Urban Fellow Jonathan Peñuela ’19 Aims to Uplift Underrepresented Communities

Urban Fellow Jonathan Peñuela ’19 Aims to Uplift Underrepresented Communities

Urban Fellow Jonathan Peñuela ’19 Aims to Uplift Underrepresented Communities

As a Political Science major, Macaulay Honors student, and recent John Jay graduate, Jonathan Peñuela ’19 has learned that government is where he could best serve the people in underrepresented communities. And, while his time at John Jay steered Peñuela towards government work, his identity and experiences growing up played a pivotal role in his views on justice and advocacy. “I am an unapologetically Latinx, queer man of color, and second-generation immigrant. I grew up in a mixed-status household, and that’s where I developed ideas of justice that differed from the law. The College has helped me gain a firm grasp on the pressing issues of today, and I want to work to fix them,” said Peñuela. Now as an Urban Fellows Program winner, he is one step closer to accomplishing his dream. “The Urban Fellows Program will give me hands-on experience in government and a look at how to change the issues we are facing,” he said. “I want to become a policy writer and design programs for the benefit of marginalized communities. This program brings me another step closer to my goal.”

“I want to become a policy writer and design programs for the benefit of marginalized communities.” —Jonathan Peñuela

Developing an Advocacy Spirit
Peñuela’s passion for advocacy started when he was a kid. “Being a second-generation immigrant has shaped my view of justice entirely. When I was very young, one of my parents was deported to Colombia,” he said. “I immediately began questioning the idea of American exceptionalism and what patriotism meant and this continued as I was learning about American and world history in school.” The experience of having a parent deported could stop some people from achieving their dreams. But for Peñuela, it became the fuel that he needed to keep going. “Every time I feel like giving up, I remember how I felt when my parent was deported. I don’t ever want another child to have to go through what I went through.”

“Every time I feel like giving up, I remember how I felt when my parent was deported. I don’t ever want another child to have to go through what I went through.”—Jonathan Peñuela

Even in moments when he loses hope, he looks at the news and gets the constant reminder of why staying on track is so important. “When I hear about cruel ICE raids, and family separation, or horrifying asylum seeker stories, and the gruesome conditions at the detention facilities, I think of my own experience and how devastating it is when a family is separated so unjustly,” said Peñuela. “It hurts to read and hear about how rough the immigrant experience can be, which is why I’ve put myself in situations where I can become a stronger advocate. I’m driven to do my part, no matter what that means.”

Working to Help Others
Initially, Peñuela came to John Jay with a strong intent of applying to law school. He liked that the College offered a justice-centered environment where he could thrive. But, he quickly realized that law school wasn’t for him. It was his internship experiences at The Bronx Defenders, Safe Horizon and the Organization for Aid to Refugees that made a tremendous impact on him, and set him on a new path. “I spent my first summer of college working with members of my community as an immigration legal advocate with The Bronx Defenders, and then with Safe Horizon’s Immigration Law Project, interviewing and preparing applications for clients,” he said. “When I was working with The Bronx Defenders, I saw what people went through in immigration courts and the outrageous decisions of immigrant judges. I was responsible for listening to the client and learning about their trauma. Even though some of their stories hit close to home, I knew that this was more than a job or an internship, it was a calling.”

A pivotal moment came when he was interning at the City’s Administrator’s Office in Oakland, California. “I was part of the resilience team developing ‘Healthy Housing,’ a rental housing inspection policy in Oakland. It was there that I learned how different institutions intersect to create unique challenges for vulnerable communities. I saw first-hand the amount of homes in largely immigrant communities that didn’t have smoke alarms and I realized that working in government would allow me to be a part of changes that would make entire jurisdictions better places to live,” he said. “Being part of this team made me feel like I was someone within the agency. I learned that public policy satisfied the passionate activist in me, the dedicated adviser in me, and the creative thinker in me.”

“It is impossible to keep politics out of policy work, and trying to do so only does an injustice to the most vulnerable communities.”—Jonathan Peñuela

“At John Jay, I learned about the centuries of oppression towards certain groups and how that history is perpetuated and reinforced today. Things like the slave trade, the genocide of Native Americans and black people throughout the Americas, the government-enforced inequality in social programs, the erasure and destruction of queerness, and the inherent problems and history of capitalism, John Jay opened my eyes to all these issues.” But the biggest lesson he learned, was that politics is never far away from all these issues. “It is impossible to keep politics out of policy work, and trying to do so only does an injustice to the most vulnerable communities,” he said. His internship experiences, along with his John Jay education ultimately led Peñuela to apply for the Urban Fellows Program.

Peñuela holding up the Colombian Flag
Peñuela holding up the Colombian Flag

Aspiring to Become a Policy Writer
Starting in September, Peñuela will be placed at a City agency where he hopes to bring his perspective as a lifelong New York City resident to issues affecting the City. “The Urban Fellows Program is an invaluable learning experience and an opportunity for entry into New York’s policymaking sphere,” he said. Urban Fellows—a nine month program where participants can work in city agencies—offers professional growth through seminars, meetings with leading policymakers, and volunteer opportunities. “I am excited to participate in this program, because I want to learn more about government and because the last time I experienced government work was probably the happiest I’ve ever been in a work setting,” said Peñuela.

“Policy decisions get created by whoever is in the room at the time, and I want to be in the room so that I can be that voice for vulnerable communities and push for equity in new and greater ways.”—Jonathan Peñuela

Once he’s done with the program, Peñuela is setting his sights on graduate school. “After I finish with this program, I’m going to pursue either a master’s degree in Public Policy or in Public Administration. Then, I plan to return to local government,” he said. When asked what he hopes to change when he makes it to government, Peñuela has a simple response, closing the gap between luxury housing and homelessness. “Nothing bothers me more than knowing that in New York City at this very moment, there are streets where people are sleeping on the sidewalk while there is an abundance of empty, unaffordable, luxury apartments above,” said Peñuela. “I would want to work on mechanisms that allow New York City to ensure that everyone has a place to stay. For me, policy decisions get created by whoever is in the room at the time, and I want to be in the room so that I can be that voice for vulnerable communities and push for equity in new and greater ways.”