Celebrating Latino Leaders: Kyisha Velazquez
"I am meant to help make change and give a voice to those who feel their voices are not being heard."
Program Manager of the New Haven Juvenile Review Board
Hometown: New Haven, Connecticut
In 2007, Velazquez helped New Haven Family Alliance launch the Juvenile Review Board, which works with students who have been arrested for the first time or face potential expulsion or suspension so that they stay in school and do not receive criminal charges. Velazquez and her staff use a model known as restorative justice. The program has since expanded to Hamden, and Velazquez is sitting on a citywide workgroup to incorporate restorative justice throughout the New Haven Public Schools.
“It’s about holding students accountable to repair the harm they did to their relationships and rebuild those relationships. Not just to the direct victim, but to everybody around them that they impacted including their family and including themselves. Because ultimately when we make bad decisions it harms us,” Velazquez said.
One of the most important aspects of Velazquez’s job is working with students after they return to school, and rebuilding their relationships with teachers and staff.
“Academics saved me. Being able to learn and have people in school push you to do more because they believe in you even when you don’t believe in yourself -- that’s one of the most important things for young people today. When there is a disconnect with the school, then we really work on trying to rebuild that relationship. If the kid or the parent is upset with the school, we need to fix that. We need to repair whatever harm was caused.”
It takes a Village
Velazquez’s desire to be a leader for youth was inspired by teachers at school as well as neighborhood mentors.
“I used to go to the Barbell Club in the Hill. The building is still there next to the little park, but it’s vacant now. Nobody is doing anything with it. There was an after-school program there and a summer camp. There was a gentleman there, I don’t remember his name, it was so long ago, but I remember him just being so positive and pushing us and asking us about school and taking the time to encourage us to do more, and giving us leadership roles.”
Velazquez lived with her mom until she was 12 years old, then her grandmother, and was bounced around to several different families across New Haven. Despite a rough childhood, Velazquez always had adults looking out for her. At 14 she took her first job with Youth at Work as a camp counselor.
“I was only 14 and was responsible for 8 -12 year-old girls. Even though I was only two years older than some of them, they called me ‘Miss.’ When I see some of them now, they still call me ‘Miss.’ So I’ve always wanted to take a leadership role and help people . I’m the oldest of seven. I’m very proud of all my siblings. They’ve all made good choices.”
Velazquez says that she has since healed her relationship with both parents after a long period of reflection.
“I don’t blame them. I believe that a lot of things that happened to them were because of their environment and circumstances. I believe that my mom is a great human being with a great heart, and she struggles with some things for which she has never received support but should have through the years. I love her and accept her for who she is, because I’m not perfect either. We all have things that we have to work on.”
Finding Her Way
An active student, Velazquez graduated from Career High School and was accepted to three colleges. She chose Western Connecticut State University, where she volunteered as a math tutor and for the suicide prevention hotline. She also worked part time as an administrative assistant in the dean’s office and was a cheerleader. But she soon became overwhelmed and dropped out after a year.
“I had so much on my plate and no support at home. When it was vacation, I didn’t have a home to go to like the other kids. For Christmas, I ended up going with a friend to her family’s house.”
Returning to New Haven, Velazquez immediately began working secretarial and restaurant jobs, sometimes two or three at a time to make ends meet. After several years waiting tables, she quit after becoming fed up with the way a woman coworker was being treated. She enrolled in Springfield College and earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Human Services.
“Because I have younger siblings and wanted them to do well in life, that inspired me to go back to college and earn my degree. The best way to help someone else is by showing them.”
She now holds two Master's Degrees from Post University and Walden University and is working on obtaining a PhD in Clinical Psychology.
Velazquez took her passion in helping youth to the Job Corps, where she was the admissions counselor for several years. Then, a young man she had helped place with a program in Massachusetts was shot and killed, followed by another shooting death of an acquaintance.
“I went to two funerals in one week. I was so upset that I decided to look for another job where I could intervene earlier, so I could provide support for young people and help them make good choices before something bad happens.”
A friend told her about a job opening at New Haven Family Alliance for a case manager. Velazquez jumped at the opportunity, and within a few months was promoted to help create and lead the Juvenile Review Board.
“When I got the promotion, I felt that I am meant to be a leader. I am meant to help make change and give a voice to those who feel their voices are not being heard."
On what it means to be a successful Latina and what is needed for more Latinos to be successful
Velazquez said she values the cultural traditions passed down from one generation to the next, something she shares with the Progreso Latino Fund, which celebrates the rich and proud culture of the Latino community.
“It’s the small things; it bothers me that the younger Latinos don’t speak Spanish anymore. I believe that being connected to the culture somehow is so important. Being proud of where you come from is important. I think we can bring our culture here without losing it. My fear is that accepting what is considered normal, people let go of who they are. Sometimes we have to unlearn some things to teach ourselves who we are.”