Can a school drive social change in a neighborhood? It's an idea that seems to be gaining steam. Now students and staff at Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights, a mostly working class Latino community just east of downtown Los Angeles, are determined to make it happen. This Saturday the school is hosting "East Side Stories: Youth Transformation Across Los Angeles" (PDF) a public, day-long conference with the explicit goal of sparking transformative change in the community.
Roosevelt's Politics & Pedagogy Collective, a group of like-minded progressive teachers, students, and community activists, has spent the past year planning the conference. They're determined to challenge the social injustices that responses to a student survey indicated are most affecting the community: unequal access to educational resources, food justice, immigration, LGBTQ issues, and the criminalization of youth of color. The staff and students began working together when they realized they shared common goals and the belief that schools can become hubs of community activism.
The collective "reached out to community-based organizations that are currently working at changing the problems raised by our young people,"—like the Watts Youth Collective, and the UCLA IDEA Council of Youth Research—says social studies teacher Jorge Gonzalez. He believes that "empowerment conferences in marginalized communities can become spaces of dialogue, and clarity on what needs to be done to bring about more justice."
But "if we want to have long-lasting, positive and transformative changes within the Boyle Heights community," says Gonzalez's colleague, teacher Roxana Duenas, "we must start with the children, our students." To that end, individual students will also share their stories of oppression and resistance, lead workshops, present research projects on the issues, and find ways to catalyze action.
"Yes, the high school experience is about getting good grades," says Roosevelt senior Cinthia Gonzalez, who will deliver the conference’s keynote address on organizing youth to challenge policies that facilitate the school to prison pipeline. "But it's also about learning how to apply what you've learned and change the way things are," she says.
Gonzalez, who will head to San Francisco State University this fall, admits that young people "may be immature at times," but says they also have a lot of power. She hopes the community will show up to the conference so that they can see how committed students are to making change. "We’re very powerful speakers, we are powerful individuals, we're working in solidarity with teachers and we want to work with the community," Gonzalez says.
Gonzalez and her teachers hope that both student and adult attendees will be inspired to either get involved in existing social justice efforts or start their own initiatives. And, given that the issues they're tackling aren’t just a problem in Boyle Heights, they hope that students and educators from across the nation will reach out to them to learn how to build a strong youth-led, school-based community social justice collaboration. "This should be a model for schools throughout the country," says Lopez, "to allow the youth to lead, to speak, and to empower."
Photo via Jorge Lopez