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Top Youth Activism Victories of 2009


Commentary , The Editors
Dec 31, 2009


From: WireTap

New Beginnings for Juvenile Justice

The decades-long battle to close some of the nation's most decrepit youth prisons got a big boost in 2009.

On May 29, Washington, D.C. closed long-troubled Oak Hill Youth Center after years of reported scrutiny over rat-infested cells, abuse by guards and dismal educational programming (PDF).

The facility was replaced by New Beginnings Youth Center, a $46 million dollar campus that eschews razor wire fencing and clunky cells for electronic entry cards, a library and a landscaped courtyard.

"[New Beginnings] is the anti-prison," Vincent N. Schiraldo, director of the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, told The Washington Post in May. "What we had before was a training school for them to become adult inmates. We want them to aspire to college, to be in a place that looks like you care about them."

In August, California state officials announced plans to close Herman G. Stark Youth Correctional Facility in Chino. A report released in 2007 concluded that the environment was so bad at the facility that youth were especially prone to violence or suicide.

The Community Justice Network for Youth (CJNY), a juvenile justice advocacy group based in California, warned that the Stark closure is bittersweet, adding that the state still intends to transform the facility into an adult prison.

Both prison closures came amid new reports (PDF) of abuse and neglect in youth detention centers across the country.

Richmond, Calif. Students Learn From Tragedy

The horrific news of a 16-year-old girl who was allegedly gang-raped outside of her homecoming dance at Richmond High School in Northern California shocked millions. What made it even worse were reports that the attack was witnessed by over a dozen people who, over the course of two hours, allegedly took photos and joined the attack, but failed to intervene or call police.

In the weeks that followed, Richmond High students faced intense media scrutiny. The students, most of whom are working class and of color, were called "animals" and "monsters" by several outraged media observers.

Students acted quickly. With the help of campus-based organizations like Youth Together, a Bay Area education reform organization, hundreds of dedicated students and teachers mobilized candlelight vigils and financial support funds to help the victim recover.

"Some people think Richmond doesn't care, but would we all be out here if nobody cared?" said one student leader at a school rally held shortly after the attack.

Students and activists are also developing gender violence trainings to be added into the school's permanent curriculum. By the end of the training, organizers hope that students will examine how they perpetuate violence in their own lives, know how to respond to a bystander and become certified anti-violence trainers.


Wisconsin Students Dream Big

While federal officials stalled on immigration reform this year, students in Wisconsin went full steam ahead when they successfully passed a state-based version of the DREAM Act.

According to immigration activists, each year thousands of undocumented students are barred from going to college because they don't qualify for state or federal financial aid. Student-ledgroups across the country have increased their efforts to pass the DREAM Act, a proposed piece of federal legislation that would provide undocumented students with a path toward legalization and qualify them for financial aid.

On June 29, Wisconsin became the 11th state in the nation to allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition. Students organized with the support of immigrant advocacy groupsVoces de la Frontera and Students United for Recognizing Immigrant Rights (SUFRIR).

"I really think this gets us back on course with our brightest having more access to education," State Rep. Pedro Colon told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

It's estimated that between 400-650 undocumented students graduate each year from Wisconsin high schools.

WireTap reporter Antonio Daniel Ramirez, a former Milwaukee public school teacher, recalledthat at the school where he taught, four of the class valedictorians in five years had been undocumented students.

Green Jobs, Clean Energy

In February, 12,000 young people descended on D.C. as part of the Power Shift '09 campaign -- organized by the Energy Action Coalition -- to push for a ban on coal, immediate action on climate legislation this year, investment in green jobs and a 40 percent carbon emissions reduction by 2020. Youth from all 50 states hammered their message home in some 370 meetings with Congressional members and staff.

Organizers have plenty of successes to tout. The stimulus package passed in February set aside $50 billion for the nation's energy economy, focusing mostly on renewable energy, including $5 billion to make homes more energy efficient. Another $500 million was specifically allocated for green jobs. The administration has pushed to eliminate Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage, and in his address to the joint session of Congress, Obama asked members to deliver legislation to support caps on carbon pollution and investment in renewable energy.

Moving Voter Registration Into the 21st Century

The Bus Federation's affiliates in two states -- the Oregon Bus Project and New Era Colorado -- helped pass online voter registration bills, which moves the voter registration process in our country closer to the 21st century. These bills make voter registration easier by allowing anyone with a valid state ID the ability to register online and not deal with printing and mailing in the form, as is required in all but five states now. By pairing the voter registration database with state DMV databases, county clerks can verify the signatures on file to prevent fraud. The whole system will reduce administrative costs in the long-term.

Jeff Mapes reported in The Oregonian that registering online has already become popular in Arizona and Washington, the first two states that adopted online registration -- particularly among younger voters. In Washington last year, 25 percent of all new registrants signed up by internet.

The director of New Era Colorado, Steve Fenberg, says, "It took us two years to get the bill passed, but the second time we introduced it, it was broadly bipartisan -- it passed unanimously in the Senate. I'd say the coolest part of the bill is that it was supported completely by a grassroots effort with no hired lobbyists and it was actually written and lobbied through by young interns of New Era."

Students Win Higher Education Standards

Tracking. It's a term used to describe the ugly practice in American public education of placing students in different academic settings based on ability. Score low on a standardized high school entrance test and a student might be given only remedial and non-rigorous classes, which ultimately can limit their college choices. Californians for Justice (CFJ), a grassroots statewide youth organizing non-profit working for educational and racial justice in public schools, has been fighting for all students' rights to the A-G course sequence required for admittance at California State and University of California system colleges and universities.

