Carmen Perez is an activist dedicated to transforming the lives of youth of color. The Chicana, a former probation officer, is today the executive director of The Gathering for Justice and the founder of Justice League NYC, promoting peace, interconnectedness and alternatives to incarceration and violence. Perez spoke with Latina about her life and work. Here is why she launched an organization aimed at transforming the landscape of the criminal justice system, as told to Raquel Reichard.
Growing up in Oxnard, Calif., a farm town right outside of Los Angeles, mass incarceration and police brutality were a part of my everyday life.
“Your uncle’s on vacation” or “your cousin just got locked up,” my parents would tell me. It wasn’t just my family being thrown behind bars, either. As a teen, I’d observe my black and brown friends and neighbors regularly being stopped and patted down, some thrown to the ground by the officers’ excessive force.
At the time, it seemed customary – the way of life for all of us. It wasn’t until I went to the University of California, Santa Cruz that I realized what was going on back home was racial profiling, that the mass incarceration of people who looked like me – brown Chicanos – wasn’t normal at all, but rather examples of an inherently racist (in)justice system.
At school, I was studying psychology. My hope was to help young people in my community, an ambition sparked by the death of my sister, Patricia. She was two years and one day older than me, and she was killed in a single-vehicle accident that, to me, felt covered up, leaving more questions than answers. We grew up around gang life. My sister, the beautiful girly girl, who wore pink, gave me makeup tips and kept all my secrets, wasn’t as strong-willed as I was. She was always influenced by people who made me feel unsafe.
Unlike Patricia, I had a community that supported me, that loved me and believed in me in a way that uplifted me. Basketball, my coaches and my team, provided a positive outlet for me to channel the frustration built from the violence I saw both in my neighborhood and in my home.
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