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Antonio Zavala: Coming Full Circle

“Don has been a positive influence in my life since I was 14-years old. When I saw that Youth Transforming Justice (YTJ) had a job opening, I jumped at the opportunity. I knew my own personal experiences with the juvenile justice system could help other teens like me,” says Antonio Zavala, YTJ’s Director of Programs.


Antonio was born in Guadalajara Mexico and moved to Marin’s County when he was six years old. Growing up, his father owned a landscaping company and his mother worked as a house cleaner while raising Zavala and his siblings. “My parents worked hard to offer me and my two siblings’ greater opportunities than they had and instilled in us a strong work ethic.” But a few poor choices as a teenager saw Antonio in trouble at school and eventually spending time in Marin’s Juvenile Hall. At the time he was a student, San Rafael City Schools which still had disciplinary measures reminiscent of the zero-tolerance era with mandatory penalties and referrals to law enforcement.


Don was running an after school program through the YMCA at the time and Antonio was assigned to the program. “This Y program and the relationship I developed with Don was a game changer for me. He helped me access activities I never would have had the chance to participate in coming from a low-income household. Don was also someone who listened and cared about kids,” says Antonio.

Antonio has used these personal experiences to successfully guide teens referred to Youth Transforming Justice. “From personal experience I know the old punitive model aimed at improving student behavior is ineffective. At the time, I didn’t know of other alternatives such as restorative justice.”


When Don had a Restorative Justice Associate position open at YTJ, he immediately thought of Antonio. Just finishing his degree at Sonoma State University, Antonio was excited about the opportunity to use his own life experiences to help guide teens facing similar challenges. Over the last three years Antonio has had a tremendous impact on the growth and development of YTJ’s programs. “His ability to relate authentically to the young people referred to YTJ as well as communicate with our monolingual parent community has done a lot to increase the confidence that the entire community has in our programming,” according to Don. “Antonio is a huge asset to YTJ and has also been instrumental in our ability to grow school-based restorative discipline programs within the San Rafael City Schools District.”


This fall, Antonio was promoted to the role of Director of Programs and YTJ has hired additional employees to help the organization manage growth in the school-based programs and the launch of a new paid internship program focused on providing leadership opportunities for more teens of color. Antonio shared, “I love feeling like I am having impact on young people’s lives. YTJ’s programs are also authentically youth-led and that gives me the opportunity to help teens facing challenges, but also offer them real opportunities to learn, grow and become leaders in their communities. It is very satisfying work.”

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