Oakland, Calif. – Alameda County’s Youth Advocate Programs (YAP), Inc. Director Timeka McGowan’s purpose is simple – to help young people make better decisions so they don’t end up in the prison system.
“Youth incarceration is the school-to-prison pipeline,” McGowan said. “It’s like we’re teaching youth how to survive being in jail with the police being at the schools and going to jail for minor offenses. California is not as punitive as they used to be, but it seems like once they go into the adult system, it’s like they can never get out.”
YAP is a national nonprofit in 33 states and Washington, D.C., that partners with youth justice, child welfare, behavioral health, and other systems to provide community-based alternatives to youth incarceration and congregate residential placements. YAP also partners with public safety systems to combine the nonprofit’s unique wraparound services approach with other evidence-based models to reduce violence.
Because she wanted to connect with youth and help keep them out of prison, McGowan left her job in an adult prison in Santa Rita, Calif. where she was the director for a recidivism program for five years.
“That job made me feel like if I could catch youths beforehand, as opposed to when they were adults, it would be easier for me,” McGowan said. “Youth are easier to convince and easier to work with if they have not been exposed to so much. So I thought if I go into juvenile justice, I can catch them before they go into the adult system and assist them with services that have affected their trauma and assist their families.”
YAP’s Alameda County program is a youth justice program, where through referrals, program participants are sent to YAP and assigned a neighborhood-based Advocate who champions for them and their families through economic, emotional and educational support. The office works with probation officers to create an individualized service plan for youths.
The office is situated in East Oakland, not too far from the Oakland International Airport, but services all of the 14 incorporated cities/towns within Alameda County including Berkeley and Hayward. McGowan appreciates that YAP has a no-reject, no-eject policy, and it’s another reason why she applied for the job.
“I like YAP’s mission,” McGowan added. “We don’t turn anyone away. A lot of organizations are turning kids away and we don’t. We help both the youth and their families and we help change their behaviors.”
Senior Advocate Krystina Stephens said having a supportive supervisor like McGowan is key. The pair were recently on the phone together for four hours when Stephens was with a program participant trying to deescalate a fight between the youth and her sister who were arguing over a wig.
“Timeka is awesome and she’s super supportive,” Stephens said. “She is genuine and always available. I had a crisis with a youth recently and she was on the phone with me the entire time helping. I know I can count on her.”
Born in Dallas, McGowan was 7 years-old when her family moved to California’s Bay Area. She was a military kid whose family lived on the now defunct Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo, Calif.
“There was a lot of discipline in my family growing up, however, I witnessed a lot of things in Oakland in the 80s and 90s,” McGowan said. “My cousin owned a store in Oakland and he made me attend several funerals for the kids who were getting killed in the neighborhood. It kind of caused me some trauma. Then, when I had my two Black sons, it made me worry about their safety a lot just doing normal things. It really made me think about doing more. I wanted to be a part of the solution.”
McGowan attended California State University Hayward, which is now called California State East Bay. Through her own experiences, education and former employment, she’s able to combine all three to help in her leadership role. She says the job hasn’t always been easy, but it’s rewarding.
“Some days are better than others,” she said, adding, “But I enjoy what I do.”