Undocumented Activists Get Organized With CCISCO

News Feature, Malcolm Marshall

It’s a Monday evening in November at the CCISCO office in Richmond, and members of CLOUD, or Community Leaders Organizing Undocumented Dreamers, have come together to assist those interested in submitting a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) application.

The landmark DACA program, announced by President Obama last summer, allows undocumented young people who, among other requirements, arrived in the U.S. before they turned 16 and were under 31-years-old as of June 15, 2012, to apply for a temporary work permit.

23-year-old Carlos Martinez, who describes himself as “undocumented and unafraid,” is one of the founders of CLOUD. On this evening, he is sitting at a table, ready and waiting for people to arrive. CLOUD was formed through CCISCO (Contra Costa Interfaith Supporting Community Organization) to educate the city’s immigrant community about the details of the new federal program, and to assist them in their applications.

Carlos has only lived in Richmond for about a year – he came to the Bay Area three years ago for college — but says he has already fallen in love with the community.

“I used to live in San Francisco and Daly City but I didn’t feel connected to the community,” says Carlos. But a friend of his lived in Richmond, and recommended the city to Carlos as a place he could call home. Following his friend’s advice, Carlos soon went to check it out.

“On 23rd Street, I saw the taco trucks and the Mexican stores and I was like, I wanna live here. (These are) my people.”

He ended up relocating, and soon began to feel like part of the community. Early on, Carlos began noticing the city’s potential.

Already active in the Bay Area’s undocumented rights movement, Carlos was impressed by the many “really humble people” he came across in Richmond. One such person was Jose Juan, another undocumented youth.

“We’re both undocumented (and) we both found CLOUD,” says Carlos.

Both, too, had experience with community organizing. Carlos previously had a hand in the creation of a resource center at City College of San Francisco for students impacted by AB109 – California’s prison realignment measure — while Jose Juan had been active in the Richmond community with groups like Building Blocks for Kids, where he developed an understanding of the needs of the community. Carlos calls it a perfect formula that led the two to co-found CLOUD.

“We both are going to benefit from deferred action,” says Carlos. “We knew Richmond needed this. We want to let people know that we are here to answer any questions that the community has.”

CLOUD’s main goal is to provide information about Deferred Action — things like who’s eligible and who qualifies, and to help community members apply for it. They also want to organize the undocumented community in Richmond, beyond deferred action.

“We see the bigger picture. We see that a lot of the population that lives here in this county is undocumented. Unfortunately they don’t qualify (for deferred action) so we also want to pass comprehensive immigration reform that includes all of us, not just a few,” says Carlos.

CLOUD has hosted two events so far, and has volunteered for a Catholic Charities event, giving out information and screening people to see if they qualify for DACA, services that provide to the community for free.

Jackelin Valencia, 20, has lived in Richmond for 14 years, and graduated from Kennedy High School. She got involved with CLOUD at their first event, quickly recognizing the importance of the work they were doing.

“When I was in high school, I was organizing at my school. When I came on to CLOUD… I wanted to get involved and help the undocumented community because I knew there wasn’t another group like this here in Richmond.”

“We’re definitely starting something,” says Jackelin. “People are excited, just being part of a group — they say it feels like a family. As undocumented Dreamers, most of us, we value education (and) we value family because of the struggle (we’ve all been through).”

Deferred Action will allow young undocumented immigrants who meet the age requirements, who don’t have a felony or significant misdemeanor on their record, and who are either enrolled in school or have the equivalent of a high school diploma, to apply for work permits, a driver’s license, and avoid deportation for a renewable period of two years.

Understanding that DACA benefits are only temporary, CLOUD plans to stay in touch with the Dreamers who they help apply for Deferred Action. “You have a work permit for two years,” Jackelin says. “What about after that? We need immigration reform for everyone. What about our parents? They struggled so much. What can we do for them?”

Being connected to CCISCO’s deep community network of various interfaith groups across Contra Costa County has enabled CLOUD to make a big impact.

“[CLOUD] was formed by youth leaders from our different congregations and high schools, working with Carlos who was our DREAM summer intern (a position funded by The California Endowment) and our organizer Claudia Jimenez,” explains CCISCO director Adam Kruggel.

CCISCO, a multi-racial, multi-generational, interfaith federation of 25 congregations and youth organizations in Contra Costa County, is committed to building civic engagement and increasing public participation by those most affected by injustice and inequity in the county.

“Welcoming the stranger and the immigrant is part of our faith traditions,” says Kruggel. “We see the critical importance of standing with immigrant youth, so they can have a seat at the table of opportunity in this country.”

Krugell quotes the Scriptures: “The stone that the builders refused will be become the cornerstone.”

