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Big Love: A New Kind of Tough Love

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A portrait of Krea Gomez outside in front of fall leaves and green grass. She's smiling, wears clear rimmed glasses, tan houndstooth sweater and her long hair falls past her chest.
Krea Gomez (Jean Melesaine)

Over 4 weeks, the Rightnowish podcast is exploring love’s many forms. Learn more about the series here.

Krea Gomez-Jones says we can’t fully understand what our young folks are experiencing nowadays: maturing in the middle of a pandemic, friends dying from Fentanyl, not to mention things like trying to get their first apartment while housing costs soar.

For Krea, that acknowledgment gives rise to a compassion that extends beyond her six children, into the community and her line of work.

She’s been vocal about the need to support young people as they enter the workforce. She’s a staunch advocate for closing San Francisco’s juvenile hall.  And while she’s been on sabbatical as the Director of Local Initiatives with the Young Women’s Freedom Center, she was just announced as a  2022 Leading Edge Fellow, which means she’ll be funded by the Rosenberg Foundation and the Hellman Foundation to do more of this work.

Krea says supporting young people takes patience.  And the “tough” part of tough love is a two way street. But if delivered with care and compassion, her form of tough love can heal intergenerational wounds.

Below are some lightly edited excerpts of my conversation about tough love with Krea Gomez.

Krea: There’s a level of pressure on young people to fix the world, to change the world, to grow up, to be on your own. And it’s hard because they have their own expectations. They see Instagram. They see Tik Tok. They see all these other young people their age who are influencers, they’re at parties, they’re in Malibu. They’re having the time of their lives, right? And our young people are like, “Why am I stuck in this shit at 19? Why don’t I have my own apartment? Why can’t I find a job? Why is it so fucking hard? Why are my friends dying from fentanyl?”

Krea: …As you know, I have four young adults ages 26, 24, 22 and 20. And I’m not ready to push my kids out simply because I want them to be independent, so that they can just end up homeless. And I’m not willing to push my kids into a job that makes them unhappy simply so they get the experience of working hard. And I know that sounds crazy, right? Because we’re having a conversation about tough love. But it’s not that time. I think that that’s the thing: it’s not that time!

Pen: You mentioned homelessness… and the 2019 homeless count, Oakland had around 4 thousand unhoused folks, almost a 50% jump from two years prior..A majority of those folks counted, were long-time Oakland residents

Krea: When you push your kids out too quickly into the world without giving them the tools that they need, they end up in really shitty places. And I’m not willing to do that.

Krea: And other countries don’t do that! We should also say that this is one of the only countries that expects young people at 18 to leave the house and go to their own apartment – or to a university – and cut ties with family. It’s part of the American Dream to be independent, while every other country – and many of our cultures – are absolutely interdependent upon each other. And young people play a pivotal role in that interdependence. We’ve been indoctrinated into that, especially poor people. So it’s tough. It’s a lot to balance.

Pen: What’s your definition of tough love?

Krea: I think tough love is being honest [and patient] with the people that you’re supporting while also encouraging them to go after what they want and do what they need to do for themselves.

Pen: It’s a tightrope where you’re holding to like that balance beam that you’re holding, when you walk the tightrope, but there’s so much stacked on each end of that spectrum of the beam that you’re holding

Krea: I think the most important thing about that tightrope is to not let go at either end… What are things that we can teach them and ways that we can teach them discipline, tenacity, and rigor without putting them in really dangerous situations. And I think that’s the balance, unfortunately.

Krea: I’m gonna encourage [my kids] to be as independent as they can, as young as they can. There’s daily conversations and weekly conversations around, like, helping my son learn how to establish himself with his health care provider. ‘So did you call to get the prescription? What did you tell them? OK, I hear you went online. OK, I heard you didn’t find a prescription button. Go back. Call them.’

Krea: To a lot of people, they might be like, ‘That’s not my problem!’ But it IS our problem. It’s our problem until they gain the skills to do that.

Krea: It’s the love piece – not the tough piece – that you put the emphasis on.

Krea: … Nobody lives in a home and just doesn’t do anything. You know what I mean? Like, we often get fed this picture of the kid in the basement on the couch, playing video games with a thing of potato chips next to him. Every young person I know currently at home doesn’t look anything like that. And we have to demystify that image: the color of that person, that 30 year old sitting gaming, is often a white kid… But we don’t come from those homes and so that should not be the fear from which we offer up tough love to our kids.

