Meet Jennifer Rodriguez & Chris Kimmenez – 2018 Leading with Conviction Fellows

Posted September 13, 2018 by JustLeadershipUSA

“I spent my childhood in foster care and I was in and out of the juvenile justice system from the time I was twelve years old, often because a more suitable placement couldn’t be found.”

The way children are pushed from foster care to juvenile and adult justice systems has not been given enough attention.  It’s very common to move youth between systems even though we know that spending even one night in the juvenile justice system exposes you to a multitude of harms.  When I exited my last placement, I was in the same position I had been in when I entered foster care.  I had no relationships with adults.  I was homeless. I had a juvenile record. I had no education.  I had moved so many times that I had never completed a single semester anywhere.  Most importantly, I didn’t have a vision for my future and I didn’t have the belief in myself that would be necessary to have or execute a dream.

My road from system involvement to lawyer and leader required supportive policies and programs and the investment of adults who cared. I went to Job Corps, received  my GED and was able to start at a community college. I had a teacher who became my mentor.  She was the first person who believed I had potential and could have an impact on the world around me.  She told me I could be anything I wanted to be.  I realized that what I really wanted to do  was to make sure that system-involved children had a different life than mine, and that those systems treated them like the special, unique and amazing potential leaders that they are.  I don’t have any siblings, but I consider all of the children who are living today in detention facilities, group homes and foster care to be my siblings. I wanted to be their advocate, so I went to law school and I received my law degree in 2004.

I have been working at the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center for 11 years, the last six as Executive Director.  We are a national organization and we’ve worked in 37 states and Washington, D.C.  Our advocacy is focused on system transformation, and the strategies we use are targeted to have the greatest  impact for children–litigation, policy reform, public education, technical assistance, and collaboration.  The problems and solutions we work on are identified by the children and families that are most affected and we integrate cutting edge research from other fields–brain science, child and adolescent development, and marketing and branding–into our work.  Our Quality Parenting Initiative is aimed at strengthening foster care. We’ve introduced it into close to 80 jurisdictions across the country.  We work to create opportunity for justice involved youth by prioritizing the relationships between parenting youth and their children (including fathers) in our Just Beginning Program, and work to build pathways between higher education and the juvenile justice system so that youth have the access, information and supports to attend and excel in college.   Most importantly, our goal is to  change the culture of these systems so that instead of seeing the youth in their care as a laundry list of the worst experiences and things they ever did, they see them as they were meant to be seen: as whole and valuable children who are worthy of love, who will be the parents of the next generation and as promising and inspiring leaders who will be neighbors, colleagues and friends.

I often tell people that I have learned the most about what children deserve and how much we need to transform the system from my 13-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter.   Their job as teenagers is to take risks and challenge authority to become independent, and my job is not to punish them, but to protect them from harm and help them learn and use those experiences to launch themselves into the world.  The only way to do that is with love, compassion and in the context of family. That’s what our systems have to understand.

The Leading with Conviction training has been a life-changing experience.  When I look at the amount of growth I’ve experienced in my own work over the past year in the areas where I have been the most stuck, I am inspired that anything is possible. This is important, because the issues we are tackling are the hardest and can seem intractable. For us to lead the necessary transformation of policy, practice and culture, we  need the best possible leadership training, skills, and coaching, and that’s what we are receiving through JustLeadershipUSA.

“I am a Bishop Designate, an ordained Baptist minister, a psychologist, and a medically-retired marine warrant officer and combat veteran.”

I am also the National Director of Support Services for Healing Communities USA, a faith-based prison reentry initiative.   My work involves reaching back into the faith community to reengage them in the social justice movement, with a focus on criminal justice reform.  There are so many barriers that returning citizens have to overcome today—an estimated 40,000 laws and regulations nationwide that prevent people from finding jobs, homes, and educational opportunities.  It’s like someone taking a Polaroid picture of you at one moment in time and having that one moment define your entire life.

I help churches, synagogues and other places of worship set up reentry ministries so they can create supportive environments within their congregations for returning citizens and their families, and also for the people they harmed.   Our practice is based on the principles of restorative justice, a process that focuses on the rehabilitation of people through reconciliation with their victim and the community at large.  I have experienced restorative justice personally, as both a formerly incarcerated person and the family member of a victim of crime.  Twenty-three years ago, when I was emerging from my own addiction, my 14 year old son was killed in an act of street violence by another youth.  I know what it’s like to be standing in a morgue at 1:30 in the morning to identify your baby boy.  I felt a tremendous amount of guilt for not protecting my son.  The other boy, who was only 12 years old, was tried and sent to a juvenile facility.  A few years later, I was asked to preach at a facility in Maryland, and halfway through my sermon, I realized that the boy who killed my son was in the audience.   I wanted to do what any father would have done, but God tapped me on the shoulder and said, “That’s not what I brought you here for.”  I ended up telling him in front of the whole audience that I forgave him and we began a relationship and we’re still in contact today.  He lives in California with his family and he does anti-violence work with gangs in LA and we are still very much in contact.

I’ve always been able to see multiple sides of all the issues, and that allows me to speak to different audiences.   I’m a formerly incarcerated person with a military law enforcement background and I’m the father of a crime victim.  I’m a pastor and a practicing psychologist, and the integration of faith and treatment informs my life’s work.  I can speak from all those perspectives.  As Co-Chair of the Restorative Justice Committee of the Pennsylvania Reentry Council I recently had a positive interaction with a member of the committee who was constantly blocking consensus on everything we were trying to do.  So I took him out to lunch and asked him to tell me how he felt.  I just let him talk for 45 minutes and used techniques I’ve learned from Leading with Conviction—just listening and providing feedback in a way that made him feel that he was being heard.  Now we have a very different and much more constructive working relationship.

To be in a room with 30 other leaders has been literally life changing.  As powerful as each and every one of us is, we are more powerful together and we are forming lifelong relationships.  As a pastor, it’s refreshing to be with people who aren’t afraid to push back when I fall short.