I am the National Youth Partnership Strategist for the Youth First Initiative.

August 30, 2018

“I am the National Youth Partnership Strategist for the Youth First Initiative.”

We are committed to ending youth incarceration, closing youth prisons, and investing in community-based programs, services and opportunities.  My biggest focus is ensuring that young people have the resources and support to be effective leaders in their communities.   My primary role is to create youth leadership structures that effectively engage young people in the day-to-day operations of the campaigns we are working on.  Right now, for example, we are working closely with the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice on their 150 Years is Enough campaign.  Our goal is to close the 150 year old New Jersey Training School for Boys (Jamesburg) and the Female Secure Care and Intake Facility (Hayes), substandard facilities that house predominantly black and brown young people.

We’re running similar campaigns in Virginia, Connecticut, Wisconsin, Kansas, Maine and Ohio, and we’re finding a lot of support in the communities most affected by juvenile incarceration.   We’re also picking up some unlikely allies–people who at first were not in favor of closure, but after learning more about the school-to-prison pipeline, they’re rethinking their position on whether young people should be kept in places that are basically warehouses and cages.  This is really taxing work where you’re constantly putting your story out there and being held up as a leader when you’re so young and still struggling to figure yourself out.  But what motivates me is the idea that I want young people to know that it’s possible to live a different life.  I work to make sure that young people see their own potential and that adults create a space for that potential to present itself.

I spent four years incarcerated in a maximum juvenile facility in New York State followed by two years on parole.  I was fortunate in that two days saved me from going into the adult system.  I committed the crime at 15 years and 363 days and in New York, before the age was raised, 16 year olds could be treated as adults.  So I barely made it into the juvenile system which was not much better than the adult system.  What got me through those years were two things:  First, my daughter, who was born when I went into the system.  She was my motivation in the beginning to pull myself together.  Second was a man named Mr. James McCain, a teacher at the facility.  He was the first person to look beyond the fact that I was a gang member with a murder conviction.  He saw potential and he invited me to be a college student and not just another statistic.  Through Mr. McCain I connected with a group of other young people in the program where I was able to take college courses.  I was able to see that there was a bigger world out there and to see history through the lens of the African American and Latino experience.  That education was my saving grace.

Being part of JLUSA has changed my life in many ways.  As a young leader in this movement, I haven’t had a chance to invest in myself and I’ve never taken any intentional leadership training.  Now I’m able to connect with leaders from different walks of life and from different experiences with the justice system.  I’m incredibly grateful for the wealth of experience I’m getting as a Leading with Conviction fellow.

Hernán has served on the New York State Juvenile Justice Advisory Group  and the Citizens Policy and Complaint Review Council. He also served as National Youth Chair of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice as well as an advisor to the National Academies of Science and the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Hernán was awarded the Spirit of Youth Award” by the Coalition for Juvenile Justice and the Next Generation Champion for Change” award by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. He has a B.A. from John Jay College.

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