A School Lunch I’d Gladly Eat

Commentary, Sean Shavers | Video, Ann Bassette

When I was in high school in Oakland, I never really questioned the cafeteria menu, I just knew that I wasn’t eating it because it didn’t look appealing and I had other options. For years school lunch was considered nasty and inedible by me and my peers. Many of us would grab a bag of chips from the vending machine and skip the lunch line entirely.

It wasn’t until recently, that I saw school lunch in a different way. Along with members of the Richmond Food Policy Council, I took a trip to Pittsburg High School to see the school’s nutritional program.

We we’re given a tour around the campus by Matt Belasco, the director of child nutrition services for Pittsburg Unified School District. He explained how and why the school had been remodeled, with child nutrition as part of the design. In fact, six out of 13 schools in Pittsburg were remodeled with a garden facility on campus, including Pittsburg High. Belasco said that child nutrition is his main objective now at the high school.

If kids don’t have a healthy meal before school it will affect how they learn, perform and behave in the classroom, Belasco said, so it’s essential that kids eat well, in order to think well. Belasco also mentioned that before the school was remodeled, they served about 800 meals a day. Now that number has shot up to 3,000.

As part of the initiative they also did away with off-campus lunch. A move that Belasco said was meant to discourage students from eating at corner stores and then not returning to school.

“We developed a system to counter act that,” Belasco said of the unhealthy lunches often eaten by students. “By providing clean drinking water, access to fruits and vegetables and a desirable school menu, we’ve done that.”

On the tour, we were escorted to the campus garden first, where a majority of the school’s produce is grown. Belasco said that the special-ed students were responsible for growing and maintaining the garden. There were fat, juicy looking eggplants, dark green cucumbers and bright colored peppers and tomatoes dotting the flourishing garden. The tomatoes are used for salsa and sauces, according to Belasco. The cucumbers could be used to make fruit infused “spa water.”

Last summer, members of the summer child nutrition program, along with students, grew and pulled up, sixty pounds of vegetables for the summer school lunch program. Their work saved the school money and gave students skills.

After the garden we went to the food carts. These carts were loaded with healthy snack items, like grapes, pears and carrots. These carts were basically small stations, for students on the go, who don’t want to wait in lunch lines. It seemed like a smart strategy to keep the cafeteria from over crowding.

To wrap up the day, we entered the cafeteria—the place where it all goes down. The first thing that struck me was the vending machines. They weren’t stocked with the usual fare: Candy, soda and chips. In place of the unhealthy items were bottle water and 100 percent juice containers.

On each end of the cafeteria were well organized salad bars. Each of them with a color coded system, to show students which food item belongs to which food group: Green for veggies, red for fruits, blue for milk, orange for grains and purple for protein. The system ensures students get their nutritional needs met, even without going through the lunch line.

Aside from the salad bars, there were four lunch stations throughout the cafeteria. At each station students are given food options. One station was the red, white, and blue deli. It served traditional American food, hot dogs, hamburgers and the like. There was a south of the border station, which served Latin cuisine, like tacos and burritos. Another one served Italian cuisine—think pastas, soup and bread. And finally, there was a hot wok express, which served Asian cuisine—rice, noodles and steamed veggies.

All of the variety makes it nearly impossible for students to complain about the menu
After walking around the campus and seeing all of the fresh meals, it was finally time to try the food. I decided to head south of the border.

The two tacos I had with cheese, salsa and sour cream were the bomb. The flavor, the crunch of the taco, the spicy salsa and the melted cheese were just right. It was far better than any school lunch I had ever eaten.

If I had access to all this goodness while I was in school, I would have definitely taken advantage of the free lunch program.

Recreating Richmond’s Home Front

Photo Essay, Ann Bassette

Richmond hosted its 8th annual Home Front Festival on October 11 with a new theme — Kids Can Do It.

As always, it was a popular event driving scores of families to come out, enjoy the Richmond waterfront and celebrate the impressive history and beauty of the area.

The day kicked off with the 5k/10k Homefront Run and Walk along the shoreline from the Ford Point building on Harbour Way South, hosted by the Hilltop Family YMCA. Afterwards, there were plenty of free festivities in the Craneway Pavillion, on the S.S. Red Oak Victory Ship and at the nearby Lucretia Edwards Shoreline Park.

