Lifelong youth advocate David Inocencio, who founded the popular publication for incarcerated juveniles The Beat Within, died July 8 in Daly City, of cancer. He was 59.
A decades-long presence in the San Francisco juvenile justice sphere, Inocencio dedicated his life to the twice-monthly magazine he helped launch in 1996, and was widely recognized for his passion for uplifting the voices of those behind bars.
“Every kid who went through the juvenile justice system in the last two decades, you knew David,” said Lateefah Simon, civil rights activist and former leader of the Young Women’s Freedom Center.
Inocencio held discussions and weekly workshops with kids in San Francisco juvenile hall, and in his easy way, managed to break through to often closed-off children and spurred them to be vulnerable and produce the art and writing that filled the publication.
“From that very first night, it opened the world up to me,” said Russell Morse, a former participant in one such workshop in the 1990s. Morse was a self-destructive 15-year-old in and out of juvenile hall when he met Inocencio, he said, in a place where “it’s hard to get hyped about anything.”
But Inocencio had a calm, peaceful way about him, and an infectious smile that drew people in. He would host a sort of “hood editorial meeting” among kids who were incarcerated for serious crimes, and let them express themselves freely.
“I’d never encountered anything like that before,” said Morse. “I hated school; I thought school was wack.”
Morse’s interest was sparked at The Beat Within and, when he was released years later, he was one of many who got a paying job with Inocencio at the magazine. He went on to become a published author and journalist.
Jamai Gayle remembered being a scared 14-year-old his first of 19 times in San Francisco’s juvenile hall through the late 1990s, when he met Inocencio at a writing workshop there. He was insecure about his handwriting and spelling, but ended up writing for The Beat Within through his teenage years, under Inocencio’s guidance.
“You got all these adults hard-nosing you, and here is this person … He’s not stressing you, he’s offering you some kind of creative outlet — and he’s understanding,” said Gayle, who remembers keeping a stack of the magazines in his closet.
“It’s a beacon of light. It’s something to hold on to in a terrifying moment in your life.”
The beat is born
Inocencio was born on Sept. 16, 1963, in San Francisco and was raised in Daly City. Growing up, he spent time hopping between his grandparents’ home in the Outer Mission and his other grandparents’ home in North Beach.
He played football at Westmoor High School, where he graduated in 1981, and worked at Candlestick Park and Swensen’s ice cream shop in his spare time. During high school and his brief time at Skyline College, Inocencio worked for his father’s renowned photography studio and, in his 20s, he took time off to travel Europe and visit baseball parks across the country.
Eventually, he began studying social work at San Francisco State University, and soon began working in juvenile hall.
“He was part of our juvenile family at the Public Defender’s Office,” said Patti Lee, longtime managing attorney of the office’s juvenile unit. “He’s the type of person that touches your soul.”
Inocencio worked as an intern with the office before moving to other areas of juvenile justice. He worked in the early 1990s as a counselor at the Juvenile Probation Department, and later helped launch the nationally lauded Detention Diversion Advocacy Program at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, where he worked as its assistant director.
In 1995, when Inocencio was hired by Sandy Close as the education director of YO! Youth Outlook Magazine, his eventual life calling came into focus. Close was looking for a way into juvenile hall because so many of the teens she worked with at the magazine started winding up there. And Inocencio knew the place inside and out.
“When he met her, his whole career path changed,” said Alfredo Bojorquez, a social worker at the Public Defender’s Office who had worked with Inocencio beginning in the late 1980s.
In 1996, after rapper Tupac Shakur was murdered, Inocencio had the kids in juvenile hall write their reactions to his death. These were compiled into the first issue of The Beat Within, a youth-centric magazine, but one specifically for children in juvenile hall.
And so the beat was born.
“It was the time of ‘superpredators,’ and thinking that kids who had done time and who were incarcerated were unmanageable and unsaveable,” said Caille Millner, who met Inocencio in the 1990s when she was a journalist with the Pacific News Service. In more recent years, she volunteered with him at San Quentin State Prison, where Inocencio had begun hosting workshops for adults.
Inocencio was ahead of his time, Millner said, in his understanding that youths’ brain development is incomplete, and his belief that they deserved to share their side of the story.
The Beat Within was run under the umbrella of the Pacific News Service and New America Media for several years before, in 2015, Inocencio began to run the publication independently. He expanded the program to serve youth in different counties and states, as well as some adult prisons. Today, thousands of incarcerated youths attend The Beat Within’s weekly workshops in more than a dozen detention facilities.
The once-six-page magazine has grown to 70 pages and is printed twice-monthly, distributed to its contributors, their families and detention facilities.
