Jonathan Alvarez is making up for lost time after he spent his last few teenage years and all of his 20s in prison.
Or rather, the way he sees it, "I didn't just serve prison time, prison time served me."
Alvarez returned home to Yonkers at 30 years old with a college degree and ambition. That combination propelled him to study fashion at Parsons School of Design, The New School, where he immersed himself in the fashion world in New York City.
But being so goal-oriented never allowed him to heal from past trauma.
Alvarez left the program in the first semester to reevaluate. He was starting a support group and volunteering with My Brother's Keeper when the pandemic hit.
That's when Alvarez and John Cabrera, a lifelong friend, decided to help however they could. They raised money and started buying food and PPE and donating to essential workers.
People started to recognize them and the work they were doing.
"We just didn't have a name yet," Alvarez said.
That work was the basis for what became Alvarez and Cabrera's nonprofit, 914United, which focuses on providing education and mentorship to underserved communities in the Lower Hudson Valley.
The organization has grown quickly, and for Alvarez, an important piece of it has been connecting people impacted by the criminal justice system with support.
For Cabrera, who describes his friend as compassionate and loyal, supporting Alvarez during his incarceration was a given.
"We feed off each other," Cabrera said. "He builds me, I build him, and that's the mentality we have when we mentor."
The street claimed him
Walking through the neighborhood where he used to hang out, Alvarez, now 33, is sensitive to how different his life was before he went to prison.
Now a confident community organizer accustomed to public speaking, Alvarez was once a misguided kid, which he attributes in part to not having his father around. He was a drug trafficker, Alvarez said of his dad, and after going to federal prison was later deported to the Dominican Republic.
Alvarez started selling drugs at 13. At 15, he got kicked out of Lincoln High School as he could no longer juggle the competing demands of school, selling drugs and hanging out with the street gang on Lawrence Street.
"As I got deeper involved, the main thing I wanted was money," he said.
When he was 17, he went to a friend's defense in a street fight, beating a 22-year-old man, who later died. Alvarez was prosecuted as an adult and sentenced for manslaughter. He served 12 years and four months in prison.
Alvarez turned 18 in the Westchester County jail, and then transferred to his first state facility, Sing Sing Correctional Facility.
"That's where my journey began," he said.
As Alvarez adjusted to life in prison, his friend Cabrera was there to support him.
Cabrera collected food and reading material from Alvarez's family and friends and regularly sent him packages. He started a bank account he contributed to regularly for about the last four years Alvarez was in prison. When he got out, Cabrera released the account to him.
Alvarez's incarceration left a hole in Cabrera's life. Just teenagers when he went away, the two were used to seeing each other almost every day, Cabrera said, sleeping over at each other's houses, getting ready for school together and playing basketball.
But even though those times together were no longer possible, the two talked often on the phone and Cabrera visited when he could.
As Alvarez served his time and transferred between facilities, his goal became getting to the facilities with the most programs that could help him.
"Education became that next thing that was available for me to better myself," he said.
Alvarez was also motivated by other men he met in prison — "old school gangsters" — who had transformed their own lives.
After completing his GED, Alvarez wanted to keep going, so he set his sights on Eastern Correctional Facility, where he knew of a college program called the Bard Prison Initiative.
When he transferred to Eastern, he took the entrance exam and wrote the essay to apply for the program.
He didn't get in. Alvarez was heartbroken.
"But that whole year I took advantage of every writing class, every tutor that was available, other programs, public speaking," he said. "By that time, I knew the importance of investing into myself."
When he applied the second time, he got in. For the next five years, Alvarez enjoyed the intellectual experience, being around academically-minded peers and professors from prestigious universities.
As he took classes to get his bachelor's in social studies, he focused on what fashion trends mean in urban communities and traced the origins of street fashion to the Jim Crow South. Completing the program lined up with his release and he was able to get his diploma at graduation on campus at Bard College instead of in prison.
From the time Alvarez went to prison to the time he graduated from college, Cabrera watched his friend undergo a transformation.
