Q&A: Isabel Corondao, OSU alum and criminal justice activist
Oklahoma State University students have the power to impact their communities and even the country. Isabel Coronado, a recent graduate with her master's in public health, has been making an impact on the Muscogee (Creek) Nation since 2017 in terms of criminal justice. Recently she joined a think tank, Next100, to spread her mission to break the cycle of high Native American incarceration rates within Oklahoma.
Q: How did you get started in the work you’re doing?
A: “So my work was started at an early age as a young girl when I was faced with a really hard ordeal when I saw my mom get arrested (when I was) 7. She served a couple of years in prison, but through that she saw how incredibly intelligent she was and decided to make a new priority in her life, which was education and, of course, me, too.
Education was a really big thing for her. After law school, she served for a couple years as a criminal law attorney for our tribe, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. Seeing that whole journey has inspired me to keep in mind the children that are impacted by this and ways that this can end generational incarceration.
I started doing that through a program that I helped create called American Indian Criminal Justice Navigation Council, which was founded by David LittleSun. It was made for teenage Native American offenders who have their rights and responsibilities through helping them understand through pairing them with other people who have gone through the same situations. My part was speaking up for the kids and making sure they are involved with this process and they aren’t left out and their voices are heard. I have formally stepped down from deputy director and decided that policy was such a big thing in this area and decided to take the position as a policy entrepreneur at Next100 and specifically focus on criminal justice within this community. And that’s where I am today.”
Q: When did you start being an activist?
A: “Well my activism really started with that program I helped create in 2017, because before that I was so embarrassed of my past and I didn’t think that it was something that I would ever want to bring up. I mean, at school people would ask, ‘Where’s your mom?’ ‘Why is your grandma always going to school functions?’ ‘Where are your parents at?’ So there were many times that I made up situations that weren’t happening because I felt that I didn’t have a voice. So I started opening up about my situation with this program by going and helping out in prisons, helping other kids that were going through the same issue. I realized, hey, this isn’t an embarrassing thing, it is something that happened to you and you need to speak up about it because there are so many other kids that this is happening to.”
Q: Why are you focusing on the criminal justice system in the Native American community?
A:“Specifically in Oklahoma, what’s happening is that we moved up incarceration to be No. 1 because we haven’t enacted any criminal justice law reform that started it. In Oklahoma, we’re incarcerating more and getting this way more than anyone else. It is important because we have certain provisions with our tribal courts and tribal resources that we have. Making sure they’re connected to their community is a really big deal to me.”
Q: How did you get involved with Next100?
A:“They were someone I met at a conference and they saw the work I was doing and said, ‘Hey this think tank is starting up, here’s the link, you should look into it.’ I had no idea what a think tank was. I had no idea I would end up on the East Coast in New York City from Oklahoma. I just never had the possibility in my head. I made the leap and it was kinda scary but I’m here now.”
Q: Can you touch on your role in Next100?
A:“Well the Next100 is a think tank, but not your traditional think tank. We don’t just do research and bring in policy and hope they get picked up. We’re actively trying to get our research and quality ideas out there and enacted. There are eight of us on the team and we are all super diverse and super involved in our areas, like education, climate change, criminal justice, economic security. Those are just some of the areas that are important to the next generation coming up and we’re looking at different ways to solve the issues in our area. Not only independently but also collaborating with each other, learning how like climate change isn’t just one issue, it’s integral to criminal justice and the economy.
There are so many ways that work to view the issues and the think tank is a new tool to come up with solutions by people who are directly impacted by these policies and are now making the policies.”
Q: Why is changing policy so important, especially in the area you’re advocating for?
A:“Changing policy is so important because one, I handle things stateside, specifically in Oklahoma. We are adding on to the problem if we are not creating solutions to it. It’s super important to have people like us come in and have our voices heard because we have the living experience of what is going on and are truly impacting our community. That’s why it’s important to get involved in policy, because that’s how you change laws and that’s how you change our community.”
Q: What else do you feel needs to be done in Oklahoma statewide in regards to criminal justice?
A:“I think there should be more schools for education statewide. I’m looking at the contributing factors of the cycle of incarceration. So one thing is to have more tutoring for these kids, more scholarships, more ways to get to success, and access to college. Another is healthcare, making sure these kids have good health outcomes and are getting the tools to have healthy lifestyles. I mean, gosh, there are so many ways but those are the big things that affect criminal justice especially in Oklahoma. There are more things but work still needs to be done.”