Young Women's Freedom Center empowers systems-impacted youth through advocacy

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Friday, September 29, 2023
Young Women's Freedom Center empowers through youth advocacy
The Young Women's Freedom Center of Oakland paves the way for systems-impacted youth.

OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) -- Every day, Julia Arroyo watches young girls and trans youth walk through the doors of Young Women's Freedom Center as images of her younger self.

Arroyo was involved with the underground street economy and grew up in poverty. She needed to navigate different housing due to foster care at a young age and had a single mother who was struggling.

"When I found myself pregnant, houseless, reentering from being incarcerated, the center was there for me at a pivotal moment in my life," she said. "They helped me to build community and to get the tools to become a strong mother."

Arroyo went on to major in women's studies and work in the fields of rape crisis and human trafficking and with houseless families and mothers struggling with substance abuse.

Decades after, she is now the nonprofit's co-executive director.

The Young Women's Freedom Center empowers young women and trans youth who come from poverty and the juvenile legal, foster care or criminal justice systems with support, mentoring, training and employment opportunities.

The nonprofit also collectively advocates for system change with community-based and transformative justice alternatives.

"When you center the most marginalized folks that disproportionately are impacted by harmful institutions, violence, you actually invest in the freedom and liberation of all people," Arroyo said.

According to its website, "annually, young people who complete our programs are up to 85% less likely to recidivate or be incarcerated again; Up to 90% of those who complete the program maintain employment and reach educational goals."

The Center began in 1993, setting their roots in San Francisco. Thirty years later, the organization has expanded to four Bay Area locations and one in Los Angeles.

"(The 30-year anniversary) is to acknowledge the 35,000 people that have women that have been trans people of all genders that have come through this organization, and built it and made it what it is, and also to celebrate the legacy of all the folks that are doing things inside of the community, because this has been shown and been proven to be a leadership incubator," Arroyo said.

The center serves Bay Area youth like Tae Thomas, who is formerly systems-impacted, and now uses her voice to advocate for change.

She is a community organizer and main speaker for the Center, MCing town halls on youth incarceration and rallies about violence prevention.

Thomas intimately understands those she speaks for.

"I walked the same streets that you did, I ran out the same stores that you did," Thomas said. "People from the outside looking in, they're going to look at you as a criminal. I'm going to look at you as somebody who's trying to get their life together and trying to survive."

She added, "And that's why I feel like the bond be so deep between like participants and people who work at the center because we understand them."

Thomas hopes her work alters flawed profiling of her and those that look like her.

"When people see me, I'm just a Black girl, but they wouldn't know I graduated with 4.0 GPA. I work here at the center," she said. "And I'm able to hold space, and I'm able to step into any room and take it over and pretty much explain to them why I am important, why I am the youth, why I am the future."

Another one of the center's community organizers, Ari Duarte, came to the program fresh out of high school as a young mom. Instead of being shunned, she was embraced.

Duarte would bring her son with her. Without hesitation, the staff offered to take care of him, allowing her to focus on outreach efforts.

"It's really empowering and very powerful to be a young mom to do this type of leadership work with other young women and transgender youth and young folks," she said. "It's such a bigger picture, because if a young mom at 16 can do this type of work, any young mom is capable of doing it.

The center's current priority is their campaign Freedom 2030.

"It's our North Star," Arroyo said. "It's really to decarcerate girls and trans youth of all genders throughout the whole state of California. We want to drive alternatives. And we want to address the root causes of what impacts young people struggling, and we want to be able to free our people."

For Arroyo, receiving that call from a participant years later getting housing, applying for college, getting their baby back, is the most rewarding.

"It's beyond just the organization, or whatever it is, they just want to celebrate their milestone with me, the power of that is just such a gift," she said.

Walking out those doors, Arroyo hopes participants leave with economic freedom and the ability to navigate any obstacles life puts in the way.

For more information, visit the Young Women's Freedom Center website.

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