In July, 22-year-old Daniel Aguilar returned to Eastern District Court, Brooklyn – the same place where he was charged with a felony six years ago for stealing a pair of Beats headphones. But this time, he was there to help.
It was graduation day for the most recent class of Young New Yorkers, a six-year-old non-profit organization that offers arts-based diversion programs as an alternative to jail time for teenagers who have been charged and prosecuted. Aguilar was there to assist the new graduates with setting up their art in a courtroom, where some of Brooklyn’s judges – including the one who arraigned him – were present.
Aguilar was among the first class of Young New Yorkers graduates in 2012. After his case was dismissed and sealed as a result of his participation in the program, he graduated high school and entered the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in 2013. In the same year, he became an ambassador for the organization, speaking at fund-raising events and panel talks for Young New Yorkers. In May, he began working full-time as a program assistant and peer mentor, preparing classes – workshops, art classes, excursions – for kids just like his younger self.
WHY DID YOU MAKE THE DECISION TO JOIN YOUNG NEW YORKERS?
I am someone who went to the program and someone who’s been in similar circumstances as they have … and so I felt like someone who could just be a voice for them and be like: it’s okay, you made a mistake but that doesn’t necessarily define who you are as a person and just look past it. But also knowing that going forward, it’s important to realize the consequences of your actions.
WHAT’S THE DAY-TO-DAY INTERACTION LIKE BETWEEN YOU AND THE YOUNG NEW YORKERS?
I think that one of the elements that I contribute to the classroom is I’m also very young. So to look at me next to someone who’s a teacher or authority figure, as someone that is a friend, someone who could talk to them and give them some advice. … When I talked to them, they do open up and they are very attentive.
DO YOU REMEMBER A PARTICULAR DAY OR AN EVENT YOU SPENT WITH THESE KIDS FROM THE RECENT PROGRAM?
For the eight-week program … we go on excursions. … With this program, most of the kids want to be tattoo artists so they had lots of tattoos. I don’t know if you’re familiar with [tattoo artist] Paul Booth. … We took all 10 of our participants, and a couple of teaching staff … went over there and we just had a phenomenal time just connecting and talking with Paul Booth.
WHAT’S MOST CHALLENGING ABOUT THE JOB?
I think it’s learning to manage … trauma. … I think that may be more difficult with the eight-week program because you get to know them more in a deeper level … as opposed to a one-day program. But even when a one-day program when you do talk to someone, and they give you very in-depth detailed description of … something they’ve been through, it’s hard to realize and say: oh that happened to you, that’s horrible.
WAS THAT THE FIRST TIME YOU SAW THE JUDGES AFTER THE ARRAIGNMENTS?
It was the second time but I haven’t seen them in years. … That was the first judge who I guess arraigned me and then the prosecutor who had my case. We had a conversation – me and the judge … He’s like, oh you know what? This is great. We should have more kids assigned to the program and come and talk to Daniel. When I hear stuff like that, I’m like, wow.
WHAT’S YOUR PLAN FOR THE FUTURE?
I’m in the process of starting up my own real estate business. … It’s called New Life Property Ventures. … I want to … get to a point where I’m financially secure, but also to the point where I could generate enough capital to give back to my community.
IS YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH THE PROGRAMS HERE GOING TO CHANGE IF YOUR BUSINESS DEVELOPS?
I’m probably still going to work whenever they have one-day … programs. I’m dedicated to the cause, I’m connected to the cause and I just think that I need to be here.