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Reflections From A Youth Activist

The United States is on political fire. The call for Black Lives Matter is stronger than ever with more allies at all levels than I have ever seen as a non Black person of color. Some form of protest, rally or demonstration has happened in every state and over a dozen countries. Americans of all races are actively reading up on anti-racism, watching documentaries and streaming protest music by the likes of Tupac, Kendrick Lamar and N.W.A. In The Bay Area the protests have been ongoing for weeks and continue to bring out strong numbers of Black folks and allies. Many folks involved have long histories of participating in social justice movements and others are just finding their voices. I began reflecting on how I became a youth activist joining a grassroots statewide nonprofit Californians For Justice (CFJ). CFJ was and still is an organization teaching, training and empowering low in come youth of color and immigrant youth to fix the inequalities in public high schools. It was by joining CFJ in my senior year of high school I learned what active social justice was, how to protest, but most important how to campaign. Currently folks at all levels of social justice are answering the long standing call to defend Black Lives. I wanted to reflect and share what I learned as a youth activist in hopes of helping others on this long term fight.

I am currently thirty five years old. In the fall of 2002 at 17 years right before my eighteenth birthday I joined CFJ. At that time CFJ as a statewide organization was mobilizing students, parents and community members to stop the California High School Exit Exam. It has since been disbanded many years after this campaign. The Exit Exam was a high stakes competency test that had the ability to withhold diplomas from students who had met all graduation requirements but were unable to pass the test. The test was dangerous because low income high school attended by youth of color and immigrant youth were under funded schools that lacked the supplies and qualified teachers to pass. As a youth leader with CFJ we attended monthly Core meetings where the adult organizers gave workshops on social issues and actions we could take to right them. It was educational and empowering and helped provide us with the vocabulary to stand up against injustices.

Not only were we trained on social justice issues related to our campaigns but we were taught how to have public actions and protests. We made protest signs and shakers. We called less active members and invited them to the events. We had community leaders and organizations doing similar work or in support of our work and we called them to come out. We were also trained on how to talk to the media. I was eighteen years old when I learned this and cite this experience OFTEN!!!! The training was called “my dog has three legs.” That if our message was “we are here to call for the end of the California High School Exit Exam for unfairly denying diplomas to low income youth of color and immigrant students” and a reporter asked a question unrelated to the message we repeated this statement. The workshop went something like this a reporter approaches you and says how is the weather today and you reply “my dog has three legs” or the reporter says “how do you feel about the mayor” and you repeat “my dog has three legs.” The idea of my dog has three legs is that media can chop up what you say for soundbytes. If you stick to the message no matter what you are asked they cannot chop your words. That is one of the most important lessons I have learned in my thirty five years on this planet.

CFJ’s adult organizers also taught us how to protest safely and keep each other accountable. In our Core meetings they would prep us for the public actions. All the paid CFJ organizers would be wearing the same CFJ T shirt. Were told if anything happened we would go seek one of the leaders or other ally leaders who would also be wearing that shirt. We were also told in advance want not to do. In San Jose we were told by police we had to stay on the sidewalk and not be in the streets. We were empowered to hold our peers accountable to staying on the sidewalk. We were told not to engage with law enforcement and especially not cuss them out or yell. Again we were empowered for peer accountability. If you saw your peer in the street or trying to engage law enforcement go grab them and keep them on the message. Remind them we are representing CFJ and that is not what the action and campaign is about.

In addition to staying on the message as youth leaders with CFJ we learned that educational justice was a long term fight. YES we had public actions and protests. However those public actions were to bring attention to established Campaigns . Support for the campaigns included attending district meetings to bring up the issues and drop ins with elected officials in San Jose and Sacramento. As youth we were empowered to talk to the officials or their staffers on why we wanted to stop the California High School Exit Exam. My time with CFJ was in the early 2000’s before Smart Phones and social media. We had print outs at all our actions so supporters could understand the campaign, how to support in terms of voting, donating money to our cause and who to contact on the city, county and state level to support our protest. I learned the value of voter guides. CFJ had voter guides regarding ballot items on the federal, state and local level regarding education and how it impacted the causes we worked on. It was on going. There was no stopping.

I also learned that when you are fighting for social justice regarding education or any issue there are allies in the community. This does not mean other community leaders, nonprofits and government agencies are doing the exact same work as you. It does however mean there are people and agencies in solidarity willing and able to vote and publicize they voted on your behalf. It means there are influential people and agencies willing to endorse your campaign or your agency or both. We do not have to feel we are alone on an island. It is about building bridges with other community members and groups. Its understanding issues are intersectional and there are those who might not be on the exact same page but we are in the same book.

CFJ in San Jose was and still is based out of East San Jose. I am not from East San Jose nor did I attend school there. I got involved with CFJ when my high school government teacher said we had to do six volunteer hours with a political organization or activity. I was always a social justice oriented youth but did not know how to express it. We did have the internet back in 2002 and I remember emailing Erase based in Oakland and asking how to get involved. A woman called me back and heard my story of wanting to be involved and that I was a youth of color. She put me up on CFJ and it all moved from there. After completing my volunteer hours I became an active member up until the end of my freshman year of college. In joining an organization I supported and was active in but based in a community I was not from I learned what it means to be active and be quiet. What the means is understanding my position. I brought things to the group but there were many times I did not speak but offer my support in numbers because it was not my role to speak for other people. CFJ was about building political power and empowerment in East San Jose. I learned allyship and what it means to empower a specific group by learning and supporting not claiming I am that group.

I will always love and support CFJ regardless of how long it has been since I was an active youth member. I share my adult reflections on my youth activist training because it has been highly influential and impactful on my life. As we force the United States to defend Black lives on a social and political level demanding fundamental institutional and structural changes I urge everyone supporting not to forget the campaign portion. We as a country are making noise and its working. Officers are being charged and police departments are being defunded and even abolished. Do not forget this is a long term fight that requires all of our commitment. We all have a role to play from the frontlines to voting blocks, to fundraising and speaking out in real life and social media. Please remember what the call is concerning defending Black lives, and what your “my dog has three legs” is. Lastly do not forget this is a call and a campaign with demands. As a non Black person of color it is not my role to tell Black folks what their demands are. As an ally it is my job to actively support and promote their demands to any and all networks of power I have. I share these reflections in case it’s helpful for any green social justice warriors unsure where to begin and how to sustain their movements. In solidarity.

For more information on Californians For Justice


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