It’s not your fault. Whether they realize it or not, these kids are products of their environment. Maybe they’re falling in line with what they think they should be doing, or maybe they’re acting out as a response to their situation, but either way these kids simply made a mistake. And it’s not their fault. This is not to say that they’re not responsible for their actions, but the circumstances that allowed them to wind up in their situations are not these kids’ faults.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Elsie Flores.
Elsie Flores has been a court advocate with Avenues for Justice since 2010, working with NYC’s at-risk youth to avoid reconviction through their nationally recognized alternative-to-incarceration programming. As a pregnant teenager facing serious time for drug charges, AFJ took Elsie under their wing to help her beat her case and return to society as a law-abiding citizen and a successful young mother. Now, Elsie is on the other side of the fight against youth advocacy, guiding disadvantaged youth toward their path to second chances as they avoid prison.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
As someone who’s been through the [AFJ] program, I’ve seen first-hand the impact of having a support system. Through AFJ, second chances are given, which can be a huge game-changer for the kids,” said Elsie Flores.
I was one of those kids,” she added, “I joined the program in 1998 at 16 after getting arrested on drug charges, and found out I was pregnant soon after the arrest. It’s easy to get caught up in the streets when you don’t have a support system; I was motherless, I never knew my father, my grandparents were gone. AFJ took me in when no one else could and offered me a second opportunity at life. After completing the program, I went to school, got my degree in criminal justice, and went right back to AFJ to help other kids like me who lack access to support.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began working with Avenues for Justice?
The criminal justice system is always interesting because there’s something new everyday,” Elsie said. “Laws are constantly changing, and when working with the youth, laws are applied differently. Unfortunately, we know that the criminal justice system is not always fair, and working with the population that we do — kids from the projects, kids that have dropped out of school, kids that got caught up in the street hustle, kids without families — it can make our job a bit harder sometimes, but navigating the complexities of the law to ensure these kids get the best outcome is interesting in itself.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
There aren’t really instances where the criminal justice system is funny, especially not for these kids. They’re facing the risk of going to prison and it’s our job to advocate for them on their behalf to help them avoid jail time, and while I don’t like to think of any instances as mistakes, there have certainly been lessons learned doing this job.
One of the hardest, touchiest lessons I’ve learned was my first remand, which is when a defendant is kept in detention without bail. It doesn’t matter if you’re a high profile person, a millionaire, or just someone who committed a petty crime — if you get a remand, you’re not getting out. As their appointed court-advocate, it can make you feel helpless if this happens and I actually cried the first time I had a case that got remanded. While we try our hardest to help these kids get second chances and stay out of prison, we can’t control them, and depending on the participant’s actions, our ability to help them might change. If a participant is court-ordered to have a 7PM curfew, and they’re not abiding by it, there are consequences to that which can negatively affect the outcome of their case. I don’t like the consequences, but my first remand acted as a necessary hard truth that these consequences are a very real reality.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
AFJ’s work is impactful is so many different ways; we provide a safe haven for NYC’s youth where they have the opportunity to get a second chance in life and become a law-abiding citizen. Outside of the court advocacy, we provide resources for these kids — for mental health betterment, job readiness and training, life skill-building classes, workshops with our corporate partners like Goldman Sachs and First Republic Bank. We have community centers, not only for the kids to have a safe space, but also for members of the community to get involved in the work. We offer regular event programming, including Friday night family dinners so court advocates and participants can come together and discuss their progress within the program. AFJ’s goal is to offer these kids as much support as they navigate a sentencing that could change the trajectory of their lives.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
Each year, we honor a successful program participant at our Second Chance Gala and for the last three years, our Second Chance Awardees have all been my clients. This past year, one of my most intense cases, Keanu Lopez, had his sentence reduced to ‘youthful offender,’ resulting in his record being immediately sealed. He had come in at 16 and like me, was facing prison for drug charges. His case was especially difficult because he was also addicted to Percocets, so he didn’t realize the severity of his case until after we placed him in a residential program to get treatment for his addiction. After becoming sober, Lopez fully committed to AFJ’s programming, meeting his curfews, receiving his GED with flying colors, and had his probation sentence reduced. Now Lopez is a business major at Guttman College, and is a shining example of the impact of AFJ’s work as he moves forward with his second chance at life.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
When discussing the criminal justice system, politics can be a bit of a tricky subject but I do recognize that politicians are needed to spearhead changes. We’ve seen in the past, like with the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, the disparities between charges and how they can disproportionately affect marginalized groups. But in the same vein, we’ve also seen adjustments to the laws that increase fairness with these charges, and that’s a step in the right direction. Another first big step was to raise the age; kids shouldn’t be charged as adults and increasing the age from 16 to 18 was crucial. Continuing to pass laws and making adjustments to not charge kids as harshly as adults would really increase these kids’ chances at leading successful lives. The community can always get more involved too, by referring people that they think could use our help to AFJ, or other organizations that fight for the cause. There are many time where we could have helped, but there’s a larger societal issue at hand when people aren’t aware of their options. I think providing education to communities on the resources they have available to them is essential allowing the community, and its kids, to thrive.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
A true leader is a team player, motivating and helping others to achieve their goals by believing in them and respecting them. A leader is an equal, just with more experience and I think my team and myself are a great example of that. Unfortunately, this population can be very difficult to work with at times, and it can take a village to help them. As court advocates who come from the same neighborhoods as these kids, and many of us who have walked the same path, we act as reminders of what they could be. I worked with Anastacia, who like me, was pregnant when AFJ took her in, and our shared experience as young mothers facing time helped in motivating her to complete her program. There are times where Participants feel more comfortable with specific advocates, and that’s when my team steps up; we provide and cater to the youth as much as we can, guiding them toward success.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. It’s not your fault. Whether they realize it or not, these kids are products of their environment. Maybe they’re falling in line with what they think they should be doing, or maybe they’re acting out as a response to their situation, but either way these kids simply made a mistake. And it’s not their fault. This is not to say that they’re not responsible for their actions, but the circumstances that allowed them to wind up in their situations are not these kids’ faults.