CLOUD and their civic engagement work with CCISCO has already made a huge impact in Richmond. On Election Day, their members knocked on 1,000 doors, targeting voters under 30, people of color and other voters with low turnout rates – all of which contributed to Contra Costa County having the fourth highest voter turnout in the state and the third highest approval rate for Prop 30, Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax measure.

“That’s a real shift in a county which has been a more conservative county, especially on fiscal issues; as well as in Richmond, where voter turnout is (traditionally) low,” points out Krugell. “CLOUD helped lead the largest volunteer civic engagement effort in this election cycle. They played a critical role in the region in reshaping what it means to be a multicultural society.”

Carlos says one of the reasons why CLOUD has enjoyed the success it has in Richmond, is the strong role of the church in community life.

“Most of our undocumented community is either Catholic or Christian. So If you want to outreach for an event, you can ask the priest to make a quick announcement.”

That’s how CLOUD was able to get over 300 people to attend their first event at St. Marks Church — the announcements at the church made all the difference.

“(Through CCISCO) we have also built a collaboration with Catholic Charities of the East Bay, located here in Richmond. They provide legal services for our events. It’s really important. We can provide information but some folks may have a difficult case and we can refer them to Catholic Charities,” says Carlos.

But Carlos says the beauty of CCISCO is that they don’t just focus on the Latino community — they also focus on the African American community.

“We need allies (and) CCISCO has been doing a tremendous job. Just connecting those two communities that live here… It’s something that’s new to me and think (both communities) can do amazing work (together) — like the campaigns to end mass incarceration and mass deportation. It’s something very powerful.”

Prostitution, a Growing Threat to the Richmond Community

By Asani Shakur

EDITOR’S NOTE:.  A 25-year-old who grew up on the streets of Richmond decided to write this piece because of what he sees happening in his community every day. 

Barbaric. Evil. Modern-day slavery. Those are some of the words that President Barack Obama used to describe sex trafficking during a speech he delivered earlier this year at the Clinton Global Initiative summit. Obama also acknowledged that sex trafficking isn’t just an international problem –  it’s a major problem right here in America.

In the Bay Area, pimping, once a hustle reserved for a small group of individuals, has gown into an epidemic in our communities. Glamorized in pop culture and especially in rap music, more and more people involved in the Bay Area street life are getting into pimping as a way to make money.

Nowadays, your average dope dealer or gangster is often also pimping. I’ve even seen junior high and high school students pimping the girls in their classroom. There are many innocent victims involved in this. Preying on abused girls who may lack self- respect or a sense of identity, or who come from dysfunctional households, is not fly. Also, the notion that only “bad” girls are out there on the streets is a myth.

Despite the amount of prostitution and trafficking that goes on in the City of Richmond, you would never know there’s a crisis by looking at the arrest data.

Chad Mahalich, Deputy District Attorney of Contra Costa County, deals with human trafficking cases. He says that since 2010, only 8 cases of pimping have been filed with the county. Of those 8, just 2 have been convicted via jury trial, 2 have pled guilty, and 4 are still in the system awaiting trial.

“It’s a low number to what is actually going on, but we have picked up the pace a lot. We have a zero tolerance policy,” insists Mahalich.

While Oakland and Sacramento have garnered much of the attention as popular hot spots for pimping and prostitution, it’s just as much of a problem in Richmond.

“It’s happening everywhere; the pimps will take girls everywhere,” explains Mahalich. “While the money is a driving force, there is also a psychological aspect to it. They [the pimps] are pretty sadistic. Sometimes they have been abused or have (their own) sexual issues. Often they are as close to a sociopath as anything I’ve seen.”

A pimp — on the streets it is a word often understood as an acronym for “Put It in My Pocket” — is an agent for prostitutes who collects part (in some cases all) of their earnings. The pimp may receive money in return for advertising services, physical protection, or for providing and monopolizing a location where the prostitute may engage clients.

There are different methods of pimping. Newer or less respected pimps are often called “popcorn pimps.” Those who use psychological manipulation or deception are the “finesse pimps,” and the one who use violence are known as “gorilla pimps.”

Sgt. Holly Joshi is with the Human Trafficking Unit of the Oakland Police Department.  She says the department “takes human trafficking very seriously.” Doing undercover work, posing as a prostitute on the “track” — for up to 10 hours at a time – and having pimps and “johns” approach her while seeing how the girls are victimized, says Joshi, has been heart wrenching and a real eye-opener.

“Most of the girls are brainwashed into thinking that the pimps are their boyfriend who love and care about them,” explains Joshi.  “Or, they have tricked the girls into thinking [they are] just as guilty of committing a crime as [the pimp is], because he may have her hold his gun or his drugs.”