The historic World War II ship was built at the Kaiser Shipyards in Richmond. Veterans climbed the shaky stairs to board the ship. Once on deck, with the American flag flying high, a ukulele band performed and encouraged visitors to pick up an instrument and join in. Guests were also allowed to explore the enormous ship, which is one of the lasts of its kind. Only three of these ships remain, floating in the world. The Red Oak saw service in World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars.

At Lucretia Edwards Park, families enjoyed the beautiful Richmond shoreline while visiting local vendors, playing games and listening to music from local bands and choirs. Kids kicked off their shoes and bounced around in three large jump houses. A brightly painted children’s train circled the grass and travelled along the waterfront with smiling kids in tow.

This year’s festival coincided with Fleet Week and provided people a great view of the Blue Angels, the United States Navy’s flight demonstration squadron, who spun, flipped and showed off their aerial acrobats high above.

Rich City Rides offered bike tours along the bay trail, along with bike valet service and bike rentals for people to enjoy the area on two wheels.

The day was rounded out with top-notch entertainment for the whole family by Alvon’s Blues, Angelas de la Banda, the Elite Jazz Band, Switched Up! and the Contra Costa Chorale.

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‘Youth of Color’ Voting Still Critical in Competitive Political Races

Youth voter turnout in North Carolina, including a sizeable segment of ethnic voters, will play a critical role in determining whether Democratic incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan retains her seat against Republican challenger, state House Speaker Thom Tillis, according to data on the voting patterns of youth of color.

“The issue of the youth vote in North Carolina is related to but not identical to issues of race and ethnicity, but North Carolina’s young voters, ages 18 to 30 years old, are more diverse than its older voters. So who votes in this November’s election will be important to the outcome,” said Peter Levine, the director of the Center for Information & Research on Civic and Learning Engagement (CIRCLE), a nonpartisan institute based at Tufts University in Massachusetts.

In addition to North Carolina, states where the youth vote could affect the outcome in November’s competitive political races include Alaska, Colorado, and Louisiana, according to an analysis CIRCLE released in August. CIRCLE’s data on African American, Asian American, and Hispanic youth show the complexities at play in ways that may challenge common assumptions about what motivates youth to become civically engaged or affiliate with a political party.

For example, the data show “a significant percentage of African American men more often identify as conservatives, given the choice of ‘are you a liberal, moderate, or conservative,’” Levine said, as opposed to African American women, who more often tend to self-identify as liberal. Gender differences are not only apparent in choice of political party, but in how they view their personal involvement.

Though young women of color have typically higher rates of civic engagement than men as measured by volunteerism, they are “still less likely to see themselves as political leaders,” Levine said, adding that this view is fairly consistent with women across all ethnic groups.

The contrasts between different groups of youth can be striking. Data from 2010 shows that nearly 40 percent of young Latinos are “civically alienated” in terms of voter registration and voter turnout, falling behind African American and white youth. Yet, young Latina women were among the strongest supporters of President Obama in 2012.

Asian American youth were the next largest group to be “civically alienated” (just over 30 percent), but they led all groups in terms of donations to political causes (17 percent).

The data illuminates the tension between the idealistic goal of broadening youth participation in politics and the need of political parties to win at the ballot box by devising ways to decrease support for their opponents. That is certainly the case in North Carolina where the youth vote surged in the 2008 presidential election but ebbed in the 2010 midterm election, resulting in a Republican-dominated legislature that has sought to impose limits on youth voting.

“The swing in the electorate from election to election is a fascinating story in North Carolina,” Levine said, “but it is really a story of youth engagement and participation in voting. North Carolina shows that the youth vote does matter in competitive races.”

Levine said the youth vote may be critical in Louisiana as well. African American youth comprise about 40 percent of the state’s approximately 300,000 voting-age citizens overall, though only about one-third of the voters. “That’s still a significant bloc of voters,” Levine said. Should they vote en masse for embattled Democrat Sen. Mary Landrieu, it could yield the margin of victory to propel her to another six-year term.

Louisiana underscores the stakes for Democrats in this midterm election as to whether their party can retain control of the U.S. Senate when the House of Representatives already has a Republican majority that can impede President Obama’s legislative agenda.

Levine’s observations are that the younger voters tend to be more liberal on social issues, like supporting gay rights or immigration reform, but that political operatives from either party shouldn’t take the youth vote for granted. “Youth of color voters have diverse interests, and as young people, their votes are often unpredictable,” he said.

