Town hall covers Rising Scholars program success

By Juan Calvillo

Equitably dealing with formerly incarcerated students gives them the chance to not just continue with their lives but to thrive in education and beyond. East Los Angeles College’s Rising Scholars program helps formerly incarcerated students and family members of justice impacted people get their start in college education. 

The Rising Scholars Racial Equity and Social Justice town hall last Wednesday focused on having formerly incarcerated students talk about their life and perspective when it comes to needing equitable schooling.

Estefany Mendez, Isaac Gonzalez and Edward De La Torre are all part of the Rising Scholars program at East Los Angeles College. When it came to equity, all three focused on formerly incarcerated students being given the chance to succeed. Gonzalez said not every person has the same starting point in life. He said one of the main things that most people talk about is choices that can be made in life.

“My response is, ‘what influences our choices,’” Gonzalez said.

He said race, gender, health care, education and socioeconomic status all affect the choices people can make in life. He said not all the crimes he committed were for his barrio, or home. When he sold drugs, he did it to feed his kids. He said he would resort to petty crime because he couldn’t get a job because he is a felon.

De La Torre said society has a misconception that people that go to prison need to be punished. He said once people leave prison ,society still punishes them. He said this is wrong because people make mistakes.

“They [formerly incarcerated people] can’t be defined by their mistakes for their whole lives,” De La Torre said.

He said most people who get out of prison simply want a chance to do the right thing. Giving these people the opportunity to do the right thing helps formerly incarcerated people go on with their lives. This means getting schooling and getting jobs.

De La Torre said the harsh laws in the books take people’s lives away because society wants to punish them for life. He said laws will put youth away for decades instead of trying to educate and giving youth a chance. De La Torre said it’s important to see that they can change and succeed.

Mendez said the prison system doesn’t reform people. Instead it causes more harm than good. She said her daughter lost a mother and father due to the prison system. The impact of having parents in the prison system caused Mendez’s daughter to have no real relationship with her father. 

Mendez said it is a constant battle to break the cycle of the justice system. She said her daughter was placed into foster care, much like she was growing up. She said the driving force for her to get an education was her daughter.

Mendez said she was a part of the foster system. She became a single mother and went into incarceration at the age of 15. She said becoming a student at ELAC was never something she thought she could do.

Gonzalez said his roots are in East Los Angeles. He is a current student at ELAC. In his youth, he followed in his brothers footsteps and joined a gang. He said when his brothers went to prison on different sentences, his heart was broken. It was this and his own prison time that caused him to carry a lot of pain. He soon realized that gang violence doesn’t only hurt the individual. The violence hurts mothers and fathers. It hurts families.

In prison he started to self-educate himself. After getting out, he connected with Homeboy Industries. He made the decision not to weigh his wife and child with the same pain he saw in his mother when death affected his family.

“Homeboy Industries provides hope, training and support to formerly gang-involved and previously incarcerated people, allowing them to redirect their lives and become contributing members of our community,” Homeboy Industries website says.

De La Torre is recently released from prison and has started with the Rising Scholars program at ELAC. He said his progress was slow when it came to education. Reading book after book while in prison helped open his mind to different concepts. He said one of the most influential books was “Les Misérables.” He said the character Jean Valjean gave him an understanding about his own situation.

“The main thing I took from that book is that I’m not a bad person, I just made a lot of bad decisions. If I want to be more than what I am, I have to start making the correct decisions,” De La Torre said.

Javier Rodriguez, regional coordinator for the Rising Scholars Network at the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office, said he too made the right decision in his youth. It was the California Conservation Corps that gave him the chance to get his high school diploma and have the drive to attend the University of California Los Angeles.

He said his work for the Chancellor’s Office is about letting formerly incarcerated students know that the community college system is set to help them no matter the background. He said the Rising Scholars program embraces the idea that a simple GED, General Education Diploma, is not the end point for justice-impacted students. He said the CCCCO is set to give these students a chance at college.

“Our system understands justice involved students have historically been cast aside. The message I want to clearly [lay out] is that our formerly incarcerated students belong and our currently incarcerated students are not forgotten,” Rodriguez said.

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