I wanted to write about this because I don’t want to see more people in my community go to prison and ruin their future. It’s not worth it.  The City of Richmond and the people who live here can have a better future than the one we’re creating. Women are the staples of our community, and we must not contribute to breaking that bond, but rather help build a stronger one.

Prostitution, a Growing Threat to the Richmond Community

By Asani Shakur

EDITOR’S NOTE:.  A 25-year-old who grew up on the streets of Richmond decided to write this piece because of what he sees happening in his community every day. 

Barbaric. Evil. Modern-day slavery. Those are some of the words that President Barack Obama used to describe sex trafficking during a speech he delivered earlier this year at the Clinton Global Initiative summit. Obama also acknowledged that sex trafficking isn’t just an international problem –  it’s a major problem right here in America.

In the Bay Area, pimping, once a hustle reserved for a small group of individuals, has gown into an epidemic in our communities. Glamorized in pop culture and especially in rap music, more and more people involved in the Bay Area street life are getting into pimping as a way to make money.

Nowadays, your average dope dealer or gangster is often also pimping. I’ve even seen junior high and high school students pimping the girls in their classroom. There are many innocent victims involved in this. Preying on abused girls who may lack self- respect or a sense of identity, or who come from dysfunctional households, is not fly. Also, the notion that only “bad” girls are out there on the streets is a myth.

Despite the amount of prostitution and trafficking that goes on in the City of Richmond, you would never know there’s a crisis by looking at the arrest data.

Chad Mahalich, Deputy District Attorney of Contra Costa County, deals with human trafficking cases. He says that since 2010, only 8 cases of pimping have been filed with the county. Of those 8, just 2 have been convicted via jury trial, 2 have pled guilty, and 4 are still in the system awaiting trial.

“It’s a low number to what is actually going on, but we have picked up the pace a lot. We have a zero tolerance policy,” insists Mahalich.

While Oakland and Sacramento have garnered much of the attention as popular hot spots for pimping and prostitution, it’s just as much of a problem in Richmond.

“It’s happening everywhere; the pimps will take girls everywhere,” explains Mahalich. “While the money is a driving force, there is also a psychological aspect to it. They [the pimps] are pretty sadistic. Sometimes they have been abused or have (their own) sexual issues. Often they are as close to a sociopath as anything I’ve seen.”

A pimp — on the streets it is a word often understood as an acronym for “Put It in My Pocket” — is an agent for prostitutes who collects part (in some cases all) of their earnings. The pimp may receive money in return for advertising services, physical protection, or for providing and monopolizing a location where the prostitute may engage clients.

There are different methods of pimping. Newer or less respected pimps are often called “popcorn pimps.” Those who use psychological manipulation or deception are the “finesse pimps,” and the one who use violence are known as “gorilla pimps.”

Sgt. Holly Joshi is with the Human Trafficking Unit of the Oakland Police Department.  She says the department “takes human trafficking very seriously.” Doing undercover work, posing as a prostitute on the “track” — for up to 10 hours at a time – and having pimps and “johns” approach her while seeing how the girls are victimized, says Joshi, has been heart wrenching and a real eye-opener.

“Most of the girls are brainwashed into thinking that the pimps are their boyfriend who love and care about them,” explains Joshi.  “Or, they have tricked the girls into thinking [they are] just as guilty of committing a crime as [the pimp is], because he may have her hold his gun or his drugs.”

I wanted to write about this because I don’t want to see more people in my community go to prison and ruin their future. It’s not worth it.  The City of Richmond and the people who live here can have a better future than the one we’re creating. Women are the staples of our community, and we must not contribute to breaking that bond, but rather help build a stronger one.

New Thai Restaurant a Healthy, Affordable Option for Richmonders

Food Review, Molly Raynor

I love Richmond with all my heart. I love its resilience, its creativity, its RAW talent and radical roots. I do not, however, love the lack of healthy food options that residents of this city face on a daily basis.

The lack of healthy options is something I’ve witnessed firsthand during my five years working here with the Making Waves Education Program, located at the corner of 24th and Bissell, right off Macdonald Ave. For those of you familiar with the area, you know that the closest food sources are a McDonalds, Taco Bell, 7-11 and a number of taco trucks and taquerias. I’ve gotten better at making my own food and bringing it to work with me, but there are still those days (quite often) when I have to go in early and leave late, and I need some sustenance beyond snacks.

