Dialogue on criminal justice organizer seeks change through compassion

By Kyra Skylark
Flapjack Staff

Organizer of a recent HSU campus dialogue on criminal justice, Vanessa Virtiak was born and attended schools in Humboldt. Today she works as the programs coordinator at the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office, working to better her community.

“For me it has never been an option to not do that, to not go out into the world and do my best to create change,” said Vrtiak.

She works to repair the criminal justice system because she knows just how broken it really is.

Vrtiak’s mother was incarcerated in 2000.

Upon release, her mother had no money, no job, no home, and no help. Vrtiak and her mother were homeless. Vrtiak’s mother was unable to find work after incarceration and unable to overcome the stigma that followed her her.

She is still homeless today.

The criminal justice system failed Vrtiak and her mother, so she, with the help of many other individuals, is working to change the system. Two weeks ago at HSU, a criminal justice dialogue was held to examine the effects of incarceration on families, how race and gender influence incarceration, as well as other issues within the criminal justice system. The dialogue was one of multiple events organized by Vrtiak; beginning with an art exhibit featuring art from those incarcerated in our local jail, and a Re-entry Fair to bring local employers into the prison. Vrtiak brought people from other programs, to help her start a discussion within our community. She had a vision.

“To bring light to these issues, to the lack of resources in our community, to break down the stigma that exists, and to show that theses are real people that are impacted by the criminal justice system,” said Vrtiak.

The dialogue enabled community members to stand up and share their opinions on our local justice system. In an informative and safe environment people came together to bring about change, and they were brought together by one individual, Vanessa Vrtiak.

Representatives from Prisoners with Children, Project What, Homeboy Industries, and many other criminal justice programs/organizations came to be apart of the dialogue. Vrtiak wanted to show the community, as well as the local officials, some programs and policies implemented in other counties that could exist here in our community.

Vrtiak’s fianc, Ulyses Dorantes watched her plan the event for six months.

“The more I heard about what she was actually able to accomplish, the people that she was able to get all the way up here to speak, and the funding sources she was able to pull together, I was really moved,” said Dorantes.

Many incredible speakers told their stories at the Criminal Justice Dialogue. Children of incarcerated parents spoke out about their experiences, previously incarcerated individuals shared their stories, many people came together to tell their truths, their stories.

“There is power in listening to someone’s story, and the people here, that are sharing their stories, are people,” said Vrtiak.

This is what Vrtiak wants people to understand. The individuals that we label ‘criminals,’ that word doesn’t define them. They have families, they have fears, and they have hopes; most importantly they deserve to be helped.

Tailani Wilson, 17, was one of the presenters for the youth organization Project What!. She told her story on how her life has been affected by the criminal justice system.

“I had never really thought of my dad’s incarceration as an issue, it was just my life,” said Wilson.

It was only after she joined Project What! that she began to acknowledge the impact her dad’s incarceration has had on her life. Wilson’s story explained firsthand what it means to be a child with an incarcerated parent, to be, “in jail mentally.” Listening to her story was powerful. The dialogue was educational and truthful, but it was also painful. There are many whose lives have been forever changed by the system.

Those that attended the Criminal Justice dialogue were apart of an incredible event. Vrtiak worked for six months finding the speakers, setting up the dialogue, and the other events. Those who know her saw her commitment and passion.

“I was really happy to help in any way I could; not just as her partner, but as someone who deeply cares about positions as well,” said Dorantes. “I have been moved to care tremendously more so, because of everything I’ve learned in my experience here.”

Vrtiak inspired people.

Vrtiak’s desire to change the way the incarcerated are treated brought together individuals of similar ideals. Able to come together and discuss the problems within the criminal justice system, our community has taken steps towards change.

“The value of listening, that, is truly the greatest gift you can give someone. And it breeds compassion, which I think is ultimately missing from this conversation,” said Vrtiak.

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