When Cecilia Zavala was a girl growing up in Detroit, she dreamed of one day dressing up in suits and going to work downtown, where she’d have a job as “the boss.” Becoming a mother at the age of 16 didn’t deter her. She realized her goal, quickly rising through the ranks of Detroit’s Hispanic-focused nonprofits to found her own organization, Esperanza Detroit.

Then, she lost it all in one of the most painful and humiliating ways imaginable. Just as her nonprofit had won the right to take their pilot program statewide, Zavala found herself accused of financial wrongdoing. Worse, the evidence she wanted to use to clear her name was declared unusable by a judge. In the end, she took a plea deal that kept her out of prison, but that left her reputation and her career in tatters.

Building her life back up took grit and determination. It also strengthened her ability to empathize with others and clarified her values and goals in life. The injustice she saw in the legal system — not only what she experienced, but how she saw others treated — made her want to work for criminal justice reform.

“I believe that my life was taken down this path so I could learn something and shift my focus,” Zavala said. “It’s what woke me up and made me want to do this work.”

Now, Zavala is putting her career’s worth of talent and experience to work as Safe & Just Michigan’s new grants manager. Her work will make it possible to fund SJM’s legislative work, community outreach, research efforts and more. Like many nonprofits, SJM relies on grants for much of its funding, making the work Zavala does indispensable.

In some ways, it seems Zavala was destined for this sort of work. She grew up as the oldest of four siblings in southwestern Detroit in a family headed by a mother who worked for a nonprofit and a father who was a firefighter. Public service was not only taught as a value, it was demonstrated daily. She joined the Girl Scouts when she got old enough, and then became a troop mini-leader when she demonstrated leadership ability.

Zavala’s goal to become a well-dressed boss with a downtown job encountered a hurdle when she was 16 years old. Her neighborhood had become a violent place at that time, she said. So when she got a phone call that her boyfriend had been shot and was in the hospital, she ran to be by his side.

“They didn’t think he was going to make it, and he was asking for me,” she said. “When someone thinks they’re dying and says, ‘I love you, hold my hand,’ that’s very powerful for a young person. At that age, I didn’t know what love is. You don’t even know who you are.”

He pulled through, and the pair became closer. Not long after, Zavala became pregnant with her first child. The couple moved into their own place together and started their family. But it wasn’t easy.

Zavala was able to get her high school diploma while waitressing at restaurants. “I made my way,” she said. “It was a rough patch, but I think my parents laid a solid foundation for a good work ethic.”

But Zavala knew she could do more. Eventually, she got a job at Latino Family Services, one of the major nonprofits serving Detroit’s Hispanic community. She wanted to be an outreach worker, but she wasn’t yet 21 and couldn’t participate in outreach activities in bars. They made her an administrative assistant instead, and within a year, she worked her way up to department manager.

“I loved it,” Zavala said. “I liked the opportunity to become humble in understanding. I had misconceptions about people who were homeless and people who were addicted or who were commercial sex workers — that it was a choice. To understand what leads someone to those outcomes was very humbling.”

The work was heartbreaking at times, too. She saw that people who society gave the least status were often the people in need of the most compassion. “I got to work with some really beautiful people who society would just treat otherwise,” she said.

After four years at Latino Family Services, Zavala took a position with the Detroit Hispanic Development Corp., an organization that seeks to provide opportunities for empowerment, education and personal wealth for southwest Detroit’s Hispanic community. Zavala started as a grant writer and then became a project coordinator to oversee the grant projects she had helped create.

Among the highlights of her 12-year stay with the organization was her work with a gang retirement program. At the time she started working on the program, joining a street gang was a lot like joining the military, Zavala explained. A gang member couldn’t simply quit whenever they wanted — it took approval from the gang leadership. She worked with a team whose job was to negotiate those exits whenever possible.

“We would negotiate their exit out of a gang and into school or a job,” she said. “There were a couple of manufacturers in southwest Detroit run by Latinos and partner organizations who would work with us to give them an opportunity.”

The work was often risky, and she recalls meeting in churches, which were considered sacred neutral ground, to reach some agreements.

