It is often said that a child’s imagination is their greatest gift—encouraging them to play with reality—shielding them from worldly pains. 

Eleven-year-old Marlene Sanchez felt the limitation of her imagination as she sat on the floor of her cell. Her childhood was filled to the brim with experiences to be ‘reimagined.’ 

“Why is it only brown and black girls in the system?” questioned Sanchez as a child. From that moment on, she worked to not only answer but to understand the implications of that question. 

Today, Sanchez sits as the first woman of color Executive Director of Oakland’s Ella Baker Center, named after the prodigious African-American civil rights activist. 

A native of the Mission District, Sanchez found her family “trying to survive in the 80s.” After her father’s arrest for drug possession, her mother worked incessantly, to keep her family afloat, a task that was disappointingly endless, given that her father was presented with a 20-year sentence. 

“There was a direct connection to the war on drugs,” Sanchez said. “My experience was also a direct connection to the war on youth, the war on people of color, the war on poor people.” And, unfortunately, Sanchez fell into each of these categories. 

With the absence of both parents came the need to belong to something. This propelled Sanchez to join a gang at 13. “I found respect there,” she tells me, adding that was vital to her survival. “Learning about people like Angela Davis was a sort of political awakening for me.” 

That awakening led to a whole new understanding of the world and how it functioned against people like her. 

In the 90’s, guided by organizations in the Mission that invested in her, Sanchez found her way to The Young Women’s Freedom Center. She invested her time learning about the criminal justice system, finding that “the system was created for men, and so they’re not taking into account the needs of women and the special needs of pregnant women.” 

When asked to explain more on this subject, Sanchez recalls numerous accounts of pregnant women losing their children—both in childbirth and to the foster care system. Images of pregnant, fearful young mothers, chained to their beds as they entered labor, followed by the knowledge that there was no law to protect any of these women. 

Though never having been to prison, cycling in and out of the system gave Sanchez some perspective on how the criminal justice system treats women.

“It is a unique experience and you serve more time in prison and I don’t want to take away from that experience in that, yes, I cycled in and out of the system…I didn’t go to prison, thank God, but I know its a very different experience…I don’t ever want to assume I know what that’s like.” 

But even during these trying times, Sanchez recalls small glimpses of hope. “When people invest in me,” she replied when asked how to break these cycles. “When you invest in women, when you invest in women of color, you are investing in communities, you’re investing in whole families.” 

When you invest in women, when you invest in women of color, you are investing in communities, you’re investing in whole families.

She felt the gravity of opportunity, once people had invested in her, and sought similar feelings for those growing up in a similar stature to her.

When asked what it looked like to carry on the legacy of Ella Baker, Sanchez tells me that, “at times it feels like women carry the world on their shoulders and I’ve also seen how women really model what it means to be in community with each other.” 

She is certain that women are strong enough to carry the world, to model the divesting of juvenile facilities and the investment of alternatives to the system. Alternatives that provide young persons with the knowledge and resources that they might need to make it somewhere, anywhere. 

The same little girl who sat in her cell, imagining, sits in her office today. Imagining. She imagines a reality, one day, that is different from what she experienced as a child. She “knows this won’t be an issue we solve in my lifetime. But we can make it a little easier for the generations that are coming after us.” 

And, when asked to speak to the women that came before her, the women that will come after her, she expresses gratitude. “Thank you to Ella Baker and to all the women who didn’t get recognition and whose names we don’t know of but who fought and put themselves on the line for this work. I would say thank you because we are standing on the shoulders of giants. They paved the way so that I can do this work.”