Pen: I can see that…i mean because you don’t fear kids are going to become lazy if they stay at home, you’re more concerned with their safety if they don’t have a home.

Krea: We have to think differently about the young people that we love and care about. And our expectations can’t be their expectations. And that tough love has to be in service of their desires, not ours, with honesty and patience of course.

Pen: [Practice and experiences learning how to be adults can be] hard to come by, especially in a world where we’re dealing with online classes and online applications…

Krea: Yeah. I mean, how often are we also teaching young people to rely on the community around them? Every young person should know at least one organization that they can go to if they need help: whether it’s help finding a job, or help with mental health. How often is the first thing we tell a young person who says ‘I don’t have a job and I don’t know where to get a job?’ to ‘Look for an organization that can help you find a job and call them!’

In addition to being a parent to her children, Krea is also a mentor for young adults impacted by the justice system, but before we get to that, a little background on how Krea grew up:

Krea: I lived in a working class home. There was abuse. I had to leave my house when I was 15 and I was homeless for a year and a half. I also went to juvenile hall.

Krea: But I knew – if nothing else – there was one thing that could be consistent: and that was school. So forged papers to enroll myself in school. When I got kicked out, I forged papers again to get myself re-enrolled in school. My organization, the Young Women’s Freedom Center, which saved my life at 16 years old. They are the ones that ultimately got me out of juvenile hall and helped me figure my shit out! And then I graduated from school and applied to colleges and then had my daughter.

Krea: And ya know being a young mom and having to go back to your family and being like, I need help…there was tough love there, too. Because I had a mom who said, I raised my kids, you got to raise yours.

Pen: Let’s actually stop there and talk more about how you’re giving back today. At the Young Women’s Freedom Center, the place you said that saved you, you’re now talking to this next generation of folks, to help them break the cycles and escape punitive systems… bring us into the work you do.

Krea: I work with young people that are part of the juvenile justice system. Or they’ve got what we call ‘one foot in, one foot out.’ They’re in the underground street economy. Maybe I haven’t caught up yet, but they’re struggling to make ends meet… The beautiful thing about our program is everyone there has an experience of being in the system. Everyone there has had an experience of being part of the underground street economy.

Krea: We have a self-determination program that helps young women and gender nonbinary youth to map out their goals and then incentivizes them for reaching those goals. So I’ll give you an example: 98% of the young people that come through our program are houseless, and we ask: ‘where do you want to be in a year or two?’ and they say, ‘I want to do Instacart or DoorDash… Something that allows me to be on the move so I can work when I want to. And then I can do whatever else I want when I want.’ And then you say, ‘Oh, that’s cool, what have you done to get your driver’s license?’ And they’ll be like, ‘Oh, I don’t even know how to get it.’

Krea: So our program will incentivize you. We’ll say, look, we got $250 for each young person that comes to our door that gets into our self determination program. If you map out these goals and you meet the first one, which is just studying for the test and taking it.. we’ll give you $25 once you take that test

Krea: And so while they need instant money, cuz that’s the whole reason why they’re getting into things like Instacart, they get that instant money simply by going and taking the test. And we’ll even have someone on staff take their car, take them to take the test. And so pushing them to go after their goals means helping them find the desire to get up and just do what’s necessary to take the first step.

Pen: Given the work you’ve done to close juvenile hall, help young people and the fact that you’ve been able to redefine the tough love you learned as a child, I’m wondering how has the relationship with your parents evolved?

Krea: There’s a point in your life when you realize that your parents are human beings. And once I got to that place, I was willing to foster a relationship with my parents. Even if they had not changed. And so, I had patience with them…

Krea: … Two years ago, when I got an award for Latino Heritage Month from the City of San Francisco and invited them to the ceremony at City Hall. And I think it was the first time that they realized other people don’t see me the way that they do. And our relationship really changed after that. There was something just about them being like, ‘Oh, wow, people hella respect her, the community sees her in a different way.’

Krea: I went from being the fuck up oldest daughter who was homeless and in trouble and had a baby at 19 and had six kids, to their oldest daughter, who they’re so proud of, who carries on the legacy of my grandfather doing this amazing work in the community… They couldn’t see it through their own lens they had to see it through somebody else’s.

Rightnowish is an arts and culture podcast produced at KQED. Listen to it wherever you get your podcasts or click the play button at the top of this page and subscribe to the show on NPR One, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, TuneIn, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.



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