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Family Struggles Drive Oakland Scholar's Passion For Education, Community Activism

By Christin Ayers and Jen Mistrot

Alejandra Herrera isn't afraid to stand up for herself and others. At a recent rally celebrating Oakland's 510 day, the 18-year-old college-bound senior took the lead as youth coordinator for Urban Peace Movement, a non-profit that serves communities of color.

"It's time for us to take back our power right," said Herrera to the crowd at the rally. Later, telling KPIX 5 about her role as a social justice advocate for youth, Herrera said, "I feel like it is really important to me because I just grew up thinking that my voice never mattered."

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And in Herrera's home is wasn't easy to find her own voice as her parents struggled to make their relationship work. Her dad would eventually move out of the family home, leaving Herrera's mother as the sole provider. Herrera was devastated.

"This is my father," recalled Herrera. "He is such a nice person, but as I started growing up - especially apart from him - I feel like a little bit by little bit I learned to understand that, you know, family isn't just two parents in a household."

But it was Herrera's older brother that suffered the most. Amid the family turmoil, he got caught up in the street violence in his community.

"He felt like he needed to get out of there and feel safe," said Herrera. "But his type of safe was to carry a gun with him."

He would soon be arrested, then deported, an experience that changed the course of Herrera's life. She decided to make her own higher education her priority, and to help empower and educate others about the impact of street violence on communities and families.

"I never wanted to just go out and protect myself like that. I felt like my protection was education," explained Herrera. "You know educate myself so I could educate my mom, my siblings so they could feel protected that way."

Herrera has made helping other young people her passion. Teacher and advisor Brandy Varnado says Herrera is a leader at Arise High School in Oakland, where she has developed a future non-profit business plan that would provide free English-language classes to immigrants.

"It's important for her voice to be heard so that the voices for other people in her community can be heard," said Varnado.

Herrera says she plans on continuing her justice advocacy work while at college and she has advice for anyone who may be struggling with family or community violence issues.

"Do something that is going to be healthy for you," said Herrera. "And not hurt you in any way. Find a way to express yourself. Even if that is as little as writing, reading, drawing, I feel like personally that really helped me cope with a lot of stuff. "

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