Daniel Mendoza believes in the power of storytelling. He is aware of the story people think they know, when they hear he was formerly incarcerated. While that experience helped define who he is today, Daniel knows there’s more to the story.
Two years ago, Daniel transferred to UC Davis to complete his Bachelor’s degree in sociology and ethnic studies. He quickly saw the way professors spoke about people with his background—brown and Black men involved with the criminal justice system—was without context, as if he were simply a number. Their research lacked an understanding of why young men of color are more likely to be incarcerated.
“We may be a data set, but we have a story to tell,” says Daniel. “I went from one institution that was meant to keep me in to one that was meant to keep me out. Transferring was very hard, trying to navigate this big system.”
He didn’t feel comfortable sharing his story because “every time I tried to talk to someone, I felt like I had to lie about who I was and change my story so they would feel comfortable.”
Paired up on a class project with a fellow student, Tina Curiel-Allen, Daniel began talking about his experience and the two realized they’d both been living in fear of revealing their secret—they’d both been incarcerated.
Daniel and Tina launched Beyond the Stats, a program aimed at creating community and support for other students who have also been involved with the justice system, while at the same time challenging how faculty and students perceive people who have been incarcerated.
They conducted a survey to uncover how the campus felt about having formerly incarcerated young people attend the university and were disappointed by the results. The two launched a zine to share stories in their own voices, including poems, personal statements, and interviews from members and friends of the movement.
Starting Beyond the Stats was not only part of Daniel’s advocacy, but it was part of his healing.
“I was overwhelmed,” recalls Daniel. “I listened to other students talking about their life experiences, and how they had been preparing for college since high school and here I was remembering my time incarcerated, struggling to write a paper for class. College was not part of my big picture. Until I met Tina and found community, I wasn’t sure I was going to make it, and graduate.”
Once he graduated, Daniel knew he wanted to keep challenging narratives about men of color, bringing together stories with data, to inform public policy.
He joined the Stockton-based community organization Fathers and Families of San Joaquin as a youth justice and policy advocate. He partnered with juvenile justice stakeholders to make policy changes to eliminate the practice of trying youth as adults, end solitary confinement, and improving reentry services for formerly incarcerated individuals.
Daniel believes “the movement is definitely making progress. At the state level we’ve been able to pass policies like Prop. 57 in 2016 that gave judges in the juvenile justice system the power to keep young people from being tried as adults and AB 392 that Governor Newsom signed into law this past August, that holds police accountable for their use of force.”
But he knows there’s much more work to do, particularly in communities of color where entire groups of people have been stigmatized due to their race, background, or experience. Daniel continues to tell stories and transform the narrative about places like Stockton because he knows changing the narrative is linked to changing the outcomes.
“In Stockton, we’re starting to talk about our city as a place of opportunity and prosperity,” says Daniel. “Words matter. I remember being called ‘the worst of the worst’ as a 14-year-old in adult court. It took me years to overcome that and believe in the power of my own voice.”
Daniel knows it is critical for formerly incarcerated people to participate in advocacy. “The closer we are to the problem, the closer we are to the solution.”
The work will always hit close to home, says Daniel. “This work is very personal and it’s a collective effort. My mother used to tell me, watch out for your little brother, watch out for your sister and so forth. And you know, I’ve just expanded on that vision.”
Daniel Mendoza is co-founder of Beyond the Stats, a collective of formerly incarcerated students working to dismantling structural barriers and supporting system-impacted students navigate the University of California system. Daniel is also Youth Justice and Policy advocate at Fathers and Families of San Joaquin in Stockton, CA.