While the lovely Artisan Cafe is down the street and San Pablo Avenue is populated with many good restaurants, most of these places require a car to get to and are more expensive than the average Richmond resident can afford. Which is why, in my opinion, the opening of Heng! Heng! Heng! Thai Noodles, just a block down from the Making Waves office, is one of the best things that has happened this year. To have a close, affordable spot with healthy options in the middle of a poverty-stricken food desert is not only exciting for those of us who work in Rich City, but more importantly, it’s crucial for those who live here; for the residents who deserve access to healthy, affordable food.

Not only is their food good and pretty affordable, but the staff is extremely friendly and accommodating. Because my co-workers and I have become regulars, we are given a discount and treated like royalty. Once, one of the staff accidentally overcharged me (which I didn’t notice), so the next time I went there he told me what had happened and gave me a free meal as an apology! What? Who’s that honest these days? Amazing.

I haven’t tried everything at Heng! Heng! Heng! yet, but I plan to. For now, I can say that the Pra-Rahm chicken (chicken with peanut sauce and spinach), yellow curry chicken, and Thai iced tea are delicious. And the best part is watching our staff (young men and women from Richmond) try the various dishes and discover their love for Thai food. Several of them are now hooked — trading in their daily McDonalds for Pad Thai and curry with brown rice. It’s not that they didn’t want to eat healthier and try new things, but they were limited to what was affordable and within walking distance. Heng! Heng! Heng! has created that option for us and I am so grateful for their delicious, down-to-earth presence in this community!

Heng Heng Heng! Thai Noodles is located at 2330 Macdonald Ave Richmond, CA 94804

The CASE Act: Protection or Persecution?

Commentary,  Sonya Mann

An overwhelming number of California voters, 81 percent, supported Proposition 35 (also called the CASE Act), which expands legal protections for victims of sex trafficking, and specifies harsher punishments for their pimps. The landslide victory for the measure probably shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that on the surface it sounded like the right thing to do.  After all, how many people are willing to say they oppose harsher penalties for criminals who force underage victims into sexual slavery?

However, the language of the CASE Act, especially in sections defining what actually constitutes sex trafficking, is worryingly vague.  The nation’s largest independent public television station,  Community Educational Television (KCET) picked up on this, posting on their website: “This measure actually threatens innocent people by broadening the definition of pimping:  Anyone receiving financial support from consensual prostitution among adults, including a sex worker’s children or spouse, could be prosecuted as a human trafficker. If convicted, they would have to register as a sex offender for life.”

The prospect of rights violations wasn’t lost on the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California, or the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who recently filed a joint federal class-action lawsuit contesting the constitutionality of enforcing Proposition 35.

According to City-Data.com, Richmond is already home to roughly 170 registered sex offenders. If you include the innumerable sex workers who live here as well, the CASE Act could have a serious ripple effect on the lives of many Richmond citizens.

According to Lt. French of the Richmond Police Department, sex trafficking is a big issue in Richmond.

“We have a few areas where it’s happening, with the biggest being the 23rd Street corridor. Anything that will bring more sentencing (for this crime), we are all for it. We hope that with people knowing they will get more time for these crimes, it will prevent them from doing it. As well as keeping people locked up longer so they can’t continue to commit these crimes.”

But some advocates say the law will have consequences for communities of color that go beyond punishment for those committing the crimes.

The group Black Women for Wellness, a non profit based in Los Angeles, voiced its concerns with the law, on the point that, “People of color, queer, immigrant, and low-income communities that are already unfairly targeted by the criminal justice system for prostitution,” may now face extra risk because of the CASE Act.

The text of the law does address this concern, albeit briefly: “The total circumstances, including the age of the victim, [and] the relationship between the victim and the trafficker … shall be factors to consider in determining the presence of ‘deprivation or violation of the personal liberty of another.’”  Apparently this passage does little to reassure the many sex workers who have vehemently spoken out against Proposition 35.

Another widely criticized section of the CASE Act requires that all registered sex offenders provide the Justice Department with a list detailing their Internet activities. This list would include every “Internet service provider” and “Internet identifier” used by a given sex offender. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s website says: “While the law is written very unclearly, this likely includes email addresses, usernames and other identifiers used for online political discussion groups, book and restaurant review sites, forums about medical conditions, and newspaper or blog comments.”

The article goes on to say: “Proposition 35’s online speech regulations are overly broad and violate the First Amendment, both because they prohibit anonymous speech and because the reporting requirements burden all sorts of online speech, even when the speaker is using his own real name as a screen name.”

Hopefully the Case Act will be used as it was intended, to target child  sex trafficking rather than persecute willing sex workers and by extension, their innocent family members who the sex work may be helping to support, financially.

Youth Voter Turnout Remains High, Key to Obama Victory in Swing States

News Report, Anna Challet, New America Media

In last month’s general election, youth voter turnout remained at 2008 levels, despite previous polls showing that enthusiasm was down in 2012.

