…….. Ironically, it is his turbulent experience with the criminal justice system that inspired his change. As a high school drop-out, he went away with no education. But during his incarceration, ‘old-timers’ who had transformed their lives inspired him to wanting more than a criminal lifestyle. With positive mentors, he began shedding the criminal mindset and pursuing a formal education. He acquired a GED and later achieved an Associates in liberal arts and a Bachelor’s in Social Studies. By the time of his release,  he was ready, willing, and able to take full advantage of a second chance at life. His plans are to impact change in the same community he once helped to destroy. His–story is still in the making.


When he was 10 years-old, Jonathan was struggling with his young identity. He loss his father to the federal penitentiary and subsequently federal deportation, and his mother’s modest living wasn’t enough for him. Raised in poverty, he desired luxury and a sense of independence, which urged him to begin selling drugs and running with a local street gang. At 15, he was expelled from high school and decided to embrace the streets full-time: toting weapons, committing armed robberies, and warring with other gangs. Popularly known as “Jae-O,” he developed a reputation. When he was 17 years-old, a feud between his crew and a rival group led to his Manslaughter and Gang Assault in the 1st degree arrest.  Months after his eighteenth birthday, sentenced to 15 years in prison became his reality. “It was at that moment,” he says, ” that he just knew he ruined his life. But thank God that my experiences woke me up because who knew where I would be. Maybe dead or life in prison.”




If you ask him what inspired his change, Jonathan will say “many things.” But the most influential were his dark prison experiences and his education. In his speaking engagements, he emphasizes the dog-eat-dog world and the sense of powerless one has in prison. His mentors made him realize that empowering the self happens through nurturing the mind. Encouraged to get an education, he accomplished the GED and earned a seat in the competitive Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) program. This photo captures him during BPI’s 2016 AA graduation ceremony at Woodbourne Correctional Facility. He spoke to an audience of 400 people about overcoming his fear of public speaking. In his view, his collegiate journey was the birth of his leadership. Studying social theory and history broadened his worldviews, which enabled him to recognize the value of positive choice-making. He remained positive throughout the remainder of his sentence and dedicated his time to higher learning. As a result, he developed the vision to prepare a solid post-release plan to increase his chances of success.


Inspired by his graduate thesis (“A Dialectic Between Ghetto Fashion & Structural Violence: The Ongoing Battle For Power and Capital”), Jonathan returned home initially to be a Fashion Curator. He applied to the MA Fashion Studies program at Parsons School for Design and was awarded a 75% merit-based scholarship. After his first semester, however, he realized his true passion lies not in fashion but in mentoring youth and educating returning citizens like himself. As a man of action, he changed career paths and founded 914UNITED Inc. Today, he’s successful in his journey by holding several titles. He is a Yonkers SNUG Outreach Worker; an Academic Outreach Coordinator for the Westchester Department of Corrections; a Yonkers My Brother’s Keeper Mentor and Staff Committee member. Although new to the field, he has a strong foundation in mentor-ship. Not only has he counseled his peers in prison, but upon release he mentors at-risk/high-risk youth in his community. He visits their households to conduct 1:1 sessions. In addition to his direct contact experience, he has toured the Yonkers Public Schools to host workshops on life, work, education, and manhood. These concepts are explored via his inspirational presentation, “Shedding the Mask We Live In: Live to Lead.” Inspired by Ashanti Branch, M.Ed, this presentation discusses hyper-masculinity as it relates to street culture.  Jonathan’s mission is his passion, “I want young men of color,” he expresses, “to know that people like me are behind them and that our life service is for their personal growth and development. The more they know, the better they can do.”



COVID-19 Communications | BPI Alumni Affairs

This reflection by Jonathan Alvarez ’19 is part of the Community Voices op-ed series for the BPI Public Health Journal. He discusses the community outreach work he and his team spearheaded throughout the COVID-19 crisis, detailing their donations to the essential workers, first responders, and everyone in need during the disruptive pandemic.