I was only sixteen years old when I was sentenced to ten years in a juvenile detention facility in San Antonio, Texas. It was my first offense. For me, the turning point came when I was in solitary confinement. I guess that was my make or break moment when I really had to dig deep. I realized that when I got out I wanted to advocate not just for myself, but for others like me. I didn’t know what that would look like specifically, but I knew I had a voice and I knew I wanted to use it.
I was released in 2009 after serving four years in prison, and my first step when I got out to begin my six years on parole was picking up trash in my neighborhood with five friends. Pretty soon there were 75 people helping me. A year later I created P.OP. (Position Of Power), a series of documentary videos designed to interrupt gang violence in San Antonio by showing the causes and effects of being in a gang and bringing black and brown youth together. We had our own YouTube channel. Next, I founded Cantu’s Books to Incarcerated Youth Project. I know from my own experience how damaging it is to have an idle mind while you’re incarcerated, so the purpose of this project was to make a variety of books available to youths housed in detention facilities. We are now in five states nationwide, and through partnerships with universities, we distribute thousands of books and run a mentorship and pen pal program that connects children to reentry services.
Today I am Program Manager at Harris County Youth Collective in Houston. The Collective focuses on improving conditions for and lifting the voices of dually-involved youth—kids between the ages of 10 and 17 who are in both the child protective and juvenile justice systems. Our vision is that all dually-involved youth can thrive in the areas of wellness, education, and transition to adulthood. I’m responsible for developing our youth board and for community outreach. Through grass tops and grass roots organizing, I’m creating a space for young adults not only to have their voices heard and have inclusion, but to receive opportunities for employment. When I think about what would have helped me when I was inside, three things come to mind: First, somebody who cared about my wellbeing; second, access to resources; and third, knowing there would be opportunities when I got out. Those are the kinds of solutions we want to create.
In the end, I don’t want to see any child incarcerated or in a juvenile detention center. I don’t understand the concept behind a fourteen year old getting a forty year sentence for a second degree felony. In a perfect world, we should be really rehabilitating youth instead of sending them to a jail. When I look back at what I’ve been through and where I’m at now in life, I feel like I’m not the exception– I’m the standard. I’m not a super smart guy or a guy that’s equipped with all the tools. I’m trying to figure out what got me to where I am now so I can share that narrative with others.
I thoroughly have enjoyed the Leading with Conviction experience and I’m getting a lot out of it. David is one hell of a presenter and he’s really engaging me and giving me new tools to work with. There is a bond and a friendship among us leaders that I don’t see a lot.
Dieter Cantu served on President Barack Obama’s 21st Century Police Task Force. He was awarded his own day on February 13th, 2018 in San Antonio and on October 23rd in Houston for impacting communities across the state through his grassroots leadership and charitable endeavors. He was recognized by Houston Business Journal as a 40 Under 40 Honoree and named an NAACP Millennial Game Changer.
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