Daniela Medina, a second year master’s student in UC Berkeley’s Social Welfare program, dedicates her studies, work, and life to supporting formerly and currently incarcerated and system-impacted people.
Within Berkeley, she works as a mentor with Berkeley Underground Scholars, a program which aims to build a “prison-to-university” pipeline.
After Medina succeeded in getting both her G.E.D. and A.A while incarcerated, Berkeley Underground Scholars supported her in transferring to UC Berkeley to pursue her degree in Social Welfare. Now, as a master’s student, mentor, and activist, she aims to “pay this support forward.”
“I had a lot of doubts about accessing higher education,” she shared. “As a formerly incarcerated individual, I was like, do they do background checks, do they let you in if you have a criminal record? A lot of people come from my community, it’s not that we don’t like school. I loved school; I loved reading; I loved to learn. But there were a lot of things in my life that didn’t allow me to focus on school. I never saw anyone in my family or community that was in college. I thought only people in the movies went to college, it wasn’t anyone I knew,” she said.
Within Berkeley Underground Scholars, Medina supports students one-on-one and recently lead a fundraising campaign to meet students’ needs as much as possible — particularly their requests for mental health services.
“Our students are extremely intelligent, smart, hardworking; our students are some of the sharpest people in these classrooms,” says Medina. “They’re getting accepted into Princeton, Stanford, Harvard—all the big leagues. Students are coming in with a lot of trauma, though. They’re asking for mental health services. The university could provide more funding — but hasn’t as of yet, so we have to apply to private grants to fill that gap.”
Recently, Berkeley Underground Scholars succeeded in getting a private grant for $1 million to expand their program to every UC campus.
Originally from Oakland, it is important to Medina that her work reaches outside the university bubble to connect to her community.
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, she understood that a lockdown for people within the prison system was a “real lockdown.” It meant not having access to phones or families, and not knowing when you’re next going to be able to shop for food or basic hygiene products. She raised over $4,000 in mutual aid through social media by sharing stories of women who were incarcerated, and asking people to repost or provide monetary support. Medina donated the funds to the women, and then worked with Unapologetically Hers — an organization dedicated to supporting women within the prison system, co-founded by Medina and her friend Aminah Elster — to raise even more.
“As a mother myself, I know what it’s like to not be able to see your kids or your family,” said Medina.
Another part of her’s community-based work is her position on the Neighborhood Opportunity and Accountability Board (NOAB) in Oakland. NOAB focuses on providing community-led alternatives to the juvenile justice system, prioritizing restorative justice, healing, and connecting youth to community support networks.
Throughout her work and personal life, Medina strives to honor the life and impact of her friend and colleague, Sylvia Bracamonte MSW ‘19, who died while on call last March.
“Sylvia is the reason I was able to see myself in the Master of Social Welfare program” said Medina. “Sylvia talked to me about radical social work—how you can be organizing and in the community.I am following in her footsteps.”
Sylvia Bracamonte’s impact on her friends, family, her home community, and UC Berkeley campus is immeasurable. A beloved community member, student-parent, formerly incarcerated and formerly house-less individual, Sylvia Bracamonte was committed to finding homes for house-less youth, and dedicated to loving and caring for the people she served, particularly women of color.
Working with Berkley Underground Scholars and the Graduate Student Assembly, Medina has established the Sylvia Bracamonte Memorial Scholarship, available at SylviaLives.com. The scholarship will uplift women of color, as Sylvia did throughout her life.
“It is really important to me that people don’t forget who she was and what she brought to this campus,” said Medina. “Syliva taught me to speak up. She taught me to not be afraid to say what’s on my mind, and not be afraid to fight for people. She changed my trajectory. I want her to be with me always. I didn’t think I would fit in the MSW program until she spoke up.”
Recently, Medina was honored with the California Women’s Leadership Scholarship by Senator Nancy Skinner, and during the ceremony Medina made sure to recognize Sylvia, and the other supporters in her life, saying:
“There’s always been a community of women who have supported and pushed me and held me. Sylvia was always one of them. I’m always going to uplift Sylvia Bracamonte’s name; I’m going to always include her.”
If Medina could say anything to a younger self, or a women or person who resonates with her story she would say: “You can change the things you do, without changing who you are; continue to center your work around the women and people who have gotten you here. And don’t be afraid to take up space and share your story. If Sylvia hadn’t spoken up in our Social Welfare program, then I wouldn’t have felt like I belonged there.”
To those who have access to funding and power, Medina would say: “A lot of time people are afraid to highlight the work of formerly incarcerated and system impacted. But, know that we are the ones who are going to be able to make the big changes. Investing in us is investing in a better future for everyone.”
Medina ended her interview by quoting Glenn E. Martin, activist and founder of JustLeadershipUSA, an organization which is dedicated to cutting the US correctional population in half by 2030:
“The people closest to the problem are the closest to the solution. Lift up those who are closest to the problem and give their actions support. They are worthy of the resources that everybody else is receiving.”