How I Did It: Started a Movement

Mike de la Rocha of Californians for Safety and JusticeFor over 15 years, Mike de la Rocha has dedicated his life to reforming the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

As an “organizer who happens to be an artist,” de la Rocha has made a career out of bringing together unlikely allies in entertainment, politics and nonprofits to address some of our country’s greatest challenges.

Art for Social Change

Mike de la Rocha says the best way to describe his job is that he “fights crime and plays music.” For 15 years, de la Rocha has worked in the criminal justice field, but it is his love of music that first inspired him to pursue a career in social change. “I learned about life, love and politics through bands like U2, Public Enemy, and Rage Against the Machine,” de la Rocha says. As a teenager in Ventura, California, de la Rocha served food at a music venue, where he got to see performers like Peter Gabriel and Pearl Jam. In high school, de la Rocha was even voted “Most Likely to Impersonate Prince.” “As an artist, Prince is able to unapologetically be himself and that gave me enough courage to be myself too,” de la Rocha says. “I always wanted to be an artist, but more than that, I wanted to be an artist that made a difference.”

In addition to being a musician and performer, da la Rocha is the Director of Strategic Partnerships for Californians for Safety and Justice, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing public safety and reducing the costs associated with incarceration.

“In California alone in the last 25 years, we’ve built 22 prisons and only one public university,” de la Rocha says. “The result is that we spend roughly $60,000 a year to lock someone up when it only costs $9,000 to educate them.

We’re wasting so much money on prisons that if we took that [money] and put it into things like treatment and education, we would have a safer, healthier society.”

Crimes of Poverty

Many people find themselves with felony records for what de la Rocha calls “crimes of poverty”—such as low-level drug possession and petty theft. Once someone is convicted of a felony, it becomes much harder to find a well paying job, receive financial aid for higher education or live in government-subsidized housing.

De la Rocha says many people don’t even realize they are committing a felony.

“Let’s say I take my daughter to a swap meet and I buy her a bike. Unbeknownst to me, that bike is stolen—that’s receipt of stolen property, which is a felony,” de la Rocha says. “Then for the rest of my life I’m fighting the stigma of having a felony conviction for a nonviolent crime that will prevent me from getting a good-paying job and providing for my family.”

That’s one reason why da la Rocha and Californians for Social Justice are among a broad-based coalition of law enforcement, victims’ rights organizations, business leaders, civil rights groups and nonprofit organizations that are supporting Proposition 47, a California ballot initiative that would reclassify six nonviolent crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. One of the offenses that would be reclassified is writing a bad check under $950.

“The vast majority of people writing bad checks under $950 are single women of color who are writing checks to feed their children,” de la Rocha says. “They can’t get credit, so they write a bad check for basic needs, like to feed themselves or to have shelter, then they get caught, and it’s a felony, which most of them don’t even realize and which haunts them for the rest of their lives.”

Building Trust in Financial Institutions

For those transitioning out of the criminal justice system, financial education can be the difference between breaking the cycle or ending up behind bars again, de la Rocha says.

In January 2015, Californians for Safety and Justice is piloting a financial literacy coaching program in collaboration with banking institutions, credit unions and re-entry organizations such as Amity Foundation, Homeboy Industries and the Anti-Recidivism Coalition to offer formerly incarcerated individuals tailored financial coaching, banking services and access to credit. For some, it likely will be their first bank accounts.

By integrating financial coaching into case management, de la Rocha says the hope is to build trust in communities where financial institutions are often perceived as predatory.

“When you go to some of the more established banks, if you’re under a limit you get charged, if you take out too much you get charged—all these fees prevent people from even wanting to get involved [with a bank],” de la Rocha says.

That’s why it is important to educate people about the options available to them, such as credit unions, de la Rocha says, and to tailor a financial plan that fits an individual’s situation.

“A lot of people [with felonies] will get their wages garnished if they open a traditional savings or checking account,” de la Rocha says. “So we’re trying to figure out a way that [these individuals] can still be accountable and pay what they owe, but can also save money for themselves and their families.”

The Importance of Stories

In 2012, de la Rocha founded Living Rooms Across America, which convened cultural leaders, elected officials and community members in 10 U.S. cities to discuss difficult issues such as immigration, education reform and gun violence.

Inspired by the home meetings held by Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta and the United Farm Workers in the 1960s and ‘70s, de la Rocha’s vision was to spark dialogue through music and storytelling.

Also driving the vision was de la Rocha’s belief that lasting social change requires input from those directly affected by the issues. For example, he says, if we are going to discuss how to end homelessness, we need to include homeless people in the conversation.

In a video from a 2013 TEDx Venice Beach event, de la Rocha tells of one such story that deeply affected him. He was in New York City to meet activist Erica Ford, who has been working directly with youth to prevent gun violence in Jamaica, Queens for 30 years.

During the living room discussion, a man raised his hand and said that Ford had changed his life. A year earlier, the man’s daughter—the “love of his life”—had been shot and killed. The man indicated the woman sitting to his left and said, “Through Erica Ford, I met this woman. This is the mother of the person who killed my daughter.”

The two now go into projects to show that there are victims “on both sides of the gun.” The man describes the hole he has in his heart from losing his daughter; and the mother describes losing her son to “a living tomb” where she will never get to see him or hold him outside ever again.

It is this kind of story that can change hearts and minds, de la Rocha says.

“Politics, in my opinion, needs to change,” de la Rocha says, “and the way you change politics is to change culture, and the way we change culture is by all of us sharing our stories.”

[Any reference to a specific company, commercial product, process, organization, ballot initiative, or service does not constitute or imply an endorsement or recommendation by the National Endowment for Financial Education.]