Nicole Lee

Executive Director

Organization: Urban Peace Movement

Location: Oakland, CA


“We won, we lost, and most importantly we fought like hell.”

Leading Edge Vision:

Nicole’s vision is to end youth incarceration in Alameda County and pass that torch to the next generation of activists who are reimagining an entirely new youth justice system across California.

What is your vision for your community? For California?

We are fighting for a complete reimagining of the way we do youth justice in Oakland and Alameda County, and ultimately a world that moves away from punishment, criminalization, and incarceration, and centers the health and wellness for youth of color — once and for all.

Can you share a story, either personal or from a directly impacted person, that exemplifies the problem you are trying to solve?

I am a 4th-generation Oakland native of Chinese American descent who became an activist in the late 1990s when I was a young person myself. California was on the precipice of becoming a majority Black, Indigenous and people of color majority state, and we were experiencing a backlash of racist ballot initiatives intended to thwart this new majority. Politicians were calling Black and brown youth “super predators,” just as many urban communities were experiencing the impacts of rampant disinvestment and political disenfranchisement. Oakland was on the heels of the “crack epidemic,” in which young people turned toward the underground economy in the face of poverty and deep economic inequity. We were witnessing the rise of mass incarceration. And yet, at the same time, there was a cultural renaissance born from the creativity and resilience of our communities as well as the birth of a vibrant social justice movement.

Growing up and working in Oakland gave me an intimate understanding of how things impact communities of color, and particularly Black folks, and the trauma facing young people. We worked with a young man who went to 13 funerals in one year for people his age. Another one of our staff told me he knew over 250 people who had been killed in the city. How our society spends its money and who our society feels responsible for taking care of and protecting is broken. When society talks about safety, it is talking about locking people up. That harm and trauma that people are experiencing is the result of someone else’s definition of safety.

What progress have you seen thus far in your work?

We fought to “Stop Prop. 21”, which criminalized young people of color by trying them in adult court. We staged school walkouts, organized mass marches and concerts, and even participated in mass civil disobedience. We fought successfully to “Stop the Superjail” in Alameda County, which was initially proposed as a 500-bed facility that would have been the largest per capita juvenile hall in the country. And we fought to “Close CYA Youth Prisons,” which at the time housed over 6,000 youth in warehouse-like prisons throughout the state where abhorrent and abusive practices were being implemented such as holding youth in large cages in classrooms as a form of “protective custody.” We protested and we sang. We did poetry, rapped, danced, and we got arrested. We lost, we won, and most importantly we fought like hell.

My work has come full circle. The fight to stop Prop. 21 was a victory in some ways because we got a taste of our own power. That transformed me, and so many others, as we saw the most incredible young leaders stand up and what can happen as a result of our advocacy.

While we are still seeing young people locked up, with counties spending astronomical amounts to keep them in cages, other facilities like the Alameda County Juvenile Hall would have been almost twice the size if we hadn’t fought in the early 2000s. And, this year, after an exponential decrease in the number of youth committed to the state system over the past 20 years and a 90-percent decrease in the number of young people in juvenile detention, California moved to close down the Division of Juvenile Justice. This progress would not have been possible without the more than two decades of advocacy from our movements.

What remains to be done?

Locking up kids in solitary confinement should not be allowed. Back in 2006 when we started campaigning to Close CYA Youth Prisons, we heard horror stories of young people being kept in 23-hour-a-day isolation with one hour of recreation. There is still the narrative that plagues our young people that says, “we won’t spend the money to educate you, but will spend money to lock you up.” When the community says that there are certain things that they need to be safe, we are told that there’s no money. Even though the Division of Juvenile Justice (formerly called CYA)  is in the process of closing, we are looking to transition kids back to counties, which are then at risk of replicating the same harmful system the young person just came from.

We recently founded a coalition called “Free Our Kids” to fight for a complete reimagining of the way we do youth justice in Oakland and Alameda County. If we are successful, our coalition will serve as a model for how to fight, and how to win for our partners across the state through research and policy advocacy, grassroots mobilization and strategic planning and relationship building.

What barriers have you faced, or continue to face, in achieving your vision of change?

Currently, Alameda County spends more than $490,000 per year to keep one child in detention. These precious resources could instead be invested in policies and practices that would transform the lives of young people and their families for the better.

Additionally, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we also must acknowledge the ever-changing field in which we are operating. In many ways, the pandemic has intensified inequity and that has had an impact on our work. In 2020, after the horrific murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, there were loud and resounding cries for police reform and justice reinvestment that rang out across the country.

But in the months that followed, many communities struggled with rising crime and violence rates largely due to the social and economic pressures created by the pandemic. Our opposition has stepped into this moment, in some cases resurrecting the old “tough on crime” and “youth superpredator” narratives as vehicles to push a pro-law enforcement and pro-incarceration agenda back on the table. This is the complex and rapidly shifting landscape in which we currently find ourselves.

How will the Leading Edge Fund fellowship help? 

This fellowship will give me the opportunity to think about what role my organization plays in the movement, what strengths and expertise we can bring and how to sharpen those. I’m also usually close to the ground in my approach, and this pushes me to think bigger. I’ve been doing this work for 25 years, and need to start asking the question of what the next 10 years looks like for the movement, and what role is best suited for me in that.

Who needs to hear your story and what is your call to action for them?

Younger movement leaders. Sharpen your craft, find the part of the work that makes you feel passionate and alive, and take care of yourself.