Story of a life inside “the system” averted by an opportunity and education in the law

800 300 Ed Coghlan

(Photo courtesy of Gloria Cabrera)

California Forward is committed to advancing policy intersections that create a more inclusive and sustainable California where all people can prosper. To move this forward, we must address the racial and geographic inequities that have been exacerbated by a public health and economic crisis, and we must answer the call to dismantle structural racism. The Voices of Shared Prosperity series amplifies the stories of Californians who are committing their time and talent to solutions that embrace equity, the environment, and the economy.

How can one change the arc of her life?

For 26-year-old Gloria Cabrera the opportunity came later than she wanted — but what's important is that it did come.

Cabrera's family was economically devastated in 2007-08 as the nation's economy slid into the Great Recession. Her family's restaurant and store in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles went out of business. And the impact on her family was nearly immediate.

Gloria at 13 years old saw her brother wind up in jail, and two years later she was there herself on a robbery charge.

The fiercely independent Cabrera had decided she could “do things on her own.” She couldn't.

After being released, she got in trouble again. Fighting drug abuse, homelessness and having lived in an abusive home, she realized she needed support. But after a second stint, this time in L.A. County Jail for ten months, she “was ready to throw in the towel.”

A lifetime in the system seemed assured.

But her lawyer told her, “Gloria, you can make it and you shouldn't go to prison.”

He fought to get her placed in a drug and alcohol detox unit in Pomona — called the Prototypes Women's Center — where she could get some help “because doing it by myself sure wasn't working.”

Her natural leadership instincts combined with a desire to really change became Gloria's story. She soon earned more responsibility at the Center where she stayed for 18 months.

That's when she took another step toward “the stable life I always wanted.”

She was accepted into the second cohort of the Creating Opportunities and Real Experiences (CORE) Internship Program through UNITE-LA and the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce. The program is designed to help connect young adults with past justice system involvement with private Los Angeles area employers for hands-on career exploration.

“This program targets young people who have been involved in the justice system and gives them an opportunity for real change,” said David Velazquez of UNITE-LA.

The opportunity came in the form of another lawyer, Elizabeth Yang in Monterey Park. Ms. Yang has a thriving legal practice in Monterey Park and was happy to add Gloria to her intern program.

“Everyone deserves a different opportunity,” she said. “Gloria took this opportunity and ran with it.”

Yang's own story is worth sharing. Her father passed away suddenly when she was three, causing her mom to move her two children to Southern California, go on welfare for a while, get a job and raise her children.

Her mom did well. Both Yang and her brother graduated from the University of California, Berkeley — he became a structural engineer and she earned an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering, before deciding to go to law school and ultimately practice law.

Yang is a no-nonsense executive but takes no credit for Gloria's success.

“I brought on another intern along with Gloria. I gave them both a chance. Gloria has succeeded because she was grateful for the opportunity and takes nothing for granted,” she said.

Cabrera thrived in the internship to the point where she was offered a job as a legal assistant.

“She was learning every day,” said Yang who noted that Cabrera did all the basic internship type work, like filing, scanning and printing. “Her great personality and constantly asking questions caused more work to come her way. Now she even occasionally trains some of the new paralegals.”

For UNITE-LA which blends programs, policy and systems change with the goal of allowing all youth to learn and thrive, Gloria's story is one that should and can be duplicated with thousands of others young people who deserve a second chance.

“Quite frankly, Gloria's story is why UNITE-LA does this work. She is an example of how a life can be changed when educational and workforce opportunities are available to all,” said UNITE-LA CEO David Rattray. “There are 5,000 California youth held in detention facilities every year. Employers like Elizabeth Yang teach us that an investment of time in these young people can pay off for both our youth and our employers.”

California Forward CEO Micah Weinberg agrees. His organization has been urging the creation of inclusive, sustainable growth for all Californians.

“Investing in people and giving them a second chance is at the core of the California Dream,” said Weinberg. “Gloria's story is inspirational and educational.”

And that story is not yet fully written. Her journey to become a lawyer is on track.

Gloria is on schedule to graduate from East Los Angeles College and its Pathway to Law School Program. She is ready to undergo the Expungement Process in order to be fully authorized to practice law in the future after she completes her studies.

In the meantime, she's taking on one other project. She's going to have a baby in December.

“I'm excited about being a mom and giving my baby a truly stable life,” she said.

When we asked Gloria what she would tell her 15-year old self more than a decade later, she didn't hesitate.

“I'd tell me to slow down, girl. Think things through and don't be impulsive.”

That's good advice at any age!

The Voices of Shared Prosperity stories will be shared in advance of the 2020 California Economic Summit, taking place on December 3-4.


Ed Coghlan

All stories by: Ed Coghlan