DACA Recipients Grateful for Present, Uncertain About Future

Story and Video • Edgardo Cervano-Soto


Manuel Martinez thought his future would follow the life of his father. When he was 17, he thought he’d work in construction after high school. Despite living in Richmond since the age of one, Martinez didn’t think he had many options because of his undocumented status.

Farther north, in Modesto, Yaquelin Valencia, a Kennedy High School graduate, spent a lot of her time driving around the Central Valley. She was 20 years old and passionate about organizing immigrant communities. She was also undocumented, and ineligible for a driver’s license.

On June 15, 2012, President Obama authored a memorandum that would alter the course of the two youngsters’ lives, along with the lives of hundreds of thousands in similar situations. The order granted young immigrants who met specific criteria the chance to apply for what is essentially a temporary reprieve from deportation, or the threat of it.

The administrative policy had an innocuous name, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Those eligible for DACA are granted an opportunity to apply for a work permit and a social security number.

Valencia and Martinez applied for DACA within months of its announcement and both were granted DACA status.

“January 22, 2013, I got a letter in the mail,” Martinez recalled. “My mom cried. She told me how proud she was that I was now an ‘American;’ that I finally belonged in the country.” With a year and a half remaining of high school, Martinez kicked into high gear, re-committing himself to his studies and reconsidering the possibility of what life could be like after graduation.

The last two-plus years since DACA went into effect have impacted the lives of eligible undocumented people, making opportunities such as employment and higher education accessible to many for the first time.

DACA generated national interest when it was announced. It was celebrated as an accomplishment for DREAMers and their supporters, those who advocated for immigration reform for the young undocumented community in the United States.

Obama and Democrats throughout the country, who’d earlier been polling low with Latinos, also enjoyed benefits from the DACA announcement. Obama was re-elected to the presidency a few months later, due in part to a reinvigorated Latino electorate—71 percent of Latinos voted for him that year.

Immigration rights organizations sprung into gear, helping potential applicants throughout the country apply. According to the American Immigration Council, a non-partisan and independent think tank, approximately 670,000 people have applied for DACA, with nearly 550,000 of those applicants approved.

In Richmond, Heather Wolf, an attorney at Catholic Charities of the East Bay, said her office has processed 300 applications and pre-screened over a thousand at workshops. She said the Richmond numbers were substantial.

Despite the boom in applications, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services estimates that of the 1.2 million people eligible for DACA, half a million of them have yet to apply. A fee of $465 for a work permit, and a requirement that all application information be forwarded to USCIS may explain why some are reluctant to apply.

Valencia, who assisted Catholic Charities of the East Bay with the pre-screening process, and is a long time immigration rights advocate, used to be among them.

“My understanding of it was that we were going to get a temporary work permit for two years,” she said. “Well, what’s going to happen after two years? What’s going to happen if it gets revoked?”

Those questions persist, but the effect of DACA on the lives of those who’ve received it is undeniable.

“I haven’t had anyone come through, who didn’t go out and immediately get a job or enroll full time in school, or is saving money to go to a four-year college,” Wolf said. “They have all been very productive and inspiring.”

As for Valencia, DACA allowed her to obtain a driver’s license and enroll full time in school.

“I think my mom had a sense of relief that I would be driving around now safely,” Valencia said.

Today she drives herself to school and gives colleagues rides to community meetings. After being elected to serve on the board of the Contra Costa Interfaith Supporting Community Organization, CCISCO, an organization she’d previously volunteered at, Valencia said she drives to Antioch for board meetings with a new sense of security and confidence.

“I feel much safer having a driver’s license,” she said, adding, “When I see an officer I still get a little nervous when they are behind me and I know they are checking my tags, but I know that because I have insurance and a driver’s license….I should be okay if they were to stop me.

After receiving DACA, Martinez completely changed the course of his educational career. With the help of his teachers, he increased his grade point average, ending his senior year with an acceptance letter from San Francisco State University. Martinez is now studying computer science at SFSU. But, a recent interaction at school reminded him of the limits of DACA.

“Even though I have a social security number, I still don’t qualify for many types of financial aid, many scholarships and some types of jobs,” Martinez said.
“I kind of feel like this is not a full measure, this is a half measure,” he said. “I am at a disadvantage for no reason again.”

Immigrant rights activists criticize the DACA program because it does not provide a path to citizenship. Now in its third year, those who received DACA status early on need to renew their applications.

