Justice Leader Extends Supports to Bay Area Youth

Justice Leader Extends Supports to Bay Area Youth
Ali Knight is the president and CEO of Fresh Lifelines for Youth, (FLY), a Bay Area nonprofit that works to prevent crime and incarceration among marginalized youth. Photo by Lance Yamamoto.

Each morning, Ali Knight rises around 6 a.m. The rest of his “table for four,” — his wife, Van, and two children ages 2 and 6 — are asleep. For 30 minutes, he moves about the quietness. When they wake up, the next hour belongs to them. He aims to have his kids clothed, fed and dropped off at school and day care within 45 minutes. If he’s not mentally preparing for calls, the 44-year-old Alameda resident might sing along to the soulfully impassioned sounds of SiR on his commute to work.

Knight strives to be a model that is also a mirror, not just as a parent and partner, but as a leader.

Like too many marginalized youth today, he grew up with no financial assets, no safety net and few family members he could fall back on. So he understands how critical it is for kids to have support.

Knight’s parents both struggled with drug addiction, which thrust him into the foster care system that failed to protect him from physical abuse. As a 16-year-old living in a group home, he got into a fight with a kid at school. He quickly forgot about it.

But a week later, that same boy approached him. He pulled out a knife and sliced Knight across his face. Knight ran to escape immediate danger and didn’t slow his pace until he was a half mile away. He thought he was wiping sweat from his face, until he saw it was blood. The attack was so traumatic he temporarily blocked it out.

Over the next week, his rage surged and he began plotting his revenge, thinking of the worst punishment imaginable.

Then he pushed past his initial response — a powerful mix of anger, hurt pride and embarrassment. Yes, this boy would likely brag to his friends. He might have a scar to remind him of the attack. But at that moment there was something deeper at work inside him.

“I realized there was a lot of pain behind it that had nothing to do with getting sliced in the face,” he said.

It had everything to do with where he was and why: The fact that he had no support system and felt alone in the world. Today, Knight says, “I realize that the boy was also in pain, even after cutting me — he was acting out of pain. I saw the pain in his face weeks later at school.”

At the time, Knight was struggling in high school but determined not to get kicked out. He remembered thinking, “There’s a precipice and I’m really close to the edge.”

It was then, at the height of his anger, sadness and sense of disillusionment, that someone stepped in: His great-aunt Muriel Alston.

Knight’s auntie pulled him out of the group home where child welfare officials had placed him and invited him to live with her in the Jersey City suburbs. It was the best thing that could have happened to him, said Knight, in a far-reaching interview with The Imprint.

“I was finally in the care of somebody who believed in me, saw the good in me, somebody I didn’t want to disappoint.”

Today, Knight lives on the West Coast and is the new president and CEO of Fresh Lifelines for Youth, a Bay Area-based nonprofit working to prevent crime and incarceration for youth who are currently, formerly or at risk of involvement in the juvenile justice system. Since 2000, the organization has provided leadership training, legal education and mentoring to more than 30,000 youth.

Artwork on the walls at the FLY office. Photo by Lance Yamamoto.

Knight previously served as chief operating officer for the group known as FLY, helping the organization almost double its presence in Alameda County over a six-year period. He took over the leadership role from FLY’s founder, Christa Ghannon, who ran the organization for 20 years.

Weeks before the transition — during a historic moment marked by the police killing of George Floyd and a global protest movement against systemic racism — the nonprofit agency issued the following missive: “FLY is unequivocally and unambiguously pro-Black in this moment. We acknowledge and support Black people who have been killed, who have lost family members and friends, who live in fear for their lives and the lives of others, who are protesting and risking their own safety, and others in their communities who are affected by police brutality.”

The United States incarcerates more children than any other country in the world with some states paying almost $1 million dollars a year to lock them up. The overwhelming majority are kids of color.

Knight has spent almost 20 years in public service working to end this trajectory — with roles in prison reentry, policy development, program administration and research evaluation.

He talked with The Imprint about the way racism, marginalization, poverty and all forms of oppression suffocate young people and what FLY is doing to equip youth and advance the juvenile justice movement in California.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.

We’re living in a post-George Floyd world. How have these historic events impacted FLY’s transition, and path forward?

It’s accelerating our work around systems change, juvenile justice and justice reform more broadly.

