My story is common for a child raised in a single-parent household in an under-resourced and disenfranchised community. My father abandoned my family when I was young and, in my neighborhood, young offenders were more often sent to prison than to rehabilitation programs. I grew up in south Hollywood and South Central Los Angeles. Lacking a steady home life, I took to the streets and found violence as the only way to face my daily problems. My gang lifestyle eventually led to incarceration. I was in and out of prison for four years, until I realized that staying out of the penal system for good meant making profound changes in my life.
It is deeply important for youth who are in the challenging situation I once faced – being out of school and out of work – to know that there are organizations and individuals in every community that care about providing support needed to lead a life of success and integrity. For me, this support came through two AmeriCorps programs: LA CAUSA YouthBuild and Public Allies.
LA CAUSA YouthBuild came into my life at age 17 when I was still in prison and about to become a father. The people at YouthBuild introduced me to self-accountability as I struggled to experience a positive transformation. They didn’t define me according to past crimes, but rather, embraced me with acceptance and trust.
My development was by no means a quick process. I needed a safe space in which to grow and make mistakes. I needed time to develop confidence and self-awareness. Without the support of a role model and mentor, I could not have taken the steps necessary to improve my life. My YouthBuild program director, Alejandro Covarrubias, spoke to us on our level—he knew how to gain our trust and respect. Alejandro became a friend and a mentor to all of the young people in my cohort. He was never the “director” or the decision-maker – he was just another human being connecting with us.
My time with Public Allies allowed me to see others who looked like me and were taking on the challenge of getting an education and developing leadership skills. They inspired me to do the same. AmeriCorps members helped me to understand that I had a voice that could be used to engage public leaders and pursue change. It was the positive influence of my peers that helped me turn my ideas into transformative social action including providing affordable housing for homeless and low-income people in my community.
Today, I am an activist. I have a passion for community organizing and providing youth with leadership development opportunities. I believe in solution-based social justice. One of my contributions has been founding Leadership through Empowerment, Action and Dialogue (LEAD) in Los Angeles, California, which has trained more than 200 underresourced youth in legal education, social justice, and community activism.
There are many people who tell youth, “You are the future.” While I believe in empowering youth, I don’t believe this is the right message. I believe that we are the now—not just the future. We need only one person to believe in us and show us the way. There are others like me who want to be a part of the community and contribute to it in positive ways.
I once heard that “Mistakes are a part of being human. Appreciate your mistakes for what they are – precious life lessons that can only be learned the hard way.” I live my life encouraging others to learn from their mistakes and to approach situations with the solution-oriented spirit that helped me get off the track of violence and crime, and into a life of public service.
My path is a testament to the notion that it’s possible to turn your life around if you’re given the chance. I live to make sure that others have the same opportunity.
Ely Flores is President of Leadership Through Empowerment Action And Dialogue Inc. in Commerce, CA.