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Good for Santa Barbara 2017: Noozhawk's 2nd Annual report on Nonprofits and Philanthropy
Sponsored by Montecito Bank & Trust

Just Communities’ CommUnity Leadership Institute Guides Youths to Create Change

Students serve as a driving force by implementing programs at their schools designed to help peers feel a sense of belonging

Just Communities Central Coast facilitator Walid Afifi talks with Dos Pueblos High School students. Youth participants in its CommUnity Leadership Institute summer residential program continue their work by meeting monthly to develop new skills and connect with other young people. Click to view larger
Just Communities Central Coast facilitator Walid Afifi talks with Dos Pueblos High School students. Youth participants in its CommUnity Leadership Institute summer residential program continue their work by meeting monthly to develop new skills and connect with other young people. (Ryan Cullom / Noozhawk photo)

[Noozhawk’s note: Third in a series sponsored by the Hutton Parker Foundation. Click here for the first article, and click here for the second.]

Just Communities Central Coast doesn’t focus on lecturing to students, retraining adults or driving the dialogue. Instead, the Santa Barbara-based nonprofit organization develops programs in which participants lead the conversation, expand their understanding of themselves and others, and develop action plans they can institute in the real world.

One case in point is Just Communities' CommUnity Leadership Institute, established in 2003. The fee-free summer residential program brings together 50 students from high schools throughout the Central Coast to explore issues of sexism, genderism, racism and heterosexism and to develop skills to become leaders in those issues, according to Just Communities Executive Director Jarrod Schwartz.

Students in ninth through 11th grades are invited to participate in CLI during the summer, then continue their work in their communities, meet monthly to develop new skills and connect with other young people involved in their schools.

“We’re working to develop young leaders who are engaged in activities to create change,” Schwartz said. “We help them understand the issues, learn how to talk about the issues, understand appropriate language, how to address the issues, then they create plans, make change.”

When Just Communities opened its Central Coast office in 2001, only one Santa Barbara County school had a Genders & Sexualities Alliance.

“Today, there are 13 or 14 — the majority started by our youth program. Others started social justice or diversity clubs at their schools,” Schwartz said. “We know that came from the students’ efforts. We know having GSA is the single most important thing to increase safety for LGBTQ students. We know students have developed them, and they’re active.”

One CLI participant who saw his friend turning to gangs because they didn’t have another outlet started a low-rider bicycle club, Santa Barbara Don Riders.

“That club still exists today. You’ll see them in community events,” Schwartz said. “It was a way to develop friendships for him and people who shared his interest, and to belong to something, to contribute.”

Fillmore students noted that, although they lived in a farming community, many low-income people didn't have access to fresh fruits and vegetables. They started a farmers market that evolved into a food share program as the community’s needs changed.

CLI participants from Piru lobbied for expanded public transit options for their community.

“They developed recommendations, presented those to Ventura County, and a couple of years later, all their recommendations had been adopted into the Ventura County Transit Plan,” Schwartz said.

When gang violence appeared to be on the rise in Santa Barbara, it was a group of youths who pointed out solutions that were being developed by adults talking about young people, not young people talking.

“They weren’t talking about root causes, so the youth put on a forum at San Marcos High School to help get students exploring gang and youth violence. It was one of the most sophisticated and complex programs,” Schwarz said.

Through that discussion, students learned that some of their classmates felt marginalized at school, didn’t feel a sense of community or belonging, and that gang membership gave them that as well as a sense of belonging, purpose and power.

“The students’ goal was to reach a broader group and educators to help them shift the conversation and talk about issues in an expanded way, how issues of racism, classism and violent masculinity all connect to the gang problem,” Schwartz said.

For San Marcos junior Isabel Huerta, Just Communities has served as an outlet for making the changes she would like to see. First a student participant in Talking in Class, she now serves as facilitator for that program and other Just Communities programs. She also serves on the Just Communities board of directors.

She has been particularly interested in closing the achievement gap and providing adequate representation on a campus where the majority of students are Latino while the majority of teachers, staff and administrators are not.

“We brought up the fact that many of these families don’t speak English at home, so with back-to-school night or programs where parents are expected to participate, we needed paperwork to be provided in Spanish and English. We needed translators at the meetings and presentations,” Huerta said.

The result has been more parent participation in those programs, and more open dialogue between schools and the families they serve.

Huerta and her peers also have been instrumental in offering morning announcements in both English and Spanish — “Obviously, not everyone is fluent,” she said — and changing student body elections to be more inclusive by changing voting from lunchtime to class time.

“It’s not only about diversity, but about inclusion. How can we include all the students,” Huerta explained. “With lunch, students who don’t need extra help have longer breaks, which means they have time to vote. Students who need extra help, maybe because they can’t get help at home or they have a language barrier, get that extra help while other students enjoy an extended lunch. The result has been a shift from an overly white ASB to half-and-half.”

She’s proud of each “little tweak to make things better,” but said many barriers still exist in her school. That’s why she remains active in Talking in Class, to address the issues from a student’s perspective.

“Our youth are experts. We’re experts in our own experiences and how we see things. We know them to be true to ourselves and our personal experiences,” Huerta said. “Adults are creating policies for youth, but I’m the one participating in school, I’m the Latina woman of color. Our society is changing socially drastically, especially with social media. Our youth are really expert at what’s going on, and it’s important to listen to them.”

Lessons learned in Just Communities programs carry on through life, and spread to new generations.

Schwartz said CLI graduate Esther Flores did amazing work as a student at San Marcos High School, then returned to CLI to serve as staff and ultimately co-director of the institute. She took her training to La Cuesta Continuation High School, where she taught for several years before moving to the Bay Area, where she now serves as a career pathway coordinator for the San Francisco Unified School District.

“One of the challenges we have is that we’re so understaffed it’s hard to identify what the long-term impacts are of these programs,” Schwartz said. “What’s the impact of having 14 GSAs compared with one just a few years ago? Among their issues was lack of gender-neutral bathrooms. Last year, Dos Pueblos became the first local school to have such bathrooms, and by the end of last year, every school in Santa Barbara Unified had at least one. There’s more to the discussion, a broader perspective on that, but we know our students’ activism was key in those changes.”

Click here for more information about Just Communities Central Coast. Click here to make an online donation.

Noozhawk contributing writer Jennifer Best can be reached at [email protected]. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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