We realized we could no longer be agnostic about the realities of the world we live in — how racism, marginalization, all forms of oppression, have played a role in young people finding themselves in the system. It’s not just a function of individual behavior and young people having to face the consequences. It’s that, coupled with choices that young people can or can’t make based on what’s available to them.

Our slow, gradual awakening internally about how our work is informed by racial justice started in 2013 with the George Zimmerman “not guilty” verdict in Trayvon Martin’s death, and accelerated summer of 2016 when Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were killed by police. That sparked folks on our team to really talk about the work of the young people we were serving.

By summer 2020, we were in a place where we were like, we’ve got to be more vocal. We’ve got to take a stance. We’ve got to acknowledge that our work is not just about teaching young people about the law. Sometimes, it’s navigating the flaws and instruments of oppression of the law.

What does that look like in practice? How has it shifted your law-related education curriculum?

A core part of our law-related education is to teach FLY youth about their Fourth Amendment rights, [which is meant to protect people from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government]. They might respond, “Yeah, it’s great to know what my rights are and how to navigate that technically and by the law, but to have that violated by a police officer in the community, there’s no accounting for it.”

Learning and knowing about the law has its limits if we’re not accounting for the reality that those laws don’t apply to youth of color in that way. And so, we’ve had to reckon with the reality that we’re not just supporting young people to make different decisions, but we’re navigating a lot of inequities and pitfalls that are inherent in our systems, in our values as a society, based on either our lack of resources or on prioritizing certain parts of our community.

But the second part is, it’s not just to teach young people about the law, and say “if you meet a cop don’t escalate the situation. Be respectful, obey laws.” What are we really saying about the power structure to our legal education? Are we saying, “Let’s reinforce the power structure as it exists?” Which is, survive, don’t say anything that’ll tick the cop off because then your rights will be violated and there is nothing to be done about it? Can we have a broader conversation? Here are your rights, here is how you navigate in a way to keep yourself safe, but also to leverage the power that you do have.

Artwork on the walls at the FLY office. Photo by Lance Yamamoto.

You talked about being on the precipice of the justice system as a youth. In what ways do you see today’s youth in similar circumstances? 

It is really, really, hard to get people who care about young people to be motivated to invest in young people who quote-unquote ‘got in trouble.’ Some see these young people as already foregone and think change happens by working with the kids that are on the tipping point. The kids who are in school, the kids whose lives could be radically changed with mentoring and a job. So, the preference is to invest in those programs, in schools and jobs and stuff that we see as a solution for poverty and crime and a way toward upward mobility.

For those seen as foregone, for example, if they’ve dropped out of school, the erroneous thinking is to just get them a summer job as an alternative because there’s really no need to invest in their overall development and growth. And that’s been a challenge (at FLY) for this work for a while — to be seen as a youth service organization and also be seen as an organization serving the hardest to serve with the greatest need.

When I tell my story, some people don’t see the parallels because I technically have never been in the system. In fact, I am seen as the success story, the kid who grew up in a bad neighborhood, who avoided the system because he went to school and went to the after-school program. When in reality, we are one and the same.

Can you talk more about being “one and the same,” and the problem with the distinction often made between juvenile justice-involved, the “high-risk” youth, and those considered “high promise?”

The first time I stepped inside a prison for work, I ran into Isaac, a former high school friend — a better version of me as a 13-year-old. At the time, I was 25, he was a year older. My job was to help bring him home from prison. To me, Isaac and I are the same person. But oftentimes people separate us because they see him as a kid who made a mistake.

In reality, Isaac was a kid in foster care, he’s the kid who had to eat free or reduced lunch, he’s the kid who fought in school because his needs weren’t met. He’s the kid that didn’t go to school because he had a learning disability that went undiagnosed. He’s the kid whose whole set of needs got simply boiled down to the fact that he made a mistake that involved him in the justice system.

And so, when I think about my experience, I think about the kids we serve, they’re no different than the youth who are considered high promise — the kids in the college prep programs or the boys’ and girls’ clubs. They are all kids who are trying to essentially escape the traps of poverty and the other ills of society that marginalize them. Our work is not just supporting young people in the justice system but advancing justice for young people. And justice to me is creating opportunity, leveling the playing field, and responding to needs and not just responding to society’s perceived risk of public safety as a result of a young person’s mistake.

A “Leadership FLYlights” board offers young people a space to celebrate their accomplishments. Photo by Lance Yamamoto.

Can you talk about how you see past and unresolved trauma play out in youth behavior, and how systems should approach them? 