“It was really important work, and sometimes you had to put them in a safe house outside the neighborhood until we could negotiate their release,” she said.

Eventually, Zavala became director of all programming for the organization. She had finally become that business leader in a suit she had always wanted to be. She found herself flying to conferences and meetings across the country to consult with the CDC and other government agencies and nonprofits.

When she began to have some philosophical disagreements with her organization’s leadership regarding how to best work with clients, Zavala began to think about starting up her own nonprofit and focusing on work that was important to her.

Zavala and a business partner founded Esperanza Detroit, a nonprofit that wanted to support high school youth and prevent student violence. Zavala wrote a pilot program to bring liaisons into schools who could act as advocates for students, and who students could confide in. By the fourth year the program was in operation, Esperanza Detroit had won a contract to expand the program statewide.

Just when everything looked promising, Zavala’s world crumbled.

Zavala had to fire a student liaison at one of the Detroit schools. In doing so, she said she unwittingly made powerful enemies. A year later, the same police officer that Zavala had fired led a raid on her house. She was accused of mishandling money at her nonprofit and taken to jail.

What she experienced there shocked her.

“There’s a lot of injustice in the holding cell, but this one thing in particular sticks out,” Zavala said. “There was a woman in her pajamas – maybe 19 years old — who had just had baby. She’d had a fight with the baby’s daddy and stabbed him and was arrested over the weekend, and now it was Monday. She was given no sanitary pads and she was bleeding. She’d just had a baby and her milk was leaking. She had to go before the judge like that for the video arraignment. They gave her a $10,000 bond and she couldn’t get together $1,000 to get out. She was offered a plea deal without even talking to an attorney. I left the jail feeling awful because I was going home, but she was headed to the Wayne County Jail

“I can’t imagine people keeping dogs who just gave birth in that condition. I can’t imagine that being OK with people,” Zavala said. “That experience set a fire in my gut, and that’s what brought me to really want to do this work.”

As for her own case, she believed she could show her innocence by introducing her accounting books as evidence. But the prosecuting attorney successfully moved to suppress the evidence, leaving Zavala feeling defenseless. Fearing a harsher sentence if she fought the charge in court, she accepted a plea deal and was able to avoid prison with a probationary sentence.

Zavala thought she’d never be able to work in nonprofits again. She would apply for jobs, but as soon as her conviction came to light, the interview process would end. All the years she had successfully managing programs and securing nonprofit funding meant nothing compared to a felony conviction on her record.

She eventually found work at a community theater in Macomb County, where she was trusted with the cash register and to run the bar. The level of trust put in her felt great. Even so, Zavala wanted to return to the nonprofit world and do work that matched her value for public service.

When COVID-19 closed theaters around the state, Zavala took the opportunity to look again for work in the nonprofit sector. A Wayne County-based nonprofit focused on poverty elimination gave her an opportunity even after she let them know about her felony conviction, and she was overjoyed.

Just as she did years ago, when she was a young mother starting out, Zavala again quickly distinguished herself and rose through the ranks. But this time, she could only go so far. Once she was ready for jobs with greater authority, leadership balked at promoting someone with a criminal record. The experience crushed Zavala and others on staff, too. Not only did Zavala leave her job — her boss quit in protest, too.

Experiencing again the humiliation of living with a criminal record strengthened her resolve to work toward criminal justice reform. She found a place at Michigan United, a grassroots organization that works on criminal justice reform as well as other issues such as immigration reform, environmental justice, health care and preserving social safety net programs.

It was a step closer to where she wanted to be, but when she saw that Safe & Just Michigan needed an expert to help manage its grants, she jumped at the chance.

“The thing I like about Safe & Just Michigan is advocacy for legislative change,” Zavala said. “The Clean Slate initiative will make a huge difference. I did struggle with trying to find housing and employment, so I know that’s one giant step forward for people.”

She’s interested in SJM’s current work on bail reform, which she said would have helped the young mother she saw in the holding cell.  “It speaks exactly to what that young lady was experiencing,” Zavala said. “When you see something like that — it’s just wrong. Bail reform gives people more of a chance at getting through the justice system without having their whole life ruined. She had a baby, but she also had a job.”