By Evelyn Canal
I used to think my opinion didn’t matter.
From Section 8 and food stamps to immigration and juvenile justice, I grew up having to navigate many county, state, and federal government systems. I didn’t realize the trauma I absorbed as a result of this experience until I became an adult. The dehumanizing way my family and I were treated made me feel insignificant. I didn’t believe I had the power to change the system. I didn’t know the power of my vote.
Now I know how deeply local elections affect our daily lives, especially for Black and Brown people like me. Local electeds like the district attorney and sheriff are gatekeepers of our criminal legal system. The district attorney has the power to change currently harmful policies and practices, and create alternatives to incarceration. County supervisors control mental health services and the criminal legal system. The sheriff makes policies around use of force, jail conditions, and police services for tens of thousands of people.
This is why I was so inspired for our primary election this past June: It was the first time in decades that Alameda County voters actually had a choice in who leads our county’s criminal legal system. And voters spoke loud and clear: We need new leaders who have the courage to change our system from the inside.
Together we defeated a 16-year incumbent sheriff who has had 58 incarcerated people die since 2014 under his watch. And this November, voters will elect a new county supervisor and district attorney, who will play key roles in shaping the future of criminal and juvenile justice in Alameda County.
For far too long, locally elected leaders have pushed practices that harmed Black and Brown youth like me. A 2021 report by Urban Peace Movement and the ACLU of Northern California, In(Justice) in Alameda County: A Case for Reform and Accountability, found that outgoing District Attorney Nancy O’Malley’s policies and practices led to overcriminalization, needlessly costing the county money, and promoting mass incarceration with devastating impacts on Black and Brown communities. Between 1970 and 2010, the number of people in Alameda County jails increased by over 250%. These decisions fueled racism and white supremacy against Black and Brown people.
I am among those who got caught in the juvenile legal system while these officials were in power. While incarcerated, I experienced sexual harassment by a facility staff. My mom’s mental health suffered and my little sisters lost me as a primary caretaker. No part of my experience in juvenile hall was rehabilitative. It only made my existing trauma worse.
Sadly, my experience is not unique. This is why to win in this November’s general election, candidates for county leadership positions must understand that our communities overwhelmingly want more affordable housing, mental health, and job and community development opportunities to prevent violence—not more police. We know this from a survey of almost 1,000 people for the Urban Peace Movement’s “Town Up Tuesday” music and voter education festival taken in May. Almost nine out of 10 survey respondents, a vast majority of whom were young Black Alameda County residents, were committed to voting for the June primary elections.
This shows that young people like me care about increasing safety and preventing violence in all of our communities. As engaged community members, newly elected and soon-to-be elected leaders must know: Count on young Black and Brown voters to show up this November and vote.
As we get closer to Election Day, young voters are calling for real change. We deserve bold leaders who will work with us to reshape policies so all young people can have safe and thriving futures. And newly-elected leaders in Alameda County must take our opinions and needs seriously as they consider how to lead our communities moving forward.
Evelyn Canal is a member organizer of Urban Peace Movement in Oakland, which works to transform the culture and social conditions that lead to community violence & mass incarceration in communities of color.