According to national exit polls analyzed by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University, 49.3 percent of people under the age of 30 who are eligible to vote made it to the polls, and that number is expected to be as high as 51 percent by the time all remaining precincts have reported. At this point in 2008, the number was 48.3 percent, and rose to 52 percent after results were in from all precincts. These voters represent 19 percent of the general voting population.

In 1996, 37 percent of eligible youth voters turned out at the polls. In 2000, that number was 41 percent.

Heather Smith, President of Rock the Vote, said at a press conference just after the election that these numbers “established a fairly decent pattern that this generation is different from their older brothers and sisters … We’re treating this as a beginning, a new normal.”

60 percent of voters under 30 cast a vote for Barack Obama, and 37 percent cast a vote for Mitt Romney. The battleground states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Florida went to Obama on the strength of the youth vote, according to CIRCLE Director Peter Levine.

CIRCLE and Rock the Vote say that if younger voters hadn’t shown up to the polls in these states, Romney would be celebrating a victory. In all four states, Obama won over 60 percent of the youth vote. CIRCLE reports that if Romney had carried the support of closer to half of young voters, or if voters in this age group hadn’t come out as strongly for Obama, Romney would have won these states. Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Florida account for 80 electoral votes, which would have been enough for Romney to win the presidency.

According to Smith, organizations like Rock the Vote successfully fought back against many states’ voter ID laws concerning student ID cards; Tennessee is the only state that continues to not accept student ID cards at all. She says that the bigger problem has been the confusion caused by the “back and forth” public discussion of these laws.

In Pennsylvania, for example, by the time of the election, the state government had communicated that it would allow poll workers to ask voters for identification, but voters were not legally required to show it. This amounted to “state-implemented” confusion, according to Smith.

There are currently 46 million people between the ages of 18 and 29 in the United States.

Presidential Candidates Set a Good Example for Married People

Blog, by Alicia Marie

My reason for watching CNN on election night was different from the majority of most Americans for the simple fact that I don’t vote, so the results didn’t really matter to me. However, I’m not ignorant of the issues or about how politics work, and I wanted to see what people were saying after the polls closed.

What I didn’t realize was how much I was going to be affected by the final speeches given by each presidential candidate. It wasn’t the election issues they bought up (i.e. healthcare, abortion, gay marriage) that most affected me – it was the way both candidates treated their wives.

When President Obama was giving his speech, I noticed how elegantly he spoke, but it seemed somewhat rehearsed. However, when he got to the part where he spoke about his wife, he spoke with genuine emotion: “I wouldn’t be the man I am today without the woman who agreed to marry me 20 years ago. Let me say this publicly: Michelle, I have never loved you more. I have never been prouder to watch the rest of America fall in love with you, too, as our nation’s first lady. Sasha and Malia, before our very eyes you’ve growing up to become two strong, smart, beautiful young women, just like your mom. And I’m so proud of you guys.”

Obama’s speech proved to me that it’s important to take time out and love your wife more and more. Some married people complain, “Oh were just so busy, so we’re growing apart.” If the President of the United States of America, who we all can agree is VERY busy, can take time out to grow with his wife, spend time with his wife, and tell the world how much he loves his wife, then married couples should take the time to do the same to save their marriage.

One CNN commentator said after the President tweeted a picture of Michelle hugging him, “Americans just love a good love story.” I have to agree. However, this isn’t a movie or a book that an author can change up to end the way he wants it. A successful marriage takes time, effort, and patience among many other factors. I’m glad to have a new role model of how I would want my marriage to be.

Even the losing candidate, Mitt Romney, made sure to mention his wife when he conceded. He also looked at her with love in his eyes. I thought that was good to show because some young people do look up to him and to see the respect he’s shown to her may help other young people to realize that we should respect our significant others, and not take them for granted.

So even though I don’t participate in the elections, I still was affected and learned something. Simply: Love is and will always be beautiful.

Soda Tax Lost, But Richmond Still Won (Sort of)

News Report, Tania Pulido

Billboards for No on Measure N, the controversial soda tax that voters here rejected on Tuesday, have been a constant image over the last several months as I rode my bike through the city. When I would stop to ask the people standing with “No” signs whether they personally opposed the measure, many admitted they were just working. In my view, that was the only benefit to the multimillion-dollar campaign.

Because of Measure N, this small, cash-strapped city saw one of the most expensive election campaigns in its history. The controversial ballot measure brought new faces to the table and new community involvement. It also brought in millions of dollars from soda companies in political ads, billboards and paid canvassers to defeat the measure.

