Something inside me broke when I heard the judge read my charges. I was 17-years old and facing life in prison. But it was at that moment, I knew I had to change; I just didn’t know how. What I learned very quickly however is the juvenile justice system is not conducive to positive transformation.

At times, we were treated like dogs, disregarded by guards and left to fend for ourselves. And given the gang affiliations in lock-up it seemed like it was survival of the fittest. For someone like me with no affiliations, it was dangerous. At one point, I was put in solitary confinement for what was called my own safety. The isolation was so traumatizing I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, let alone a minor. For months on end I was in a small cell for 23 hours a day—let out for an hour for exercise, a shower and, if I was lucky, a phone call.

Many juvenile justice officials claim the system is set up with the health and well-being of youth first, with a goal of rehabilitation. That’s a joke. Oftentimes, the juvenile justice system further traumatized the children under its care, assuring recidivism. In fact, had it not been for my own determination, I would not have survived the mental and emotional anguish during my nearly four years of incarceration, with the first two years being the hardest.

With the support and advocacy of a skilled attorney and a committed therapist, I was provided opportunities that others did not have. I was permitted out of lockup to attend seminars and workshops at various universities which motivated me to participate in educational opportunities at the detention facility. I discovered policy work through a sociology class taught by two Chapman University professors who would come to the facility for three hours a week for more than a year.

In 2018, I was invited to go to Chapman to attend a conference. This is where I met political activist Angela Davis. I had no idea who she was initially but had the opportunity to sit down and talk to her. I remember her telling me that my experiences are valuable and my voice is important. After meeting her and going back to juvenile hall, I was ready to make an impact. While serving the rest of my sentence, I wrote to Ms. Davis and she wrote back. I will always be grateful for the time she spent with me and recognizing my value when I was struggling to see it myself.

Another instrumental person I met during one of my outings was Scott Budnick, founder of Anti Recidivism Coalition (ARC), an organization that empowers formerly and currently incarcerated people to thrive by providing a support network, reentry services and opportunities to advocate for change. When I was released, he was one of the first people who I called. ARC has provided me the opportunity to use my experience and my voice to make an impact. They have nurtured my growth and given me nothing but grace and compassion.

Today I am a youth leader in the Los Angeles Youth Uprising coalition, a policy and community organizing Intern for ARC and co-founder of Underground GRIT in Orange, California which helps at-risk youth in my home county. My journey has been unbelievable from start to finish, but without it I wouldn’t be here today. I have faced adversity in my entire life. I have been told I am not worthy. I have sat in a cell and believed I would possibly die in it one day. This work gives me my meaning, it gives me my purpose and it is what drives me to help my peers who are still incarcerated. I found myself where many become lost. All it took was for someone to believe in me. Believe in us.