Jeremiah Castillo outside the state Capitol as he prepares to tell his story. (Tim Haydock)
Jeremiah Castillo, 14, recently visited the state Capitol for the first time to lobby his elected representatives as part of a youth advocacy summit. Jeremiah wanted to talk about something that’s really important to him: preventing kids from getting profiled as gang members. He kept an audio diary chronicling his trip for The California Report Magazine’s special show on Youth and Politics.
My name is Jeremiah Castillo. I'm 14 and I live in Merced with my mom and sister, Victoria. She’s 4.
My sister was only a few months old when my dad was arrested for evading the police. He had been arrested before because the police thought he had a gun. When he got sent to Merced County Jail, kids at my school started making fun of me and picking on me because he got arrested. I began to have anxiety attacks and that's when school started really getting hard.
This weekend I will be taking a bus to Sacramento for a youth advocacy summit. It’s called Free Our Dreams. About 200 young people from all over California will come together to learn how to advocate for ourselves and talk to our elected officials. The one thing I want my elected officials to hear is how hard it is for kids like me who are unfairly treated and targeted in school because people think we’re gang members, even though I've always avoided gangs and stayed out of trouble. I don't even dress like a gang member.
I got picked up in Merced by a bus with people from Fresno on it. The bus ride wasn’t too long. I met a couple of new people and listened to my music. When we got to the hotel I checked into my room and met my roommate, Max.
After that we went to dinner and that’s when I realized how many people are here.
I’m home-schooled, so I’m not used to meeting new people, so I’m trying to get out of my comfort zone and meet new people. I had to, because the first meeting was full of games to get us to meet people we don’t know.
Today was a full schedule. I went to three workshops and learned how a bill becomes a law. We also broke into teams to prep for our visits. We kept practicing our stories with each other.
After dinner, we practiced for our march and rally.
We also had a party with spoken word performers and art-making. One of the performers was named King and his last poem was so good. It reminded me of how tough it was to grow up in my neighborhood and stay out of trouble. It really touched me that he went through something similar in Sacramento that I went through in Merced.
We met up at the Capitol Park before telling our stories to legislators. I felt lightweight, nervous, but I felt fully prepared. I memorized what I was going to say.
When we went to talk to our representative, Adam Gray, the staffer we had an appointment with was out of office and no one seemed to know we were coming.
Soon, another staff member came to meet with us and welcomed us back into Rep. Gray’s office.
We all introduced ourselves and then I told my story:
I’m 14 years old and I'm here to speak on behalf of my father, Richard Castillo, who is incarcerated in the Merced County jail. And I know that he's on the Cal Gangs database and I'm afraid that I’m on the list as well. Because last year in 7th grade I felt I was targeted by my vice principal, who was an ex-police officer, who was giving me detentions for raising my hand or dropping my pencil or asking a question or using the restroom. Basic stuff. And a detention turned into a referral and then into a home suspension. So I want to ask for Assembly member Gray to support AB 90 and SB 607.
AB 90 is a bill that would stop the Cal Gangs database, which keeps track of gang members and potential gang members for police. But I think [it] leads to [the] profiling of young people.
This second bill, SB 607, would end suspensions for willful defiance. I think teachers use willful defiance to describe certain behavior they don't like.
I told all of this to the staff member, and the other kids I'm with told their stories, too.
The staff member told us he was proud of us and that stories like ours change people’s hearts and that’s what changes policy.
I felt really proud of my group. But then he told us that the Assembly member has not looked into any of the bills I have talked about. And he told us that when it comes to public safety, they've already got some other priorities.
Before we left Sacramento, we tried another way to have our voices heard. We had a youth rally on the Capitol’s lawnfor a safer California, a California where all young people are safe even if they're undocumented, LGBTQ, or if their dad is in jail.
I feel a little energized and calm at the same time. I have energy built up. I’m going to go back to Merced and I’m just going to let it out.
I’m going to keep on pushing on. Have my voice be heard. Making a better change for the other youth out there that haven’t spoken out. I am their voice.
Jeremiah Castillo is a youth activist and a writer for We’Ced Youth Media, a project of New America Media's YouthWire. We’Ced equips young people with media skills in order to amplify their personal stories and the stories of their communities.