Karina embraces her path as an advocate for criminal legal system reform

Oct 20, 2022   |  By Alexander Mitchell

When distractions don’t cloud your eyes, the world is bright, and your road is clear as day. This is the newfound perspective of Karina from Los Angeles, California. Although the landscape and climate of the region make for a perfect day every day, that was not always Karina’s reality. Karina grew up having to take care of herself from the age of nine, when she was kicked out of her house and made to fend for herself. An experience like that can become a catalyst for a hard life.

“Growing up, I had nothing to look forward to other than the streets and gangs,” Karina says. “I didn’t think there was anything better than that.”

These troubles eventually led Karina to incarceration at the Lynwood Jail in Los Angeles, an experience that would change her life.

“I hated every minute inside,” Karina recalls. “I did not want to be there, but more importantly, I never wanted to go back.”

While inside, Karina partook in a program called Job Career Readiness. Upon her release, she was able to join the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO) as a participant. Karina began working a transitional job for the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans). She was part of the highway maintenance team for four months before starting a permanent job as a warehouse worker for another company. Unfortunately, Karina was laid off from this position because of her record, an injustice she is continuing to fight in the courts today. This event propelled her to reach back out to CEO.

Throughout these challenges, Karina never lost faith that she would land back on her feet, and she knew that CEO always had her back.

“They [CEO] always kept it real with me,” she says. “They told me what I needed to hear and do.”

After joining CEO’s Participant Advocacy Council and through the guidance of her mentor Kenneth Edwards, Karina applied for and was accepted into CEO’s Advocacy Fellowship. This fellowship, a unique pathway for emerging leaders chosen to serve on CEO’s organizing team, focuses on engaging in policy campaigns and facilitating future policy advocacy committee cohorts. Karina continues to work in the program now.

“It is giving me an opportunity to speak up and fight for what I believe in,” Karina says. “I’m learning so much.”

Karina is not just learning how to be an advocate, but she is also becoming familiar with the ins and outs of running a successful nonprofit organization. She has been fiddling with the idea of starting her own nonprofit and dreams of creating transitional houses for mothers returning home from incarceration.

“It’s really hard for women coming home to find a decent place to stay,” she says. “The shelters are horrible, especially if you have kids. I’ve been through it myself.”

The passion in Karina’s voice tells a story of growth. Far removed from the young girl who couldn’t see past the streets, she now has a clear vision of what she wants to accomplish and how to make it happen.