“I was in prison before I was even born.” So begins the story of Victor Rios who, by age 15, was a high school “dropout” and gang member with three felony convictions. But when his best friend’s murder, a teacher’s quiet persistence and a mentor’s moral conviction converge, Rios is able to turn his life around.
In 2013, Rios – by then a tenured University of California professor, award-winning author and national thought leader on the school-to-prison pipeline – gets an unexpected phone call from his former high school mentor, Martin Flores, whom he hasn’t spoken to in more than 15 years. Flores makes Rios an offer he can’t refuse: leading a summer program at YO! Watts, a youth center in South Central L.A. serving 16-24 year-olds who are out of school and out of work. “Thinking about Martin, how he was there when I needed that kind of support,” Rios recalls, “he was one of those people that saved my life!” Although the timing wasn’t perfect and the pay non-existent, Rios heads down to L.A. with a team of protégé “super-mentors.”
While the young people at Yo! Watts are often referred to as dropouts in national statistics and common parlance, many of these youth are trying to stay in school but are being pushed or pulled to drop out of high school. They are among the almost one-in-four Latino and Black students who do not graduate each year1 and are pushed into continuation schools, low-paying jobs, and – too often – the criminal justice and mass incarceration systems. Over the course of the summer, Rios and his team work to build a learning environment that will match the curiosity and determination of their students, while also grappling with the limits they themselves face as temporary figures in the lives of young people fighting significant systemic and structural barriers to success.