In June 2009, CFJ scored a major victory in Oakland, Calif. when the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) joined San Jose, Los Angeles and San Diego districts in making A-G courses the standard curriculum for all students.

"An A-G curriculum will allow more Oakland students to be eligible for university," says CFJ Communication Director Paul Tran. "It will lessen student tracking, which is often based on racial and ethnic stereotyping, and follows the will of Oakland parents and students who stated in many surveys that they were interested in attending college." Students played a lead role in achieving the new standards, which take effect in the fall of 2012.

According to CJF Executive Director Jeremy Lahoud, the "A-G for All" campaign involved student leaders from CFJ, Youth in Focus, Asian Immigrant Women Advocates (AIWA)Youth Together, and other youth organizations who worked with OUSD's Meaningful Student Engagement initiative and Education Trust-West to conduct action research on the issue of college access and readiness. Student leaders presented their findings and demands to the OUSD school board prior the board's vote on the A-G resolution.

In one crucial confrontation, Oakland High School senior Cecilia Lopez made her demands known when a skeptical retired teacher and school board meeting regular said A-G would fail. "We are an economically challenged urban community," Lopez said. "If you're saying that the classes are going to be too hard, that means you don't believe. We're not asking for more counselors, we're asking for a counseling system. If we have A-G, it's not whether we can do it or not, it's whether the adults are willing to support us." The school board agreed with Lopez and A-G passed. Now CFJ hopes to bring Fresno and other school districts in California on board.

Lahoud believes the A-G campaign victory in Oakland will build momentum for a statewide and national movement that demands that all students, especially low-income students of color, receive an education that fully prepares them for college, careers and civic participation. "All students deserve the right to chose their path after high school and deserve the curriculum, qualified teachers, supports and resources to get there," says Lahoud. "CFJ is part of a new national alliance, the Alliance for Educational Justice, that demands college and career preparation for all students, regardless of race, income or immigration status, and will be part of launching a national campaign in 2010 to ensure that this demand is part of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act."

With California students mobilized from Sacramento to Long Beach, it seems likely that CFJ's efforts will only blossom further.

Media Activists Push Back on Dropout Statistics

A report (PDF) by the Center for Labor Market Studies found that nearly 6.2 million students in the United States between the ages of 16 and 24 dropped out of high school in 2007, in what the study calls "a persistent high school dropout crisis." 27.5 percent of Latinos and one in five African Americans drop out in what even Congressmen George Miller's (D-Calif.) Committee on Education and Labor describes as a crisis that threatens America's economic growth. Participants at New Haven, CT's Youth Rights Media (YRM) view these statistics as a call to action and an opportunity to explore hidden aspects of the dropout phenomenon.

YRM's latest documentary film, "Pushed," examines how students are discouraged from succeeding and sometimes forced to leave school after academic or disciplinary difficulties. Students deemed to be too much trouble for mainstream schools risk being "pushed out." An administrator interviewed in the documentary says that "push out" simply means "we've come up with official reasons to say [to a student], 'We don't want you.'"

In the documentary, young narrators ask probing questions about the local impact of the nation's largely invisible dropout crisis. Specifically, the video looks at how many New Haven students are really graduating from high school, and why others fall short of completing their diplomas. It examines where dropouts end up (largely in the criminal justice system) and makes a powerful economic argument for investing more in public education as opposed to pushing students into alternative schools and juvenile detention. The documentary presents perspectives from both young people and adults and succeeds in underscoring the need for more investment in education and youth training programs.

Youth Rights Media was initially founded in 2000 by Yale law students Homer Robinson, Gabriel Plotkin and undergrad Laura McCargar as the Juvenile Rights Advocacy Project, a student-run organization with the goal of shifting the dynamic between youth and police officers. They incorporated as YRM in 2002 and began producing documentaries like 2005's"Book 'Em: Undereducated, Overincarcerated," which explores the "school to prison pipeline" and 2007's "Help Wanted," which looks at youth employment opportunities.

YRM's mission statement is to build "youth power and leadership by engaging young people in video media production and community organizing, equipping them with tools, skills and strategies for effecting change within themselves and their communities." As "Pushed" proves, creative young people are framing and driving the debate on subjects that deeply impact their lives.

L.A. Community Activist Joins Obama Administration

President Obama isn't the only grassroots community organizer to make it to the White House in 2009. He'll be joined in November by Los Angeles youth activist Alberto Retana (pictured right with California Assembly Speaker Karen Bass) who spent the past 11 years working with the Community Coalition (CoCo), a non-profit social service and civic engagement organization based in South Central L.A. Retana joins the Obama administration as the new director of Community Outreach for the Department of Education. This is a major achievement for Retana and youth activists everywhere, illustrating that "people power" works.

According to CoCo Communications Director Jung Hee Choi, Retana joined the coalition in 1998 and served as youth director of the coalition's Youth Empowered thru Action program. He has been a strong advocate for African American and Latino unity and also led the fight to pass A-G curriculum standards for all students in L.A. public schools. Now at the Dept. of Ed he'll work with communities across the country to give them a voice in shaping federal education reform policy. Not bad for a man still in his 20s.

After being honored by CoCo at their annual staff dinner in October at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown L.A., where he was commended for his hard work and notable sense of humor, Retana set out touring schools with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Retana will help the Obama administration with its school turn-around projects in L.A. and other school districts.

Choi sees Retana's appointment as a validation of the Community Coalition's work. "We feel really proud that he comes out of our organization," she told WireTap by phone from her office in L.A. Choi says that Retana excels at both the "art and science" of organizing. Choi recalled how Retana inspired one young ardent female student organizer who challenged Retana's approach of allowing all youth to participate in his actions regardless of political knowledge or commitment. He eventually convinced her that activism is something that can be nurtured over time.

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