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Carmen Beatrice Perez (born January 21, 1977) is recognized as an expert in juvenile and criminal justice reform, system accountability, and an activist who has worked on issues of civil rights, including mass incarceration, women’s rights and gender equity, violence prevention, racial healing and community policing. She is the Executive Director of The Gathering for Justice. She was one of four national co-chairs of the 2017 Women's March.
Perez was born in Oxnard, California, to Marcel Perez and Alicia Ramirez Perez. The youngest of five siblings, she grew up playing basketball, softball, and running track as well as dancing hip hop. In 1994, her sister Patricia was killed and the funeral coincided with Perez’s 17th birthday. Perez has said it was her sister’s death that inspired her to dedicate her life to initiatives that would help transform the lives of young people. “I remember somebody coming to our home, asking if we wanted to press charges. And my father said ‘I would never take another mother’s child away,’” Perez said. “And so I didn’t learn restorative justice from studying it. I learned it from a man who would never take another mother’s child away.”
Perez started her undergraduate career at Oxnard College where she studied General Liberal Arts and received an associate degree. She then transferred to the University of California – Santa Cruz as a Psychology major where she also studied Chicana Feminism and was involved in Rainbow Theater. She credits this time as formative to her dedication to intersectional and transformative leadership. Through the Chicano Latino Resource Center, Carmen was mentored by psychology professor and Chicana feminist Aida Hurtado who she also worked for as her research assistant.
In 2001, Perez began work with the Santa Cruz Youth Community Restoration Program, providing alternatives to incarceration for juvenile offenders. In this position she established Reforming Education Advocating Leadership (REAL), a youth mentoring program. In 2003, she was elected to serve as the Chair of the Latino Affairs Commission of Santa Cruz County. Perez also co-founded the Girl’s Taskforce to provide gender-responsive programming for girls, regardless of probation status, in Santa Cruz County.
In 2004, Perez began working for her mentor, Nane Alejandrez, as his executive assistant and the prison project coordinator focused on cultural programming inside youth detention centers and prisons. In 2005, Alejandrez invited Perez to serve as a youth representative for The Gathering for Justice, a social justice organization established in 2005 by singer, songwriter, actor and activist Harry Belafonte. Perez would go on to become the organization’s National Organizing Director in 2008 and was promoted to Executive Director in 2010.
In 2006, Perez became a board member of Barrios Unidos and began working for the Santa Cruz County probation department as an intake and investigations officer focused on system accountability. In 2007, she was promoted to Deputy Probation Officer II, providing gender responsive programming for an intensive caseload of girls. During this time, she also coached Varsity High School Girls’ basketball at Pajaro Valley High School.
In 2008, Carmen Perez moved to NYC and began working full-time as the National Organizer for The Gathering for Justice. Since 2010, she has served as the Executive Director of The Gathering for Justice, a social justice organization dedicated to ending child incarceration by utilizing Kingian nonviolent direct action, engaging artists and cultural leaders, advocating for policy initiatives and providing direct services inside juvenile facilities. From 2011-2013 she also developed Purple Gold, a young leaders program for 1199 SEIU.
In 2013, Perez co-founded Justice League NYC, a taskforce of young criminal justice experts, direct service providers, activists, advocates, artists and formerly incarcerated individuals bringing their resources to the table to create a blueprint to reform the criminal and social justice system in New York City and State. She organized Growing Up Locked Down, a three-day juvenile justice reform conference, in New York City in 2014 and a second in her hometown of Oxnard, California in 2016. The Oxnard conference was the beginning of Justice League CA.
In May 2014, she had the opportunity to share her life’s work and delivered her 1st TEDx Talk inside Ironwood State Prison hosted by Richard Branson and produced by Scott Budnick. In 2015, Perez testified as a criminal and juvenile justice reform expert before the President’s 21st Century Taskforce on Policing.
In 2017, Perez was a national co-chair of the Women's March on Washington, with Tamika D. Mallory, Bob Bland, and Linda Sarsour. Perez's contributions included facilitating the creation of the mobilization's Unity Principles, leading the Artist Table and Honorary Co-Chair selection, and recruiting over 500 partners. In addition, The Gathering for Justice, the organization for which she serves as Executive Director, was a fiscal sponsor of the Women's March on Washington and donated its office space to organizers during the planning phase. She was a panelist at the 2017 Women's National Convention.
Carmen has worked with countless influencers, celebrities, athletes, and artists on making activism a more intentional part of their life, collaborating on projects that intersect culture with activism, and helping them leverage their platforms and resources for the movement. Some who Carmen has worked closely with have been Danny Glover, America Ferrera, Hot97 hosts Ebro and Nessa, Jussie Smollett, and Colin Kaepernick. On November 16, 2017, she publicized the case of Meek Mill. Actress Jackie Cruz has consistently praised Carmen for unlocking her zeal for social causes. “She trained me to not care anymore and just fight for what you believe in,” said Cruz in a 2018 interview with Bustle.
Perez was named one of Time's 100 Most Influential People in 2017, as well as Fortune's 50 Top World Leaders and Glamour's Women of the Year. She was named a "Latina of the Year" in 2017. She has also been recognized for her contributions to criminal justice reform, with the "Gutsy Award" from the National Juvenile Justice Network, a Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition for Outstanding and Invaluable Service to the Community, the Santa Cruz County Women’s Commission “Trailblazer’s Award in Criminal Justice”, and the “Zaragoza Award” from the Committee for the Mexican Culture at D.V.I. Prison in Tracy, for her contribution and dedication to bringing hope to incarcerated men.
Bari Weiss has criticized Perez for her support of Assata Shakur, a former Black Liberation Army member convicted of murder, and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Asked about her support for Farrakhan, Perez responded that there are "no perfect leaders".
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