Like too many Latinos in California, I grew up in a neighborhood where daily life was dominated by anxiety and fear. A neighborhood where people feared going to the doctor because of the risk of deportation. Where young people feared they would never get a decent education or find a good-paying job. Where parents feared their children would run into trouble with the law. And when people are driven by fear, they often do things they regret.

Fear got the best of me. At age 16, I made a mistake I will regret forever, and I paid for it with 10 and a half years of my life. When I got out of prison two years ago, I made a commitment to myself to contribute positively to my community. I’ve worked as a case manager with at-risk youth in San Francisco’s Mission District, where I serve as a mentor and help young people receive an education, secure jobs, and handle the daily stresses that come with growing up and not knowing what resources are available to support you.

These young people are growing up in neighborhoods like mine, so I use all the tools that my life experience has given me to help them avoid the path I took.

But one tool I can’t use to help my community is perhaps the most effective tool of all: the vote.

That’s because under California law, I and almost 50,000 other citizens like me who have completed our prison sentences are stripped of our right to vote in our elections, thanks to a law ratified in the 19th century that was meant to keep people from communities like mine from voting.

Proposition 17—an initiative on the ballot in California this November—would finally abolish this unjust law that brands people released from prison as less than full citizens. And that would mean so much to me and to communities like the one I grew up in and work to improve on a daily basis.

My community is no stranger to harsh, discriminatory laws. Beginning in 1994 and continuing until its repeal in 2014, for example, Proposition 187 required our doctors, teachers, and first responders to report our immigration and citizenship status to the federal authorities. The intent of sinister laws like that—and the fear they spread—has been ingrained in my community’s consciousness.

My job and my mission have been to help young people understand that despite a fraught history between the state and its laws and our community, we are not powerless. We have the power to shape our lives, and the laws we live by. The importance of community participation and voting is central to my message. The power of the vote can change the system we live in and make opportunities accessible to people growing up in neighborhoods like ours by improving our schools, making our streets safer, and creating career pathways.

Unfortunately, there are too many people who, like me, cannot fully participate in our democracy. They include thousands of Californians who at 15, 16, and 17 years old were tried as adults and now decades later remain stripped of a right they lost before they ever gained it—the right to vote—despite having completed their prison sentences.

California voters have an opportunity to restore dignity and hope and a voice to communities like mine. With approval of Proposition 17, nearly 50,000 Californian citizens like me doing everything we can to rebuild our lives and contributing to our communities will come closer to being whole again, and so will our democracy.

Veronica Hernandez is a Case Manager with at risk youth in San Francisco’s Mission District. Veronica was incarcerated for 10 and a half years before completing her sentence in 2018.