2. Participants go through a lot of trauma. I’ve learned that a lot of our Participants have gone through some sort of abuse, whether it’s sexually, mentally, physically, emotionally. Tying back into #1, a lot of Participants think their abuse was their fault, which we know is never the case but aside from the guilt that trauma survivors feel, there are learned behaviors as a result of this trauma. These kids have lived through a lot more than the average youth, so there needs to be grace and patience when working with them through this healing.
3. Believe in yourself. I was in the same shoes as these kids — lacking outside support and really only having myself to rely on. I know first hand how hard it is to believe in yourself when you’re the only one doing it, and we see it everyday with our Participants. They are mandated to do X, Y, and Z for years — whether it’s a minimum of three hours every day after school, a daily 7PM curfew, a 30-day rehabilitation program — and it can be easy for them to lose patience with themselves. But at AFJ, we’re here to encourage them by believing in them and their ability to do the work, and with enough faith, they believe in themselves too.
4. Love yourself. Again, when you grow up without an adequate foundation and support system, it’s very easy to be hard on yourself. I didn’t grow up being loved; I didn’t have family around me to make me feel that, and eventually you begin to feel as though you’re unworthy of love altogether. Aside from showing these kids what it feels to be loved and supported here at AFJ, we’re big advocates for self-love. Loving yourself is key in discerning whether or not you’re making the best decisions for yourself.
5. Mistakes don’t determine who you are. A lot of times, Participants feel a sense of hopelessness when navigating their case, and it’s understandable. They’re facing the risk of going to jail, of having a crime on their permanent record which can affect their accessibility to housing, to jobs — everything. There are very real and very serious consequences to their mistakes, but that’s what it was: a mistake. A lapse in judgment does not define you so long as you take the appropriate measures to learn and grow from it, and that’s exactly what we’re guiding our Participants towards at AFJ.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I would love to be able to expand Avenues for Justice’s mission to be worldwide, as I know the larger society would greatly benefit from missions like ours. While reducing crime rates within the youth of NYC is amazing, I’d love to see that on a national and global level. In working with the youth, we’re helping to shape the next generations and by providing second chances to these kids, we’re allowing more members of society who may not have always had a voice to finally be heard.
Can you please give us your favorite Life Lesson Quote? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my favorite quotes is “Forget the mistake and learn the lesson.” It goes back to the reminder that past mistakes shouldn’t hold you back from moving forward. All of the mistakes I made brought me to where I am now, and I’d do it all again if it means I get to continue my work with AFJ. Not only have I learned the lessons from my mistakes, but I’m now in the position to be the living proof and testament of AFJ’s work for our Participants that still believe their past has to define them.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
The first person that comes to mind is Michelle Obama; I remember keeping up with her during the Obama administration for all of her work with kids. She always advocated for betterment for the youth, between pushing for adequate meals in schools to words of encouragement, to promoting exercise and better health. As the first Black First Lady, I think she (and of course, her husband) act as prime examples of what is possible for Black and Brown communities; they broke the barrier of race and politics, which is a battle our Participants are constantly fighting.
I also think rapper Meek Mill would be a great person to sit down and chat with. He’s a chairperson of the REFORM Alliance, a non-profit centered around advocating for sentencing, probation, and parole reform. As a rapper, he’s heavily involved with the culture that most of these kids relate to, but he’s one of the few rappers that I’ve seen that is actively trying to help the youth. He’d had his own run-in with the law, which inspired social media movements about the harshness of the legal system on a widespread level. I think his impact on bringing awareness to criminal justice reform is an incredible asset in making the changes we want to see in the legal system.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can keep up with all the work Avenues for Justice is doing on our website and social medias (LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter). We’re also always advocating for our Participants at the courthouses, and would love for those interested in the criminal justice system to see us at work!