According to USCIS, the participation rates of Asian American and Pacific Islanders have been remarkably low. For instance, of the 27,000 from the Philippines who were eligible, only 3,874 applied. Among Koreans, only 7,741 of the 26,000 eligible applied.

The uncertainty of whether immigration reform will become a reality during the last two years of Obama’s presidency, and the possibility of Republicans gaining control of the house following the November elections, puts many on edge. They worry that a shift in the political makeup of Washington could reverse their lives once again.

“DACA just opened so many doors,” said Wolf, of the people she’s seen come through her office in Richmond. “It would be really tragic to see the program shut down.”

Dr. Chris Zepeda-Millán, a political scientist and professor at the University of California at Berkeley, believes that concern for the program is warranted.

“The limit of DACA is that it’s not permanent,” he said. “If Republicans win this election, there is nothing stopping Congress from passing anti-immigrant bills.”

In fact, recent studies show the likelihood of Republicans picking up more seats is increasing, as Latino support for Obama and Democrats falls.

“With the mass deportations, and President Obama postponing executive action, it is actually suppressing the Latino vote,” Zepeda-Millán said. “If Republicans win the presidential election in two years, all this can disappear.”

Martinez and Valencia have taken advantage of DACA’s short-term benefits, but the future remains clouded, and citizenship still elusive.

“It frustrates me because I remember the first line I read on DACA was ‘this is not a road to citizenship,’ which is my ultimate goal,” Martinez said. “Because I feel as American as I can feel.”

The Power of Being Outside

By Zaira Sierra

For over four years, I’ve worked with Richmond families. I’ve volunteered with Contra Costa Interfaith Supporting Community Organization assisting undocumented youth with their Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) applications and Building Blocks for Kids where I was part of the Community Engagement and Advocacy Team. Recently, I joined the Youth Enrichment Strategies, Nature to Neighborhoods family.

In the short time I have been at Y.E.S. as a summer camp assistant, I’ve seen the love, support and guidance Y.E.S. provides for this community. I feel families connect to Y.E.S. because they find it shares the same values they do.

Parents want their children to grow up safe, educated and successful. I know this because of the conversations I’ve had with parents whose children attended camp through Y.E.S. They know that summer camp contributes to the growth and development of their children.

Of all the parents I met, one stands out: Rocio Villa.

Villa’s son, Saul attended camp through Y.E.S. last summer. Before he came, Villa said Saul, 11, didn’t want to go. He was hesitant about attending the two week long camp and was nervous about being away from his family for so long.

Right before we were about to leave for camp, Saul came to the Y.E.S. office and said he wanted to go. Faced with the choice of going to camp or being homebound for the summer, he worked up the nerve to be away from his family.

10384298_10203446116926774_2399815331618954666_nThis summer Saul ended up attending two weeks of camp at Hidden Villa in Los Altos. The camp is at an organic farm. It’s a place where kids go to have a farm experience with animals and an organic garden.

When Saul returned to Richmond, tears ran down his face as he hugged his Mom. He said he enjoyed the experience but he was homesick towards the end. He told her how much he missed her and his father.

A week later, Villa called to ask if Saul could return to camp. I was surprised—sure that Saul had experienced enough camp for the summer. Villa said Saul was bored back at home. She said he told her, ‘Mom, by this time at camp we had already hiked and played a lot of games.’

The many camp activities filled his day and now instead of missing home, he missed camp. Villa said Saul missed the fun activities, the structure and the schedule.

Saul’s parents want the best for him and realize how essential it is for him to attend summer camp. At first, all they expected was for him to enjoy himself. Now, they notice how much camp has contributed to building his character. He shares with them what he learned about the outdoors, the natural environment, and they notice his growing independence. He is more independent and puts more effort into doing well at school. He’s also no longer scared of being alone.

Opportunities for youth can be costly and difficult to find. The gift Y.E.S. provides youth is something hard to measure. Skills learned at camp help young people with all aspects of life.

Like Saul, kids are able to develop their communication skills, become independent and grow their appreciation of the outdoors. All of these skills might be taught at school, or by family, but camp has a way of enhancing them.

I have listened and seen how one week of sleep-away camp transforms youth. Stories like Saul’s are proof that Y.E.S. is contributing to the development, education and success of our Richmond youth.

After having such a great experience the first week, and getting used to the busy scheduled, Saul ended up attending another week long camp at Loma Mar where he enjoyed zip lining, archery, climbing wall and swimming.

He said he’s looking forward to next year’s camp too.

