Misunderstood: The Credible Messenger’s Contribution to the Secondary School System

I don’t remember my mother and father ever being together. My Nana was the primary caregiver for me and my older brother. My mom would get her stuff together long enough so that my Nana would let us live with her, but it never lasted very long. After witnessing various forms of trauma brought on by poverty, domestic violence, and drug addiction, we would eventually go live with my Nana for good.

I’m not sure if the back-and-forth at such a young age primed me to be a people pleaser, but I always did well in elementary school. I wanted to make someone proud of me, and at the time, it was my Nana. I was in gifted classes and almost skipped the second grade, but then I started getting in fights and was suspended from school for the first time when I was just seven years old. Although I continued to do well academically over the next few years, I kept fighting, and by the sixth grade I got my first F. As I got to junior high, I lost interest in my classes when I noticed that none of my teachers took an interest in me. It became very impersonal. As my connection to school faded, my peers began to fill that gap.

I didn’t feel like I could confide in my Nana, I had no positive father figure, and my only interactions with the school counselors happened when I got in trouble and was sent to their office. They never provided any resources, only punishment. My disconnect from the adults at school and the lack of support I received from them drove me further into the negative influences of my peer group, making the acceptance I received from them that much more appealing. Without anyone or anything to deter me from this path, it led to decades of hardship. Only recently have I understood how my traumas and family dynamic contributed to the way I would spend the next three decades of my life.

The kind of trauma I experienced as a young child is alarmingly common in the United States. More than half of Black and Latinx children and 40% of white children will experience significant trauma before age 18. These adverse childhood experiences (which include emotional and physical abuse, neglect, and household challenges like substance use, mental illness, and incarceration) can interfere with children’s health, opportunities, and stability throughout their lives. The negative consequences can even affect future generations. Yet very few schools are equipped to recognize their students’ trauma and intervene in ways that help them heal. When a child’s inward turmoil is expressed as distraction, disobedience, or fighting with other students, many schools punish the behavior without ever exploring the root causes. Too much discipline. Very little empathy.

“The negative consequences can even affect future generations. Yet very few schools are equipped to recognize their students’ trauma and intervene in ways that help them heal.”

I saw my first jail cell at age 14, and by 16 I was arrested on two felony counts—strong armed robbery and attempted armed robbery—and was fortunate to avoid long-term out-of-state incarceration. As an adult, I spent a significant amount of time in and out of different county jails, taking plea deals on various offenses that otherwise would have sent me to the penitentiary.

In 2016, I was shot point blank five times in an act of gang-related violence. After a lengthy physical and emotional rehabilitation process, I knew I needed to do something different and I made the decision to enroll in community college to put myself on a career path where I could provide support to young people who are living through similar experiences due to deficiencies in their schools and communities.

As a UC Berkeley undergraduate student, I conducted independent research around adolescent development and the middle school experience. Through this research and my own personal hardships, I’ve learned that at a time in life when young people are struggling to find their identity and are in need of positive role models, the adults they encounter every day in school are often failing them; in part because those adults can’t relate to the traumatized kids they’re teaching and counseling. It’s not easy to connect with a young person in crisis and earn their trust, but it can be done.

In the summer of 2022, I began serving as a mentor, tutor, and teaching assistant for a first-of-its-kind program that allows professors from Laney College in Oakland to teach community college courses inside the Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center. The program, operated by Restoring Our Communities, is part of California’s Division of Juvenile Justice “realignment” efforts under SB823, a policy that forced the closing of California’s youth prison system, Division of Juvenile Justice, by June 2023. I support the incarcerated youth with their college course work: applying for financial aid, writing essays, and navigating the college’s online learning management system as they acquire college credits towards their Associate of Arts degree.

I’m what’s known as a “credible messenger,” a mentor who has passed through the justice system and sustainably transformed his life. Because of this experience and my training with the California Justice Leaders—the first AmeriCorps program for formerly incarcerated individuals—I am able to meet these young people “where they are,” guiding and supporting them with everyday decisions and their larger reentry strategies and goals. I find my students fully engaged, giving me their complete attention because they trust me and know I can relate. I’ve been where they are. And that makes me far more effective in this position.

With that in mind, I believe we can vastly improve educational and life trajectories for children in marginalized communities of color. Now that I’m a Master of Public Policy candidate at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School, I’m focusing my studies on policies that will help schools evolve, and that includes expanding who they hire. There should be credible messengers working in every secondary school, particularly in under-resourced communities of color, with state lawmakers lifting blanket restrictions that currently prohibit anyone with a criminal record from working as a K-12 teacher or guidance counselor.

Adults like me who grew up in under-resourced communities of color and have traversed the criminal justice system are ideally positioned to reach kids growing up under these same conditions. Lived experience makes a huge difference when it comes to developing curriculum, engaging kids in the classroom, and understanding that nurturing and encouragement combined with opportunities for reflection, growth, and accountability are what work best for improving outcomes. The credible messenger model is an under-utilized strategy for engaging marginalized students more effectively than even the best-educated professional who has only read about or visited the under-resourced communities where poverty and criminality are prevalent.

I’m proud of the incarcerated young people I mentor. They have much to offer and brighter days ahead of them. But the kind of work I do needs to start earlier and be embedded in the fabric of our public schools. That means looking at someone like me and seeing a potential school teacher or guidance counselor. Formerly incarcerated people specifically, are needed as credible messengers to protect at-risk students and unleash a flood of talent.

Danny Muñoz is a Master of Public Policy student (’25) in the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Berkeley Public Policy Journal, the Goldman School of Public Policy, or UC Berkeley.