One of the things that I’m most excited about as it relates to the justice reform movement in California is the removal of juvenile justice from the criminal justice and corrections framework and putting it under the public health framework. That step changes the way we think about juvenile justice involvement and what it is a symptom of.

We often think of juvenile justice involvement as a symptom of bad kids doing bad things. Yes, there are some kids who represent a significant public safety threat to themselves and the community. We need to fix that. But it’s got to be done in a loving, caring way that shows we’re not giving up on them. We have to invest in their development, and hopefully they’ll become thriving, contributing members of society as adults.

As a society, we’ve got to make that mental and emotional investment in these particular young people. To see young people as potential and not as failures or on the trajectory of failure, we’ve got to see them, see their trauma and see the challenges they’re dealing with. The revised framework considers Adverse Childhood Experiences, ACEs, and how trauma affects young people’s growth. Being willing to address that trauma is the first major milestone in thinking differently about juvenile justice, not as an early stage of criminal justice prevention, more of a late stage of meeting the needs of young people — but not so late that you can’t do anything about it.

As we see the devaluation of Black male life in many ways in this country, it’s critical to see a Black man at the helm of an organization like FLY. Does being a Black man factor into your leadership style? Do you feel an increased responsibility to succeed?

Absolutely. I feel an increased responsibility.

Being the leader of an organization that primarily serves Black and brown young people who look like me, and have similar stories to my own, is an honor and a privilege. To do this work, in this moment, in this way, is an opportunity I’m grateful to have. At the same time, I feel like the stakes are high.

I serve as an ambassador for both the needs of the young people we serve and an ambassador for how the young people can be part of the solution. So, it’s a tricky thing. How do I be a credible messenger for that? I think my background certainly gives me some credibility to speak to some of the challenges our young people are facing, but the reality is that I am proximate to this work by virtue of my lived experience.

So, I really need and I continue to need allies within the organization, outside the organization, on the board, to really lean in and say, “It’s not just about a Black man with lived experience, it’s about a larger pursuit of justice, a just society that we all want.” We have to all lean in and do what we need to do to get there. So, there’s a balance for me. It’s really not about making it about me, or my story serving as an example or beacon of hope. Well, some of that for sure, but it’s also about me being able to build a community of justice crusaders, and equity warriors — folks who are committed to this work because they see the value in it for society as a whole.

How have FLY partners, stakeholders and supporters responded to the new FLY? Is there any fear that you’re too progressive or radical?

Firstly, I want to acknowledge that on the radical spectrum, I’m probably moderate at best (laughs). But as to how our stakeholders are responding to this new message: The jury is still out.

Most folks who know and trust FLY really see FLY as part of a solution for the challenges that youth in our communities face. A smaller group of supporters are anchored to the value of working with the individual, which is still the core part of our mission. So, systems change work seems nebulous at best. Off mission, at worst.

It’s my job to make sure they understand that we’re not abandoning direct service as much as we see it as part of a need for a larger, more ecological response that includes partnerships and systems change. I think that people are waiting to see what this means for FLY as we change.

So some supporters have been uncomfortable with the shift in direction? 

Certainly — whether it’s to speak candidly about the role that current or historic racism plays in our justice system’s flaws, or to speak candidly about inequity and to acknowledge that the result of this inequity is marginalization for some and privilege for others.

These create interesting dynamics that I myself am still navigating as a person who grew up very proximate to the challenges our youth face, with significant lived experience as a Black man, but also someone who’s benefited from formal education and professional experience in institutions, and how that has granted me privilege.

As a messenger, as an ambassador of a vision of justice and equity for the young people we work with, I am trying to strike a balance between getting all of us comfortable with the discomfort of confronting racism — from slavery in the South hundreds of years ago, to stop-and-frisks in East New York, Brooklyn last week — and moving towards solutions. Solutions that are about building power for young people, and creating a new future for them and the generations that follow.

Are there any Bay Area-specific initiatives you are hopeful about? 

I am hopeful about the passage of Senate Bill 823, legislation that authorizes the state to shut down the state Division of Juvenile Justice facilities. It’s forcing us to think more regionally in a way that could be really good. It gives local counties a lot of flexibility about how they want to support young people who would otherwise go to those facilities: some of whom have been convicted of serious offenses so have some real serious need. So, I am hopeful that the counties will see some alignment in a vision for justice, a vision for safety, a vision for supporting people, and see the opportunity to work together and create a regional approach to supporting these young people.

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