Training Tomorrow’s Richmond Leaders Starts Today

Commentary, Vernon Whitmore


Approaching the November’s elections, I have been thinking more and more about Richmond’s future, not just after this year’s votes are cast, but in the years and generations to come. When I look at Richmond’s government today, one thing is clear: this city has a lot of older statesman. Richmond’s current city leaders need to look to the future and begin to think about the next generation of elected officials.

To ensure that the city’s future politicians are prepared to lead, what I propose is a Mentorship Program. As Chair of the Richmond Business Political Action Committee, an appointed committee of the Richmond Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, our team interviewed all the 2014 mayoral and city council candidates for office in Richmond. I was excited to see new and younger faces declare their candidacy for political office. But as the interviews proceeded it was evident that the new candidates did not fully understand the political process. However, if these candidates have the gumption to get out there, let’s see if we can sharpen their political acumen and prepare them for Richmond politics.

This sort of education has happened before. I remember when former City Councilman Jim McMillan reached out to a number of potential candidates like former Mayor Irma Anderson and former Councilmember and current EBMUD Director Lesa McIntosh. He saw young, budding personalities and told them that he thought they would be excellent candidates for office. Jim connected with them and he helped them. More than just saying that someone should run, Jim was right there every step of the way guiding and informing them of the political process.

Now it’s time for others to carry the torch and take it even further.

I believe a forum between the established figures and the younger generation is the first step of the process. This will allow us to see where their true passions lie and why they’re interested in politics. What is driving first time candidates to run for a seat in the November 2014 Richmond City Council election. What motivates them?

The second step will be introducing these new political hopefuls to civic leaders in the political arena. Knowing the main players and knowing the landscape is essential. They must understand the 5 ‘W’s’: Who, What, Where, When and Why of politics. It’s good to want to be an elected official, but you have to educate yourself and be prepared for that role.

When I look around at today’s up and coming political crowd, I see that they have an established network, but are too unprepared to jump into the ring. For them to succeed, we need to discover where our interests connect, and where our differences lie. Only by teaming up will we be able to create the best possible future for Richmond. We have to start now preparing for the 2016 election.

Vernon Whitmore is the Chair of the Richmond Business Political Action Committee. 

This article is reprinted with permission from Radio Free Richmond.

The Push to Register Young Voters

by Luis Cubas

It’s no secret that one of the groups least likely to register, or vote, is the youth. Now, a local group is hoping to help change that trend.

September 23 is National Voter Registration Day, a nationwide campaign coordinated with volunteers and organizations to educate and reach out to to voters, while guiding them step by step through the registration process and helping them find their voting location.

In Richmond, one of the organizations helping to register voters on National Voter Registration Day is the local chapter of the League of Women Voters, a national nonprofit aimed at increasing civic involvement.

“We do some advocacy work in that we encourage people to vote in ways that are most equitable and democratic,” said Kia Croom, President of the League of Women Voters West Contra Costa County. “The other part is our voters services in which we get people registered to vote.”

Croom said there are many barriers young people face when it comes to voting. They include, not understand the process, believing that their vote doesn’t matter, feeling that they don’t have a wide variety of choices, and not feeling engaged by politicians.

“Nowadays, I feel like being able to vote just means picking the candidate that’s going to make our situation in the United States of America a little less bad,” 21-year old Anthony Martinez said when asked what voting meant to him.

But, after years of high-profile events showing injustices levied on young people, some younger, would be voters are finding new interest in political involvement.

“I would say events like Ferguson have made me think about politics a lot more,” Christopher Velazquez, 21, said, referencing the shooting of an unarmed, black teenager in Ferguson, MO earlier this summer. “If the community really had a strong say in what happens in their community, things like this would be avoided.”

In order to make a difference and bring change in their communities, many young people have come to understand what a difference their vote can make.

“The injustice that has been happening throughout the U.S. makes me reconsider voting in order to create a positive change and makes me want to have a safer community for my family and friends,” Dalia Ramos, 20, said.

For other young people, the problem of registration is first the hurdle. “I’ve only voted once and that was the Presidential vote,” Xavier Polk, 20, said. “I do not remember the steps.”

It’s voters like Polk that the League of Women Voters is hoping to reach during its Sept. 23 registration drive. To this end, the group will set up three locations throughout West Contra Costa County.

“We will be tabling at local campuses, at local high schools and even at Contra Costa College because we want to encourage as many young people and young adults as possible to get registered to vote,” she said.

