On a breezy late-May afternoon in Berkeley, California, Steven Medeiros stands atop a craggy peak in Indian Rock park, a popular bouldering and hangout spot that overlooks the San Francisco Bay skyline. With a denim jacket flung across his shoulder and the wind in his face, the 42-year-old looks more like an Avenger or a GQ cover model than a UC Berkeley student. In a few weeks, Medeiros, who lost his left leg in a motorcycle accident when he was 25, will travel to Honolulu for a summer gig working on the ACLU of Hawaii’s Smart Justice Campaign, a national criminal justice initiative that aims to reduce the prison population and address prosecutorial accountability. An activist and advocate for police accountability and prison reform, Medeiros is pursuing a master’s degree at Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy (ranked one of the country’s best) so he can effect change from the inside by helping to reimagine current systems and structures.
Medeiros, who identifies as Latinx and Hawaiian, has both witnessed and experienced the oppressive, detrimental effects of the American criminal justice system on people of color and impoverished populations. Growing up in Fremont, a racially diverse city in the Bay Area, he was exposed early on to police harassment of his community. His mother, a single mom who suffered from addiction, was incarcerated for a drug offense when he was only four years old. With his father out of the picture, Medeiros went to live with his paternal grandparents, who raised him. Eight years later, newly released from prison, his mother was murdered—run down by a truck while walking home from her job at a fast-food restaurant in East Oakland. The case went unsolved, but witnesses say they saw the truck chasing her, suggesting it was a targeted attack. As an adolescent, the impact on Medeiros was monumental. “For the next nine years, I engaged in a lot of toxic behavior, hanging out with troublemakers, gang members, people from broken homes who were dealing with similar things that I could relate to,” he says.
In that time, Medeiros’s interactions with law enforcement shaped the trajectory of his career. When he was 21, he was assaulted by a police officer with a tire iron during a routine traffic stop. At 22, he was racially profiled and arrested “for being brown downtown,” he says—booked for public intoxication although he had not been drinking. “It was the first time I had truly felt helpless and powerless,” he says.
Twenty years later, his goal is to help make sure other people never have to feel that way. As a policy student, the issues he’s most passionate about are police and prosecutorial accountability, mass incarceration, and reentry for formerly incarcerated people. To that end, before enrolling in graduate school, Medeiros worked at the ACLU of Northern California as a program coordinator in the Organizing Department and now serves as a county commissioner for Alameda County, where he’s hoping to improve the challenges surrounding prisoner reentry at a local level.
From Troubled Child to Changemaker
Forgiveness and family have been central to Medeiros healing from his childhood traumas. Being a compassionate and loving father to his daughter, Destiny, who at 23 has marched with him in Pride parades and Black Lives Matter protests, is his utmost priority. The like-minded duo share similar political opinions and that activist spark. On weekends, they can often be found restaurant hopping in San Francisco or exploring the outdoors. Medeiros has worked hard to instill values in Destiny such as tolerance and “not subscribing to shortcomings is what finally turned his life around.
Although he can recall a time not so long ago when he was considered a bad influence among his own family, Medeiros has grown into a role model for those who orbit him today. “His ability to be unapologetic in his stances—in his beliefs and values—has given me the courage to also live my life confidently and proudly,” says his cousin Sofia Dangerfield, who credits him with helping her two daughters grow into “open-minded little beings.”
“People always tell me, ‘You’re the most balanced person I know,’” for—for people who need it the most: people of color, women, LGBTQ folks—are being rolled back,” he says. He knows being a changemaker won’t be easy, but when overwhelm threatens to slow him down, his healing practices will help him power forward. “Equanimity, my favorite word, means having composure when things are chaotic and wild around you,” he says.
Here’s what else Medeiros had to say about what fires him up and keeps him cool—including police and prison reform, accessible yoga, and healing after a life-threatening injury.
On Finding Yoga
Between 18 and 22, I was really low. I had tried to turn my life around many times before, but I was always just addressing the symptoms of my problems, not the root of them. I’d stop hanging out with troublemakers, maintain a job, cease drinking and partying. But I was still angry and hurt. I hadn’t addressed the trauma of my childhood. Being an avid reader, I frequented bookstores, and I came across a yoga book. I had never heard of yoga, but I was really intrigued by what I read. I started to self-teach at home. It was challenging, and I like that. I’m a very physical person. I played competitive sports and practiced karate, so yoga was another challenge for me. I had felt so numb for the longest time—I didn’t feel alive. But every time I do yoga, I feel physically better. Things that I deal with, especially with what’s happening now with current events, tend to manifest physically—in my lower body, my jaw, and my shoulders. This practice has helped me release that, and I know it’s always going to work.
My mother’s death had a profound eﬀect on my life. I started questioning my self-worth. Was I destined to end up like my parents? As a teenager, I had yet to fully conceptualize the idea of choice and the role it would play in my life. After my mother died, I spiraled out of control.
I lost all interest in school and sports.
I began experimenting with drugs and alcohol and ran with the local gangs. My life looked bleak. At 22, I was exhausted and desperate for change, and I started the process of looking inward for solutions.
A message came to me that I had to forgive my parents.