In the end, the tidal wave of money spent by opponents of Measure N had its desired effect: 67 percent of Richmond voters rejected the measure that would have levied a citywide tax on soda. A similar bill on the ballot in the Southern California city of El Monte lost by an even wider margin, with 77 percent of voters rejecting it.

If they had passed, the measures would have made Richmond and El Monte the first cities in the country to place a citywide tax on soda. They were championed by health care advocates as an attempt to address the
obesity crisis – the two California cities have among the highest obesity rates in the state.

But the lasting effect of the soda tax campaign may have less to do with people’s health, and more to do with their pocketbooks.

“There’s very little [reason for] a city to [not put] a soda tax on the ballot,” said Richmond City Councilman Jeff Ritterman, who authored the measure. “Big soda drops millions in your town. They teach your disadvantaged youth how to phone bank and canvass, which are both useful skills. Unfortunately they fill their heads with misinformation so there is some downside, but this can be corrected over time.”

Now the young people at the youth organization RYSE Center are wondering whether the campaign will have any lasting effects on people’s drinking habits.

Jeffrey Martinez, a youth organizing hub coordinator at the RYSE Center who participated in community forums about the health effects of sugar, says the measure was “more for the community to be informed.”

Martinez, 15, was neutral on the soda tax but admitted it would have had a big impact on Richmond if it had passed. Whether the measure has changed people’s attitudes “depends on the person,” he said. “Some people don’t think it matters, and there’s others who are healthy.”

Keyannie Norford, a Richmond resident who was not able to vote this year because she’s under 18, didn’t have an opinion on Measure N but she was concerned with the extra cost it would have imposed on people. Norford was also under the false impression that the soda tax also would have taxed milk and baby formula. In fact, only sugar-sweetened beverages would have been taxed.

The issue of money was the main concern for Norford – even though she has dealt firsthand with the health effects of drinking soda.

“I used to drink soda with every meal and water was non-existent in my diet until one day when I had to be rushed to the hospital,” she said. “The doctor told me to stop drinking it (because) it was destroying my insides.”

Despite her own health problems, Norford opposed the tax, saying she disliked the idea of forcing Richmond residents to pay more.

If the soda tax had passed, the small Northern California city would have been a leader in the country, noted Sompong Vienguilai, a youth coordinator at the RYSE Center who took part in the Rethink Your Drink campaign this election season to educate people about the effects of sugar on people’s health.

Vienguilai, 21, said his own view of soda has changed a lot. He used to drink large quantities of soda, and then decided to abstain for two months. Now he drinks very little. But, he said, “If soda keeps being cheap, people will continue to buy it.”

Supporters of the soda tax argued that it was an innovative way to address the city’s high obesity rate. In Richmond, resources are scarce for nutrition programs, sports, and recreational activities. The tax would have allowed for the city to invest in healthy development, and studies found that it could have had a positive impact on the health of the city’s population, especially among its black and Latino residents.

Jonathan Perez, a 19-year-old Richmond resident, activist, and first-time voter, believes the soda tax would have been a positive step forward for Richmond.

“I think it’s worth paying a few cents to have more sports fields and extra recreational activities,” said Perez. But the young activist didn’t think the measure had changed people’s perspectives on soda as a health issue.

Soda seems to be as important to some people as religion. My grandmother drinks it every day. Like prayer, it makes her feel better. When she visited from Mexico a couple of months ago we had long talks about the big soda corporations. I told her about the negative impacts of soda, not just on her body but the environmental degradation corporations like Coca-Cola have committed. She understood. She even admitted to having kidney surgery and pain in her stomach that she correlated with her soda consumption. But she kept drinking soda.

Changing one’s diet, it seems, can be as hard as quitting cigarettes. Sharnae Cross, a 19-year-old youth coordinator at RYSE who was part of the Rethink Your Drink Campaign, agreed that the soda tax campaign did
not change people’s way of thinking about soda. “People already know it’s unhealthy,” she said.

Although the soda tax did not pass in either Richmond or El Monte, taxing is only one way to accomplish a goal. The measure united people, put the issue of obesity at the forefront, and educated many more people about their health.

Big soda companies came out victorious after spending millions of dollars on paid canvassers, billboards, and political candidates. But while the campaign may have brought in money to a city that needed it, money for the development of healthy initiatives continues to be scarce.

Most of the people I talked to in the streets had been misinformed on the measure’s details or opposed it solely by taking into account the money issue and not people’s health.

And the group that would have been most affected by the measure – youth — can’t vote anyway.

