Young Leaders Program at Richmond High Turns Students into Advocates

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By Ronvel Sharper

Last year, during my sophomore year at Richmond High School, I joined a group that from the first meeting gave me hope that we could make a positive impact on the community. It felt safe and inclusive, a place where everyone can come together behind a goal and have fun working toward it.

The Southeast Asian Young Leaders (SEAYL) program started in 2003 as a way to address violence in Richmond after a 15-year-old girl was shot and killed in her house by suspected gang members. Now, over a decade later, the program has evolved to promote “leadership, community improvement and sharing of cultural practices” in the Richmond community at large. It is part of a larger non-profit, Community Health For Asian Americans, which works to improve the quality of life for Asian and Pacific Islander communities in the Bay Area.

Over the years, SEAYL has tackled a variety of objectives to help improve Richmond, from implementing no-smoking/drug free signs at Richmond High School to decrease the usage of drugs on campus, facilitating student workshops to raise awareness and develop solutions for campus issues, to showcasing pictures taken by SEAYL students comparing the density of trash and drug litter in various high schools.

One of the first events I participated in was a campus cleanup, where we collected over 600 cigarettes on a Saturday. I was shocked to see that many butts lying around, especially considering that I’d never seen anyone smoke on campus.

For several years, the group’s focus has been on preventing marijuana use by changing the environment — like posting “drug free zone” signs around schools or restaurants — to in turn change individual behavior (as opposed to conducting individual clinical treatment or counseling). Currently, there are a few initiatives under review to qualify for next year’s state ballot that — if passed — could legalize recreational marijuana use for adults.

Our goal, if recreational marijuana is legalized, is to advocate for safe regulations to protect youth, and limit the number of smokers in Richmond by educating youth about how marijuana affects the body, and exposing how the marijuana industry targets children so they can have future customers for life.

“We provide skills for youth to become advocates in their community,” said Erica Corpuz a youth wellness advocate and mentor for SEAYL students. “This is aimed at coming up with policy recommendations that will best protect youth on the upcoming state ballot in 2016, things that they care about and interested in.”

This summer we ventured outside of our usual meetings and went camping at Walker Creek Ranch in Petaluma. While there we heard from special guests like Robert Rogers, District Coordinator for Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia’s office, Robynn Battle of The Loop, a program at University of California, San Francisco that promotes education around tobacco use and tobacco related illness, representatives from the RYSE Center and a speaker from the Asian Pacific Partners for Empowerment Advocacy and Leadership. It was a great time, complete with s’mores, scary stories around the campfire and learning more about our community, possible threats to it and our health.

But the hope, as always, is for our conversations to have a much broader impact.

Any Richmond High School students interested in being a part of SEAYL can contact Youth Wellness Advocate Erica Corpuz at Erica.corpuz@chaaweb.org or  (916) 803-5507.

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