The Beat Within was awarded the Bill Graham Award in 2008. Inocencio also won many awards for his work, including the Justice Trailblazer Award from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice (2022), the Jefferson Award for community and public volunteerism (2005), awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, and the Pass Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (2004).
Listening and showing up
Inocencio uniquely knew how to connect with those that society had pushed to its margins.
“They would see you listening to them, taking what they had to say seriously, and for most of them that had never happened before,” Sandy Close said. “Day after day, week after week, year after year — he is filling a void, not because he’s giving some great lecture or some great insight, but because he’s there, and as long as he’s there, somebody cares.”
In her first day at juvenile hall with Inocencio, Close said they asked children what they’d change about the facility, and was surprised to hear many ask for more time with the religious representatives.
“And these were the so-called superpredators,” Close said in disbelief.
Writing and creating art for The Beat Within gave the youths at juvenile hall, and some of their parents, an outlet during difficult times.
“It definitely turned a lot of people around,” said artist Josué Rojas, who worked with Inocencio as an illustrator for YO! Youth Outlook and saw him in the New America Media office in SoMa for years. “The dignity of having a byline, the dignity of having your work published, the dignity of having what you say taken seriously.”
Inocencio, like his publication, took everyone seriously. Children would write to him from their cells, parents from around the country would reach out to him — and he was always there to write back and ask about their lives.
“When you’re locked up, like, nobody writes back,” said Morse. “Even good people who love you, people forget.”
But Inocencio didn’t forget, and would send Morse long letters within days. When Morse ended up back in juvenile hall after a stint elsewhere, he said Inocencio would remember to call him by his graffiti moniker, and addressed him like an old friend: “Yooo, Jive!”
Anna Avalos found Inocencio online when her 15-year-old daughter was imprisoned in Portland in connection to a murder. She left a comment on her daughter’s story in The Beat Within, and suddenly got a message from Inocencio offering to help her write an article of her own, if she wanted to.
“He helped me in a horrible time in my life,” Avalos said of her daughter’s 10 years in prison. “It helped a lot, because you got to express the other side, what you’re going through.”
Inocencio’s consistency, and his ability to genuinely listen to those who crossed his path, got children once dismissed as illiterate writing longform pieces.
“To be invisible, as David would often say, was to know a sense of despair, very very deep despair,” Close said. “And that’s what he confronted.”
And once Inocencio had you on his list, he didn’t let you go.
“He was just a guy who was steady,” said Carlos “Kookie” Gonzalez, an artist and former probation officer at juvenile hall who watched The Beat Within grow from its infancy. “He did what he said he’d do.”
Simon, who ran the Young Women’s Freedom Center and is now running for Congress, remembered a time when Inocencio would call her every day about taking on another young woman he had worked with at juvenile hall.
“And I’d say, ‘David, I don’t have money like that!’” she remembered fondly. “And he would say, ‘Find it! Find it!’ — he just wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
During the pandemic, when distancing requirements meant detention facilities were closed and jail programming was shut down, Inocencio was persistent as ever.
“He was on the phone every day with every facility possible, asking if we could do Zoom meetings, if not, could we do Teams meetings, if not, could staff do the meetings?” said Alyssa Maanao, a program associate at The Beat Within who met Inocencio more than 10 years ago, when she was a 19-year-old volunteer in Solano County. “It was just relentless, relentless effort on his part.”
And despite the heaviness of his vocation, Inocencio kept his smile and put those around him at ease.
“I think it was definitely part of his life philosophy to show up with joy, especially for people who, quite frankly, felt like they had been thrown away,” Millner said.
It didn’t hurt that Inocencio was cool — without being a try-hard. He had an extensive record collection, and was often seeking out obscure bands’ concerts in the city, attending jazz shows in New Orleans, or enjoying a cup of coffee at a North Beach cafe.
At the 9th Street office, colleagues remember him tapping on his desk to the music humming in his headphones. At home, Inocencio’s first wife, Amanda Inocencio, remembered him coming home from a long day at work and dancing with his daughter to Ella Fitzgerald.
Inocencio learned about social movements through music, Amanda said, and “he got his inspiration and absolute joy” from it.
“He was a cool looking dude, he had his little ponytail and his mustache and his sole patch,” Gonzalez said. “He didn’t look like a nerdy guy, and [the kids] loved him.”
Finally, at the right moment, Inocencio could step back and let the rest fall into place.
“You hold the space, you create the space — and then you just trust,” said Urban School teacher Courtney Rein, who volunteered with Inocencio at his workshops and watched him at work. “There was just never any ego involved; it was never about him.”
David Inocencio is survived by his wife and The Beat Within partner, Lisa Lavaysse, his daughter Liberty Inocencio, his parents, David and Carol, his brother Paul and his family, and the thousands of youths he gave voice to.
Now, as Inocencio would often say, “The beat goes on.”