Student George Villa reads outdoors.
George Villa is a Community and Regional Development major. He aims to implement changes to public health in his hometown of Salinas, and to address mass incarceration in California.

Those Closest to the Problem are Closest to the Solution: George Villa

George Villa

Community and Regional Development

Once we can learn to start the healing process and love ourselves, we are in fact a step closer to dismantling the prison industrial complex. I strongly believe that those closest to the problem are closest to the solution.

How did you come to UC Davis? 

This all began with a dream. 

Both of my parents worked in the agriculture fields during a time when farmworkers were mistreated and endured unsafe conditions. I wanted to learn community development tools in response to policies that neglected public health issues in my community, and take part in decision making processes to build a healthier community from the perspective of the people who live there. Being the first in my family to attend a University is an opportunity to strengthen my family’s conditions and dissolve the backbreaking work that we have endured for many generations. 

Getting an education meant that I would be creating a pathway to improve the quality of life for myself and my family.

Being a student at UC Davis means that I can change the narrative about formerly incarcerated people as being deficits in society, to being seen as solutions to the community. It means I have a commitment to heighten my education and eventually change policies and systems that affect low-income residents locally and statewide. 

Challenges and Culture Shock

Initially, my experience in UC Davis was not the best - I experienced culture shock. This school has buildings that look very similar to prison, and it seemed like there were not many students of color or from my socio-economic background. Eventually I was able to find support systems such as classmates, counselors, and professors. Programs including EOP, Guardian Scholars, Human Ecology, as well as the Native American Center, and Chicano Studies Center which are culturally responsive to the needs of students.  

One of the main challenges I faced was getting access to mental health treatment as well as testing for accommodations by the Student Disability Center. Because of my years of youth incarceration and isolation, I developed mental health issues that I was not able to feel until decades later. 

There was not a set protocol for formerly incarcerated students to get support for this type of care. It took months and an extensive process to finally get the treatment and accommodations I needed. 

One thing you should never do is put someone that has been in isolation into a classroom with 300 students.

Thanks to Guardian Scholars, [academic advisor] Lili Bynes, and the EOP program for their intervention and reducing my stress levels. These accommodations have been extremely helpful and my professors have all been supportive. I now maintain a 3.6 GPA.

Finding My Community and Making Change

My Community and Regional Development classes align with my career goals and current work in ending mass incarceration. Critical conversations with classmates and professors has really helped my build my community and career goals. There have been many amazing faculty that have been supportive in my personal and professional development. 

I have also benefited from research opportunities such as studying abroad in Nepal in Winter 2019 and working for a Center for Regional Change project called Neighborhood Owning Action Power and Leadership (NOPAL), a partnership between UC Davis and four community-based organizations in Central California. This partnership has provided me with practical work and research to build bridges with civically engaged community members and academia.

I’ve also been active in my hometown in a number of ways, including taking part in local land use efforts to improve the quality of life of residents in Salinas. I am also the Director of Team Villa Boxing Gym, which supports the growth of student athletes that can perform in the ring and serve active voices in the pursuit of social justice in the neighborhoods they call home. 

Future Plans

I plan to earn my Master’s Degree in Community and Regional Development and take part in the process of changing policies and systems to end mass incarceration.

I think a lot of students are still in disbelief when I share that I have been incarcerated for non-violent minor offenses such as like marijuana and being late to school.  I like to share with people the negative impact that criminal justice systems have on people of color and poor white people. 

I also would like to expand our non-profit Team Villa Boxing Gym to the center of where my community is suffering most from underfunded schools, crime, and police-resident unrest. I feel that if there is easy access to services such as boxing, reading classes, financial literacy, wellness, arts and crafts, residents will have better health outcomes and public safety will be improved. 


George's Advice for BTS Students: Even though we have been impacted by punitive criminal justice systems directly and indirectly there are ways to heal our mind, body, and soul. I believe that your attitude determines your altitude, and if you want to make change you have to be in the movement for all people. This means taking care of our internal heart work before we can try to support others. Once we can learn to start the healing process and love ourselves, we are in fact a step closer to dismantling the prison industrial complex. I strongly believe that those closest to the problem are closest to the solution. It is important for BTS student to know this!!!


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