Social Justice Advocate, Feminist, Prison Abolitionist
For Marilyn Montenegro, empowering the disadvantaged has not only characterized her social work career but has also defined her life. Her fearless commitment to the advocacy of equality began while she earned her MSW at the UCLA School of Social Welfare. As a Latina student in the 1960�s who benefited from the work of those who supported affirmative action, Montenegro upheld the convictions of those before her by becoming involved in the Chicano Student Organization. Being a catalyst for further diversity in the student body, faculty, and academic content at UCLA initiated her pursuit to create additional opportunities for those who are outnumbered and underprivileged in society.
She continued to pave a way for the underrepresented in academia after receiving her MSW by developing plans to increase the number of minorities in schools of social work through the Minority Coalition. Her efforts expanded beyond equal education and included resolving other societal ills caused by racism. Montenegro first confronted housing discrimination as the director of South Bay Fair Housing and then assisted community groups in obtaining funding as the director of program development at Special Service for Groups. Her activity in social justice organizations continued to grow over time and includes serving in a position of leadership for the LA Chapter of NASW Committee on Institutional Racism, the LA Chapter of NASW Peace and Social Justice Committee, and the Statewide Advisory Committee for the Chicana Service Action Center. Montenegro’s outstanding advocacy accomplishments earned her the national honor of 2002 NASW Social Worker of the Year.Montenegro’s allegiance to women, especially those in prison, has been a focal point throughout her social work career. She first witnessed the inhumane conditions when she and her life partner, Bernice Augenbraun (Hall of Distinction Inductee, 2004) visited a friend in prison in the 1970’s; this experience ignited their desire to protect prisoners from brutal forms of punishment. They formed and then she has headed the Prison Project through the NASW Women’s Council for more than 30 years, which seeks to end the cruel treatment imposed on inmates behind closed doors. She then became involved in the successful movement to shut down the Lexington Control Unit in Kentucky, where sensory deprivation was exercised to punish the female inmates.
The Action Committee for Women in Prison, Women’s Coalition South Bay, Steering Committee of the SoCal Criminal Justice Consortium, and Committee for Human Rights Inquiry are examples of organizations Montenegro has participated in to change prison conditions. Although active in various groups, her primary mission is to substitute the longstanding use of retributive justice for restorative justice in the prison system. Replacing punishment as the purpose of imprisonment, restorative justice involves mediation and equal participation of offenders and victims to focus on remediating harm rather than establishing guilt.
Montenegro earned her PhD in Urban Studies at USC in 1981 and has continued to use her education to empower others by becoming a social work field instructor to undergraduate and graduate students throughout California, and sharing her expertise in understanding and navigating regulations and systems for the benefit of clients. Whether they are inmates or students, Montenegro continues her dedication to inspire others to seek justice and equality.