed from a small ember into a blazing fire.

As my anger about these issues increased, my interest in school decreased. I began to withdraw from public education, where I did not see Latinos working as teachers or administrators. Although I  scored high on every test, I was not given an opportunity to join honors or AP classes. Not having any teacher or adult to advocate for me led me to view public education as a system that was and is hostile to families like mine. This idea justified my rationale for not attending school regularly. Eventually this path led to my recurring incarceration between the ages of 14 to 18.

Even though members in my community and I were forced into positions where we had no other choice but to break the law, we were set up by hundreds of years of legal precedent that disfavor poor people and people of color. I still take accountability for my actions that led to my incarceration yet I also acknowledge the socio-historical legacies that set up contemporary conditions in communities like mine across the country.

While in juvenile hall, with this newfound awareness, I earned my GED by sneaking a dictionary into my cell - which was prohibited by the juvenile hall staff since a dictionary was a hardcover book and thus considered a weapon - the irony. After earning my GED I enrolled in a psychology course at the College of San Mateo, which I attended after my release. Once there, I earned my admission to the University of California, Berkeley and transferred. Although I received a top-notch education that blossomed my intellectual intelligence, my personal emotional intelligence lagged. I could relate to many students, professors, and peers. I was involved in countless student groups on campus and lived with dozens of other students. Yet, I still yearned for something missing, an inexplicable feeling.

While I was surrounded by many forms of community and countless friends at UC Berkeley, I still yearned to find internal freedom and happiness - I still sought the emotional development to deal with the trauma left from my experiences with the criminal justice system.

This relentless pursuit of internal freedom led me to the Next Generation Fellowship (NGF). To me, this fellowship provided the perfect blend of 1) the necessary knowledge and skills to become an effective justice reform advocate and 2) healing-informed youth programs and practices for personal development using La Cultura Cura, which, according to the National Compadres Network, is “a transformative health and healing philosophy that recognizes that within an individual’s, family’s and community’s authentic cultural values, traditions and indigenous practices exist the pathway to healthy development, restoration and lifelong well-being.”  

In other words, this fellowship filled a lacuna in my knowledge and toolset. It exposed me to decolonizing methods, policy strategies, community involvement, and culturally-informed practices to become more involved at the state, county, and city levels of government, and involve people in my community while helping them develop their personal and professional goals along the way. I want to help bring about positive changes for justice reform to help transform this current system into one that perpetuates structural opportunities of racial equity and social justice.  

I also developed as a professional by learning practices for my sense of internal freedom. Even though I got my GED in juvenile hall, went to community college, and transferred to UC Berkeley, my educational achievements may be framed an exception to the norm, but my aspirations are to better our collective communities and facilitate a system that allows more formerly incarcerated people to attain similar or better goals.

To this end, I am currently volunteering for the National Alianza for Latino Youth Justice, a group of individuals and organizations who are coalescing to form a national organization dedicated to uplifting the plight of Latinx youth caught in the justice system through technical assistance, La Cultura Cura, and innovative youth-led programs. In the future, I plan to participate in the justice reform movement as an attorney who is rooted in culture.

I am currently the Youth Law Academy (YLA) Program Coordinator at Centro Legal de la Raza, a bilingual legal services organization that provides amazing legal representation and advocacy for people in immigration law, workers’ rights, and tenants’ rights. The YLA is a youth education and empowerment program created by Centro Legal de la Raza for young people interested in social justice, civil rights, and careers in the law so the attorneys serving the community come from the communities they serve. In addition to my role with the YLA, I help the organization by taking part in the hiring process. In this, I am a thought partner for discussions of trauma-informed employment and how to view experience that formerly incarcerated individuals have as an asset not a liability.

Growing up in a Mexican-immigrant, low-income family in a community where violence was normal, I have learned to remain hungry for justice. My experiences have pushed me to work harder and smarter towards achieving my goal of demonstrating that a post-collegiate education is possible not only for my family and community, but also for formerly incarcerated and all marginalized people and communities. As a first-generation college student, my goal is to strive for the pinnacle of becoming the first lawyer in my family and community. My perseverance and vision are strong-hearted to help me reach my goals of pushing for justice reform and building the next generations of leaders in my community.


The Next Generation Fellowship supports the leadership development of formerly-incarcerated or justice-involved individuals interested in cultural healing, racial justice, and policy advocacy. 

Keywords: justice reform, Next Generation Fellowship, NGF

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