Just like that, I forgave them wholeheartedly, and I felt different right away—a new person. I have never looked back. I not only forgave them for the things that they did and didn’t do, but I forgave others who had caused me trauma, and that included the people who killed my mother. I had been harboring so much anger and using that as fuel for some of the behaviors I was engaging in. But when I decided to forgive, I felt this complete release, and that allowed me to focus on other things. I jumped back into books and started down this path of self-help, deep introspection, and self-discovery. I decided to set aside anything I thought could be a distraction to me and my growth as a person and a father. I rekindled my relationship with my family, because in my youth, my “family” had become the streets. And when you’re in that, you think those people are your ride-or-dies, and they’re really not.
[Today] I talk to youths, and I tell them they’re more than the sum of their mistakes. Because of past actions, we think we don’t have a viable future given the systems in place. But I decided I wasn’t going to let that hinder me—that I was still worthy of having a good life of love despite my mistakes. So I had to forgive myself as well, which allowed me to live freely in the present with a new awareness of self and others.
On Losing His Leg
I never thought I’d make it to 18. And then my accident happened when I was doing good in life. I grappled with that. Because I felt like I had done the work. I was really upset and terrified I wouldn’t see my daughter again, because I wasn’t sure if I was actually going to live. And when I realized after a few surgeries that it was hopeful that I would, I started to think about how life would be. I remember watching TV just to study the biomechanics behind walking, because I knew I would have to learn how to walk again. I had all those normal human emotions and questions: Am I going to ﬁnd somebody who loves me for me now? How is sex going to be? How is it going to be to get around and to do everyday things? Am I going to be able to go to college? Finish college? But I knew I was very fortunate to be alive, and I knew I’d still be able to do things—I didn’t have brain damage. I was young.
I had a newfound perspective on life. I had this joy that emanated from me. I felt a halo around me, this glow. It was palpable. People noticed it; I didn’t even have to tell them. They were drawn to me like a magnet. Everywhere I went, people would touch me and say something kind: “You’re beautiful.” “I would marry you in a second.” Random things. I was always smiling from ear to ear just because I was breathing.
I started school a little over a year after losing my leg. I was a good student before, but I was an even better student after. It made me look at my priorities a little better in understanding that life, just like that, can be gone. In a split second things can change. So I became very intentional with how I spent my time.
On Adapting His Practice
I had reservations after losing my leg that maybe I couldn’t do yoga anymore. Of course my practice was never the same, but it morphed. I got really into restorative yoga. Early on in my practice, I thought everything had to be perfect. And it’s not about that. Today we see people of all types and shapes and abilities practicing yoga and mine might not look as graceful as yours or even remotely like yours, but it’s still OK. My practice is my practice.
On Working Within The Political Justice System
I grew up in a community that was harassed by police. But yet I have to work with the guy that runs the police, right? And I’ve been able to navigate that space pretty well. Somebody has to do it. If not me, then who? It’s a constant tug of war with me. I’m an impacted person.
I actually said to one of my professors, “I turned down this role to work for a mayor in Hawaii because the city was tearing down homeless encampments. You’re trying to get us to work in government, but how do I reconcile something that’s against my values?” She said, “But if not you, then who? We need smart.” She said we need people who are passionate about these issues in those roles.
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On The Challenges of Re-entry After Incarceration
The communities where I grew up were over-policed and over-incarcerated. My mother was incarcerated and my younger brother has been in and out of prison for the past 11 years. My uncle was in prison for half his life. The way society and the criminal justice system are designed is that when people break a law and are convicted of a crime, they go to jail or prison—and when they get out, they’re expected to just go back and be productive members of the community. But there are all these barriers in place that essentially don’t allow them to successfully reintegrate. For instance, it’s very diﬃcult to get a job if someone has a felony conviction. Housing is a huge problem: When people get out, they don’t have access to housing or they can’t qualify to rent something, because they have a criminal record. That is by design. It was intentional.
On Police and Prison Reform
The system was designed to disenfranchise a particular group, and it’s doing what it was intended to do. So when people say, “Oh, we need reforms,” [I ask] reforms of what? The system is working the way it was designed. We need to burn the system down and recreate it with everybody in mind. I’m not a visionary.
I want to do some transformative work, but it’s going to take visionaries to ask what this country would look like without police or prisons. Most people can’t fathom that. But we haven’t always had these things, and societies have lived in harmony without them. Yes, ours is unique because we have many different cultures and belief systems that make change challenging, but it’s doable.
On Body Confidence
My accident happened 17 years ago, and aside from the past few years, I hadn’t worn shorts all that time. I had a lot of insecurities about showing my prosthesis. I worried about people staring—what would they say, what would they think? But when I would visit Hawaii, it was OK. I was able to wear shorts and not feel those insecurities. But here, in the Bay Area, it was a struggle. I wanted to overcome it and I didn’t really know how to. I had been talking about it with people close to me for years and playing these stories in my head of the insecurity itself.
And one day, I went on a hike here in the Bay Area in shorts. Nobody was on the trail. Afterward, we went and had lunch in downtown Berkeley. Instead of putting my sweatpants back on to go eat in the restaurant, I decided to keep my shorts on. And yes, people looked, and children made comments, but that’s natural. It ended up not being a big deal. It was something that I had built up in my head. It didn’t come quick, but after that, here and there I would wear shorts, and it got easier and easier and easier, to the point where now I actually prefer it. The thing that I felt disempowered by, I feel empowered by now.