On a February night in 1996, Marlene Sanchez found herself handcuffed and locked up in a San Francisco police holding cell. For the 15-year-old Sanchez, this was routine. Under the terms of her probation plan, she was prohibited from being on certain blocks in her neighborhood, the Mission District — a rule she was constantly violating, including this night.
Sanchez was no stranger to run-ins with the law. She was in sixth grade the first time she was arrested for fighting at school. At age 11, Sanchez was labeled a gang member. Though the label was a bit premature, she did join a gang at age 13, the same age she went to jail for the first time. At that time in her life, her father was in a federal prison for what she now considers an excessive penalty for drug possession.
That February night, Sanchez says, an officer entered her cell and accused her of vandalizing the walls with her makeup. She protested. How could she have tagged in cuffs? The officer then grabbed her, wet her shirt on the sink, and dropped her to the floor, insisting she wash off the tags. Still, she refused. “I was like, I’m not cleaning nothing. That wasn’t me,” Sanchez recalls. “He basically beat me up. I was in handcuffs still.”
Sanchez was released that night. She walked to her home in the Mission. Though she had been harassed and beaten up, she was ready to forget about the incident. Sanchez expected to be picked on by the cops. “It’s very common to grow up in a poor neighborhood and see police brutality,” she says. “We had this thing in the neighborhood, as long as you get let out, you don’t make a fuss about it. Everyone gets beat up by the cops.”
But the next day at work, her colleagues were not so nonchalant. Sanchez’s story sparked outrage among her co-workers at the Center for Young Women’s Development, where she had just begun doing health outreach work.
The center, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering young women, was only three years old, but it was already set apart by a radically different philosophy: that young women have the answers to their own problems. They weren’t about to let Sanchez’s run-in with the cops go away quietly.
The center’s staff moved quickly. They spent that night making signs and preparing a police brutality protest for the next day, Valentine’s Day, at the Mission District Police Station. It was the center’s — and Sanchez’s — first protest.
“It was definitely one of those pivotal moments in my life where I was like, ‘I’m not going to accept this,’” Sanchez says. “Because it was normalized to be beaten up by the police. It was very normal.”
She’s come a long way since her early political education. Sanchez, now 33, took over as the executive director of the Center for Young Women’s Development in 2005. She’s remained committed to improving the conditions for young women who have found themselves in situations much like her own.
The center, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, has also come a long way, with an increased focus on working with girls and young women in the criminal justice system. Taking economic, health, and other social disparities into account, the center’s programs offer a holistic approach to getting young women off the streets and out of the system for good.
Sanchez says they can’t wait for the women to come to them. “Young women who are most in need of services aren’t walking through the doors of nonprofits in San Francisco,” Sanchez says. “We have to be where they’re at.”
And increasingly, they’ve been inside correctional facilities. When the center opened in the 1990s, its work focused on the streets. But arrest rates among girls and young women have risen sharply over the past three decades. Arrest rates for violent crimes among girls are 57 percent higher today than they were when the rates first started trending up in the 1980s, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
So the center started to include young women behind bars in their outreach efforts. Center staff can be found in juvenile hall every week and in county jail every other week conducting workshops and educating inmates about their legal rights.
One of the center’s most sought-after programs is a paid nine-month internship, called Sisters Rising. Sanchez says it’s become so popular that the center receives, on average, 80 to 100 applications for the 17 positions. The intensive curriculum includes job-readiness training, community organizing, political education, and personal healing. The internship pays a living wage, which Sanchez says is essential, since most of the offenses the center sees are not violent but economic in nature, such as drug sales, prostitution and theft.
Nadiyah Shereff says the pay is what originally attracted her to Sisters Rising at age 15. But when she arrived at the center, she saw it had much more to offer. “Seeing that the people that ran the organization were just like me and had experienced similar struggles that I had gone through made it even more worthwhile and it made me open up a lot faster,” she says.
Shereff, now 27, has been working at the center on and off ever since. She is currently the advocacy coordinator and is applying to law school. Shereff credits the center and Sanchez as her mentor for her success. “I don’t know where I would be. I would probably be in a jail cell if I hadn’t come across the Center for Young Women’s Development,” Shereff says. “During that time, I really didn’t see
any hope for myself.”
Indeed, Shereff had the odds stacked against her: She was born in the women’s prison where her mother was incarcerated and was raised by her grandmother in the San Francisco projects. Witnessing violence was a daily occurrence, and Shereff herself was arrested and charged with assault at age 13. She would be locked up 10 more times in the span of two years before applying to the center.