"The transition was completely made where he was no longer this 'Jae-O' that was known in the streets, he was now Jonathan Alvarez, the professional," Cabrera said.
No time to waste
Alvarez was released from prison in October 2018. In the next couple months he applied to the master's program at The New School.
By the time he started the program the next fall on a scholarship, he had already worked in Rep. Sean Maloney's office, completed an unpaid internship working on a fashion show in Manhattan, and done freelance research for a nonprofit working on a documentary about mass incarceration.
Keeping that pace as he started school, he found himself struggling to juggle being a full-time student with working two jobs.
"I just felt like this sense of failure," Alvarez said. "I just felt like I did everything wrong."
To focus on school, he let both jobs go, but without any money coming in Alvarez reached a breaking point.
He left the program in the first semester, and with his departure came a sense of relief — that he could take a step back and "breathe a little bit," he said.
But he couldn't sit still for long.
Alvarez went to Cabrera with the idea to create a support group "based on the fact that I had the support, you know, that I needed at at a crucial time," Alvarez said.
He wanted to give other people that space to heal, and continue his own healing.
"What I've realized now that I'm in the work is I never got to heal," Alvarez said. "I'm a survivor of trauma."
Alvarez and Cabrera created the You're Not Alone Brotherhood, a safe space for men and boys to share their challenges.
Alvarez also reconnected with the principal who expelled him from high school who had gone on to become the superintendent of Yonkers Public Schools, Dr. Edwin Quezada.
Through Quezada, Alvarez got involved with My Brother's Keeper, and encouraged Cabrera to with him. The first time Alvarez shared his story in front of a group was at his old high school. Quezada introduced him.
"He's just very focused and interested in making a difference," Quezada said. "He is a success story that we need to honor and we need to celebrate."
And, Quezada said, it will be important to create more spaces where Alvarez can help with the challenges young people, particularly young men of color face.
Alvarez and Cabrera were doing meaningful work. Alvarez started speaking more at schools.
"And then the pandemic hit," Alvarez said, "and life stopped."
Their mentoring through MBK went virtual, but Alvarez and Cabrera didn't want to slow down, so they started making calls and raising money — over $20,000 — for food and PPE for frontline workers.
"This was a total different mission. This wasn't even what we are about," Alvarez said. "We just wanted to help."
Their work caught the attention of public officials and community members and soon they found that people wanted to know who they were, so they came up with the name 914United to show people in the community they weren't alone.
In August 2020, 914United officially became a nonprofit.
Paying it forward
Alvarez and Cabrera have grown 914United quickly. It's now a team of 12 and the organization offers seven different programs from civic empowerment to financial literacy. The You're Not Alone Brotherhood is also one of them.
An important component of their work is focused on reentry from incarceration, mentoring adults and kids before and after they get out, and working with at-risk kids.
They're on their second cohort going through a 15-hour digital literacy course in which participants who complete it get to keep a Google Chromebook and get a year of Wi-Fi hotspot access.
"What makes the work unique there is that he is leading something in a way that is relational," said Margaret Käufer, president of the STEM Alliance, which provides the devices. "And he is meeting people in their moment, in their story and then pulling them forward, step by step."
AT&T funds the educator and curriculum for the program.
Käufer said Alvarez understands the population he serves, that for many, they live in a world that doesn't trust them. Alvarez shows them he does trust them, she said, "That's how he operates."
Alvarez works as a case manager for Yonkers SNUG program, still mentors for MBK and provides counseling and academic support in the Westchester County Department of Corrections Youth Offender Program.
He still returns to where the fight that changed his life happened. And balancing who he is now with the relationships he still has from his life before going to prison can be a challenge.
But he's confident in who he is.
"I'm not the one to call anymore if you're at war," Alvarez said. "I'm that voice of reason now."
Contact Diana Dombrowski at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @domdomdiana
This article originally appeared on Rockland/Westchester Journal News: Yonkers man left prison to study fashion, found 914United nonprofit