Children would have been the biggest beneficiaries of the measure. The soda tax would have helped children learn about nutrition so they could have made better decisions, and hopefully stopped lethal cycles of unhealthy eating passed down by their parents. About 50 percent of all children in Richmond are obese or overweight and 70 percent of them will most likely be unhealthy as adults. With statistics like these, supporters of the soda tax felt that drastic measures had to be taken. Perhaps the measure will be re-introduced in the next election season. If it passes, the benefits could be priceless.

Rising Up, From Just Another Statistic to Youth Advocacy

By April Suwalsky

Each year, more than 1.5 million children in this country experience being homeless at some point, and more than 400,000 children and youth spend time in the foster care system. And while some progress has been made — public service announcements, new legislation and innovative services have increased public awareness and helped many young people – these youth continue to be tokenized and criminalized in mainstream society. They are seen as shameful statistics, the byproduct of a bureaucratic system that only perpetuates “social problems.”

November has been dedicated to promoting national awareness of youth homelessness and adoption. I myself identify as a youth advocate and a trans-racially adopted person. As such, the need to provide all young people a stable, nurturing, safe and loving home base is a cause that has long been close to my heart.

My birth parents worked in a factory and could not afford to support another child. I was placed for adoption, and know that I am exceedingly fortunate to have the life I do today. It has taken hard work, and there have been stops and starts along the way, but I remain deeply grateful for all the opportunities I’ve had.

In working with others who have been through far more challenging experiences, I find myself energized and inspired by those who have overcome sometimes unimaginable hardships to take on leadership roles and advocate for others. We strive to be better and keep on making it. I have friends who grew up at group homes, were abused by family members or abandoned, didn’t have enough to eat, were affected by gun violence, or whose parents died when they were young. Speaking with them is always humbling. I ask: “How did you get through? What made the difference for you?”

The answer is almost always the same: I had role models and I wanted to be more than my situation tried to dictate.

I recently had the honor of interviewing a colleague, Charles Cole, III, Bay Area Program Director at Juma Ventures–a wonderful organization that seeks to get youth into and through college. One of the most serious and hard-working people I know, Charles is a steadfast advocate for young people, who has the personal knowledge and experience to back up his expertise. Let his story inspire you to live up to your potential:

AS: What are some of the life experiences that have influenced your career path and the leadership roles you have taken on today?

CC: Growing up, my parents were on drugs and I was homeless off and on during my younger years. When I finally settled in Oakland, there were no positive male role models. Only drug dealers and ball players. I wanted to show my neighborhood that there were other ways to be successful.

I was born in Chicago, lived with my grandmother in Kentucky and moved to California with my parents after my grandmother died. We ended up homeless and lived in shelters in both Oakland and San Francisco. After college, I became a social worker working with foster youth and adoptions.

AS: Do you think adequate services or policies exist to support youth? Do you consider yourself a youth advocate?

CC: Regarding how useful services and policies are, I think things are improving but there is a long way to go. The state has sent a very clear message that they are moving from foster services to more in-home services. During our recessive times, social services programs are always on the chopping block. However, programs such as the Chafee Grant and other resources are severely underutilized. Workers in the sector have to do a better job of building awareness.

Yes, I do consider myself a youth advocate. As a youth advocate I see my job as preparing youth with the proper skills to navigate systems and processes that do not always favor them while at the same time instilling in them the will to improve those systems for the betterment of society.

AS: What do young people need (and need to do) to be successful?

CC: Be equipped with the proper tools to succeed. Have the gall to use them.

This November, and throughout the year, take time to honor our diverse life experiences and recognize those who have turned certain challenges into drivers and ambitions toward true greatness. Rather than debating numbers, let’s reach out to one another as people–knowing that all a child asks for is someone to take a genuine interest in them–and for a fighting chance.

In Richmond, English Learners Get an Assist From Volunteers

News Feature, Edgardo Cervano-Soto

“Every good story has a conflict,” says the teacher as she draws a story plot map for her students. Arleth and Saul, both 14 and freshmen at Richmond High, follow along, drawing the jagged map onto their notebooks, labeling the exposition, rising action and climax. The lesson has Arleth, Saul and 25 of their English Language Development (ELD) Level 4 classmates learning, and in some cases, re-learning the basics of writing.

ELD students, also known as English Language Learners, are the fastest growing group of students in American public schools. A 2008 study from the Migration Policy Institute, a non-profit, non-partisan think tank on the East Coast, estimated 5.3 million K-12 students in the U.S. are English Learners, with 1.6 million in California alone.

ELD students consistently rank among the lowest in state test scores, high school graduation and college attendance rates. What’s more, the demographics of this population are changing dramatically.

It is common perception that all ELD students are immigrants and non-native English speakers. However, that is far from reality. The Urban Institute in a 2005 study stated that more than half of ELD students in high school are native-born Americans, with Spanish speaking students comprising the majority.

