By Katie Morell
Julia Arroyo is proof that community support, education and self-determination can transform a life. While today she works as Director of Detention Programs at the Young Women’s Freedom Center,
a leadership and advocacy organization for women and girls located at 832 Folsom Street,
life didn’t always include a steady paycheck and a group of supportive colleagues.
Arroyo grew up around substance abuse, spent time in the foster care system and lived much of her childhood moving between cities. By the time she turned 15, she was involved with San Francisco’s underground street economy, and sexual exploitation and violence were part of her everyday life.
“I was sleeping in the hallways of hotels, on couches and in the streets,” she remembers. “I’d do whatever I could to survive. I was a young person in a vulnerable and scary situation.”
When an older man asked her to return store items that he had stolen, she was caught by police and thrown into a juvenile detention center.
“That solution—to put me in a cell—was even more harmful at that point in my life, especially as a person who’d experienced violence,” she says.
Inside, she was introduced to several nonprofits working to better the lives of system-involved women and girls (those with experience in the foster care system, prison system and underground street economy).
Among them was the Young Women’s Freedom Center (formerly the Center for Young Women’s Development), an organization that offered classes, community and advocacy around the rights of women and girls—as well as teachings related to the broader history of criminalized communities.
“I remember going to a talk about the crack generation, and about how many children born in the mid ’80s, early ’90s were raised by other family members because crack had come into our communities,” Arroyo says. “The speaker discussed the systematic, countrywide impact of the war on drugs and how it showed up in the communities of hardworking people. It was the first time I was able to humanize my family and realize my story was part of a larger, political narrative.”
Once out of detention, Arroyo started attending regular classes at the Center. For the first time in her life, she was building a community of peers who had gone through similar experiences. She was being taught her rights, and instructed on the language around what had happened to her and why. When she gave birth to her daughter in 2011, she attended parenting classes. Soon, the Center hired her to help out with their advocacy.
“So much of what we do revolves around empowering women and girls to make decisions for themselves—something we aren’t taught to do,” she explains. “Many of us don’t know our rights, and decisions are made for us. Here, women and girls learn how to stand in their own power, sometimes for the first time in their lives.”
Founded in 1993, to date the Center has helped thousands of cis and trans women and gender non-conforming individuals build community and advocate on behalf of themselves.
“This is an invisible population, girls on the margin, and we meet them where they are,” says Jessica Nowlan, the Center’s executive director. “We think community solutions are best, and we work hard to create personal healing and give them a sense of agency in their lives. When these things are given to them, the behavior that leads to incarceration goes down.”
The Center’s work is far-reaching and involves political activism (many members sit on boards of direct-service organizations) and outreach on the streets and in detention centers. Among its signature offerings is the Sister’s Rising Internship, a twice-yearly, paid program that teaches students to be community organizers, and costs the Center $5,000 per participant.
“We want more women in the program,” stresses Nowlan. “People who want to change a life can do so with a $5,000 donation; it literally redirects a person’s trajectory.”
For Arroyo, the Center has been a game-changer and she feels proud to be part of a movement of women empowering one another.
“Before working with the Center, I didn’t know what was possible in my life,” she says. “I’ve come to realize that the knowledge I’ve gained from my experience is useful and helpful—that so much is possible. I’m here for the next person who comes through the door, to let them know that they are powerful and together we will make a difference for this community.”