For Youth as Change Agents, journalist Momo Chang talked with 4 of these leaders from around the U.S. about their individual struggles as minorities and what they’re doing to make a difference.
Youth as Change Agents
By Momo Chang
Immigrant Youth Activists Dare to DREAM
Ecuadorian-born Gaby Pacheco was brought to the U.S. by her parents in 1993, when she was 7. By the time Pacheco was 18 and a student at Miami Dade College in Florida, she had started advocating for education rights for undocumented youth like her. She co-founded an activist group for immigrant youth called Students Working for Equal Rights.
"SWER became everybody's second family," Pacheco says. "We would help each other with information, from how to get books for college, to how to get a library card, to how to get from one place to another if one of us had a driver's license."
Pacheco and her friends were not alone. Across the country, dozens of similar groups began emerging on college campuses and became the connective tissue for the United We Dream Network, a national outfit linking 20,000 undocumented youth to resources for local, state, and national political organizing.
The network's crowning achievement so far has been mobilizing thousands of undocumented youth in support of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, or DREAM Act. The legislation would have given nearly 2 million youth who were moved to the U.S. as minors a path to citizenship if they met requirements such as attending college or joining the military for two years. Pacheco was one of four immigrant students last year who walked the "Trail of Dreams," a 1,500-mile trek from Miami to Washington, D.C., in an effort to draw attention to the plight of undocumented youth.
Though the DREAM Act failed to pass the Senate by five votes, Pacheco and her fellow immigrant activists are promoting piecemeal local and statewide legislation that would give them more rights, including a California DREAM Act, which would allow undocumented college students to receive state financial aid at public colleges and universities. They also plan on lobbying the Obama administration to temporarily halt deportations of DREAM Act-eligible youth.
"Coming into the light and empowering ourselves, that has been the single most key and important point that has been able to move us forward," Pacheco says about the thousands of undocumented youth who have gone public in recent years. "There's a lot of work that needs to be done, but we've come a long way in the movement just by sharing our stories."
Oakland Youth Groups Focus on Local Issues
In Oakland, California, the high school dropout rate is 40 percent. Nearly one-quarter of 18- to 24-year-olds live in poverty. The city's youth clearly faces daunting odds, but efforts to organize young Oakland residents demonstrate the power of local activism.
In 1998, a nonprofit organization called the Asian/Pacific Islander Youth Promoting Advocacy and Leadership was founded to serve the city's Asian and Pacific Islander community, which includes Vietnamese, Lao, and Cambodian refugee families. Children, teenagers, and young adults in these communities face similar issues as their peers, but their social and political concerns are also rooted in unique cultural experiences.
"A lot of their parents are from war-torn countries, so there are a lot of mental -- health issues," says Armael Malinis, a lead organizer at AYPAL. "They face so much, with violence, poor education, and issues at home dealing with war and genocide, and just the angst of being a teenager."
Malinis heads a group of more than two dozen community youth leaders who organize grassroots campaigns with the assistance of 250 to 300 activists. In 2009, AYPAL, as part of a multiracial coalition of service providers, advocated for a city measure guaranteeing millions in funding for youth and children's programs designed to serve at-risk youth as part of a violence-prevention campaign. AYPAL's youth activists lobbied Oakland City Council members and held three citywide rallies attended by more than 1,000 people. Voters passed the measure, which allocates 3 percent of the city's general funds to youth programs every year for 12 years.
Vincent Saephan, age 20 and a five-year veteran of AYPAL, spoke in front of City Council members but admits he didn't have faith in the process at first. "It took a lot of work," he says. "I feel like organizing is not just work; it's more like something that has to be done. I have a lot of passion for it now. It helped me realize that change is possible."
At the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, a nonprofit that addresses issues like incarceration and unemployment, a dozen youth of color have been meeting weekly to discuss racial profiling. They intend on conducting communitywide focus groups of 250 people, including police officers, to determine what can be done.
The tension between police and Oakland youth is palpable on the streets, says Crystallee Crain, founder of Heal the Streets, a violence prevention and youth leadership development program at the center: "They feel it at school, as consumers in stores; they feel it while they're driving down the streets." The 2009 shooting death of Oscar Grant, an unarmed 22-year-old African American man, by a white Bay Area transit officer remains a flash point for activism and anger, and last December, the center held a meeting between an Oakland school district police officer, a dozen high school students, and Jack Bryson, whose two sons were with Grant the night he was killed.
The group sat in a circle, with a large collage of Grant in the background. Participants listened as Bryson described how his anger at local police transformed into respect for some officers he had met in a violence-prevention class. The police representative returned in February with three other officers and were interviewed by youth activists about racial profiling, a first step in the center's work to address racial profiling of youth of color.
Mental-Health Services for Young Native Americans
Of the country's 4.3 million American Indians, one-third are under 18. This large youth population -- only one of four U.S. residents is under 18 -- means that American Indian youth have a powerful role in shaping the future of their communities.
Many native youths live on reservations, where rates of substance abuse, poverty, and unemployment are high. "As a native person, more or less, we're a forgotten people," says J'Shon Lee, a 22-year-old from Arizona's White Mountain Apache tribe. Lee is co-vice president of the National Congress of American Indians' youth commission.
The NCAI founded that panel in 1997 to address the needs of young American Indians, and of late, the organization has begun to focus on the suicide rate of 15- to 24-year-olds. At 33 deaths per 100,000 people, the rate is more than twice as high as it is for the rest of the U.S. population. NCAI wants to change that by raising awareness of mental-health issues among young American Indians and by providing better prevention services.
Last year, local councils under the United National Indian Tribal Youth, a national organization with over 150 youth councils, began holding Unity Days to address the impact of substance abuse on young people. There have been past victories as well. In 2007, a group of high school teens from the Laguna and Acoma reservations outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, successfully lobbied state legislators for $50,000 to fund a suicide-prevention project.
"I think it starts with the realization that this is an important issue, that it is happening in our communities," Lee says. "I think a lot of communities are at that point, saying that we really need to focus on the youth and come alongside them to focus on the challenge."