At Richmond High School, Saul and Arleth are among the 45 percent of students classified as English Language Learners.

Saul, whose parents are both from Mexico, was born in Washington but relocated to Richmond because his mother disliked the cold. Of average height and lean, Saul’s choice of black shin high socks speaks to his interest in sports, specifically soccer. He doesn’t read much outside of school, he admits, other than his favorite video game and skateboard magazines. It’s not that he hates doing so, says Saul, it just “depends if I’m in the mood.”

Arleth was born in Berkeley and her parents are also from Mexico – her mother moved to the U.S. at the age of 14 and graduated from Richmond High. A petite teenager and the oldest of five siblings, Arleth has an interest in pencil drawing and photography. Outside of class, she writes often, usually letters to family. It’s one way she’s maintained contact with a cousin soon to be released from juvenile detention in Reno. Arleth has confidence in her writing abilities, and says she feels some resentment about being in ELD classes for multiple years. “I didn’t learn much in middle school or have anyone look over my writing,” she says.

In addition to ELD 4, the students – 27 in all – are enrolled in English 1, a kind of writing and reading boot camp. The heavy emphasis on language classes means ELD students can’t take elective courses.

Principal Julio Franco is determined to improve the rate of learning for ELD students at Richmond High. Recently, Franco and Dr. Bruce Harter, superintendent of West Contra Costa Unified School District (WCCUSD), contracted with Writer Coach Connection (WCC), a one-on-one, in-classroom mentoring program that matches students with trained volunteers.

In October, WCC celebrated its expansion to Richmond High with a ribbon cutting ceremony, and 93 resident volunteers were recruited to mentor five ELD 4 classes — approximately 150 students over a one-year period. “We wanted to begin with ELD 4 because we have a lot of students who stay in ELD for a long time,” says Franco. ” And I know that they want to get out and be in regular classes.”

Writer Coach Connection got its start at Berkeley High School in 2001 and has quickly expanded — today the organization operates in a dozen schools throughout the Bay Area. Led by Robert Menzimer, WCC has received accolades for its success in improving student language comprehension, but their work in Richmond marks the first time the organization has mentored a sizable English Learner population.

Given the scope of work – WCC employs only 24 part time staff to operate a program serving three counties and a dozen schools in the Bay Area — it is a modest organization. According to Menzimer, the operating budget of WCC is close to $390,00 with the cost of one school being $23,000. The district pays what it can, while WCC pays the remaining cost with grants and individual donations. The organization heavily relies on volunteers.

The heavy volunteer turnout in Richmond, says Menzimer, was a pleasant surprise. “When you scratch the surface of this community, what you find underneath is an amazing group of people who care deeply about the schools and the city. And if you can tap into that fierce dedication of making the lives of students and people in the community better, you are really on to something,” he says.

After attending a training workshop, volunteers are paired with students, with whom they conduct one-hour feedback sessions on assignment during class time. According to WCC, having the in-class visit deters the stigma of students seeking writing help — the service is brought to them. Shelli Fried, volunteer coordinator for WCC, said the WCC does not create a new curriculum but acts as support for teachers and students. “Our role is to help the student be more successful in understanding and completing the assignment they are given,” she says. “We want to help build their confidence as they learn to write, creatively and critically.”

According to Fried, Richmond volunteers were quick to sign up as mentors. The majority of volunteers are retired, with a few college age students. Fried expects the generation gaps will dissolve and bonds will be formed once the work begins, despite any cultural or generational differences.

WCC volunteers have visited Richmond High now at least three times. The first encounter was awkward, says Saul. “(My coach) was a stranger, and I had forgotten my essay. We didn’t talk much,” he says. Despite this initial awkwardness, Saul says the coach has been very helpful in clarifying his summaries. It is a first for Saul to have anyone read and comment on his paper. Never having personal feedback is a common occurrence, says Franco. “Sometimes students don’t get praise that they can write, that they can express themselves. Now, when people from the community tell you that your writing is as good as anybody’s, that gives you more confidence, says Franco. According to Saul, the sessions have made him feel better about writing.

For Arleth, the Writer Coaches provide a chance to vindicate herself and prove her writing abilities. Enrolled in ELD since elementary, she is itching to pass ELD 4, and she plans to take advantage of the one-on-one connection. Arleth had to repeat ELD 3 in 7th grade, and she often thinks of what could have been if she had only passed the course.

“I couldn’t pass my class, and I wanted to so bad,” she says. Asked what elective would she have chosen if not for ELD 4, Arleth responds quickly: “Art.” She has every intention on taking the elective, next year.

The Writers Coach Connection is looking for additional volunteers. For more information visit, writercoachconnection.org