The center has done a great deal of work with young mothers and pregnant women during and after incarceration — a significant portion of the inmate population, as nearly one-third of all young women in San Francisco’s juvenile justice system are either pregnant or parenting.
Despite the numbers, young mothers in the system remain an often-overlooked group. “The system was created for men, and so they’re not taking into account the needs of women and the special needs of pregnant women,” Sanchez says.
Sanchez, a mother of two, says all too often the policies toward incarcerated mothers don’t make a lot of sense. The center developed the Young Mothers United program to provide legal rights education and counseling inside facilities, and outside, to advocate for policy changes to ensure the rights of young mothers. In San Francisco, for instance, the group collaborated with Juvenile Hall to successfully implement the Young Mother’s Bill of Rights, which covers everything from legal rights to prenatal care and visitation rights with their children.
The center also has advocated for policy changes on the state level — including the modification of an anti-shackling law recently passed in Sacramento that prohibits women from being restrained while giving birth and that, in general, calls for use of the least restrictive measures when transporting pregnant women.
In 2008, the center worked on modifying the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act to expand the reunification time limit for incarcerated mothers, in an effort to reduce the number of children being permanently placed in the foster care system.
Still, there are plenty of changes to make. In addition to the policy work,
Sanchez says empowering the young women to advocate for themselves is key.
“I always tell young women, you’ve got to be your own lawyer, you’ve got to think of things that your lawyer is not thinking of,” Sanchez says. “If you’re not fighting for yourself and your case as if you were fighting for your life, you will
lose your child. It’s that serious.”
Throughout all the center’s programs, Sanchez believes that to really make a change, the effort has to be multilayered: There’s the political action, and then there’s the personal healing. “We believe that in order to address issues in our communities, we also must address our own health,” she says.
And, she adds, it has to be more than short-term fixes like deep-breathing exercises; mental health services are an integral part of the center’s programs. “If we know that 90 percent of people going in [the system] have some kind of history of abuse and trauma, then we have to address the pain that’s causing them to be angry. It’s not enough to just manage the pain.”
And, people need to be patient. Sanchez personally knows that healing can be a long process. When Sanchez was a teenager, her legal troubles did not end when her political activism began. Not long after the Valentine’s Day protest, she was again arrested for fighting, charged with assault and battery, and locked up for two years consecutively.
At age 19, she started working at the center again, which she credits for ultimately turning her life around. Without it, she says, “I swear I’d still be in prison. It sounds drastic, but I was in and out of the juvenile justice system my whole youth. As a young adult, without the support of the center and the political education, I couldn’t break that cycle.”
Sanchez tends to downplay the relevance of her personal background and, instead, would rather focus on the young women who are currently experiencing the system. Still, none of this is a secret around the center. “The girls know all my business,” she says.
For Monica Flores, hearing Sanchez’s story instilled a greater trust than other programs could offer. “I think it makes all the difference,” says Flores, “When people see that, they know it’s genuine and “the system was created for men… not the needs of women.” it’s real so therefore it’s the only way a program can be successful.”
Sanchez’s story was also personally inspiring to Flores, who participated in the Young Mothers United program at age 15 and was later hired to work at the center. “As a young mother, there’s a lot of barriers that are in place. People already doubt you and have judgments about what your life is going to be,” she says. “If you’re not around people that can motivate and inspire you, it’s really easy to play into those.”
Flores, now 19, is currently attending San Francisco City College and is working at the Transitional Age Youth Initiative of San Francisco, a citywide task force created by former mayor Gavin Newsom.
Sanchez’s story has not been forgotten among another group from her past: her former probation officers. Sara Schumann, now the director of probation services at the San Francisco Juvenile Probation Department, is not surprised by Sanchez’s success — which is not to say that her case was without its challenges. “She always had a very strong personality, and she’s always been very gregarious,” Schumann recalls.
“I’m proud of her, I’m very proud of her,” Schumann says, adding that Sanchez is in a unique position to impact the lives of young people. “She has a lot to offer these kids. It’s one of those things where she can actually say she’s been there and done it. And she has succeeded, so she’s a great role model and example,” Schumann says. “I do believe that she can make a difference.”
Following in Sanchez’s spirit of openness, Nadiyah Shereff took her personal story to an even larger audience: the U.S. House of Representatives, where she testified in front of a judiciary subcommittee in 2009.
“It wasn’t the first time I shared my story, but it was the first time I shared my story in a way that was empowering and it wasn’t just a sob story,” Shereff says. “That’s when I began to understand the impact that not only my story but all of our stories can have, and how we can use our stories to advocate for change.”
This story originally appeared in the spring issue of the California Health Report, our quarterly magazine. Sign up for the mailing list here.