At 9:00 a.m., volunteers will be at Contra Costa College, located on 2600 Mission Bell Drive. At noon, they’ll have two booths running at the same time. One at Richmond High School, 1250 23rd street, and the other at Kennedy High School, 4300 Cutting Blvd.

In 2008, six million Americans did not vote, many because they missed the registration deadline, or because they did not know how to register, according the National Voter Registration Day website.


For more information, and to register to vote, visit the National Voter Registration Day website at http://www.nationalvoterregistrationday.org and the League Of Women Voters at http://www.lwv.org.

Internship Teaches Health Solutions to Local Teens

News Report, Sonya Mann/RP Editors

Tamajiea Videau is 16 years old, just halfway through high school, and already she can picture her future career.

“I always loved going to the doctor’s office,” Videau said. “Even if I had to get a shot. I didn’t enjoy that part, but I loved going,” she added, with a laugh.

Videau was one of eight participants in a Public Health Solutions (PHS) training and internship program, sponsored by The California Endowment and Healthy Richmond.

She described her experience to a room full of family and friends during a graduation ceremony last week at the Richmond Public Library.

Amid shiny balloons and cheers from the audience, the De Anza High School’s Health Academy students celebrated their summer accomplishments as interns at public health institutions in Richmond. Each student had a chance to speak during the ceremony about the experience and how it had shaped their views of themselves, their futures and the future of Richmond.

PHS is designed for youth ages 14-19 from communities that are most affected by health inequities. The paid internship program provides an introduction to public health as a career.

IMG_5883Thanks to the program, Videau was able to intern with LifeLong Medical Care on Macdonald Avenue in Richmond and observe nurses in action and working with patients directly. She said that this close interaction with health care professionals gave her even more confidence that she’d be happy in the field as a registered nurse or doctor.

Videau said she enjoyed connecting with the clinic’s visitors and learning about their lives.

“It inspired me to hear stories from people in the community and learn about who they are,” she said with a tender smile as she recalled the people she’d met. “Some of them are elderly and they’ve spent their whole lives in Richmond.”

Beyond the personal connections, Videau said she also learned a lot more about the health disparities among people of all ages and backgrounds.

“Usually you just hear about African-Americans and white people. But there are all kinds of issues,” she said.

IMG_5877Another of the participants, Jefrie Constantino agreed that the internship was a great way to see what a future career in the field would be like—and for him it also reinforced his ambitions.
The 16 year old, soon to be junior in high school, interned with the HIV/AIDS program run by Contra Costa Health Services.

“They say this is a hard city to work in,” Constantino said of his experience in Richmond. “The mental problems are so bad here. I really want to help.”

Through the internship, Constantino interviewed a psychologist who works with the HIV/AIDS program about what a future in the field might look like. Constantino said that the experience boosted his confidence, especially in terms of public speaking and community outreach. He was particularly impressed with his supervisors’ efforts to engage the community around them, and felt inspired to be more outgoing in his own life.

The program’s sponsors partnered with other local groups to organize the internship opportunities for De Anza High School’s Health Academy students and designed it with the aim of providing students with professional experience in the public health field. But, another benefit for these 16-year-old incoming juniors who will soon be applying to colleges, is that the internship will look good on their applications—increasing the likelihood that they get on a path towards these careers. Steven Thomas, director of the De Anza Health Academy, explained to assembled parents and friends that while it’s good to have an internship on the resume he hopes that the experience they take away goes beyond what can be put on paper.

“Whatever they learn through the program is something that they need to take back to the community,” Thomas said.

Guaranteed College Tuition Could Be Game-Changer in Richmond

News Report, Nancy Deville


Paying for college will soon become much easier for Richmond families, with city officials announcing a new program that will cover college tuition fees for local high school graduates.

The $35 million, 10-year initiative known as Richmond Promise will cover college tuition for Richmond students who graduate from any West Contra Costa School District high school. Funds for the project will be drawn from Chevron’s $90 million community benefits package, an agreement between the city and the oil giant that was negotiated as part of the company’s $1 billion initiative to update and improve its Richmond refinery. The scholarship program will likely launch in 2016, city officials said.

Councilman Jael Myrick, who proposed the idea, says Richmond Promise will be life changing for many students who may have never considered attending college otherwise.

“This is going to create a lot of hope for a lot of Richmond families,” he said. “There’s a cultural shift that happens when people know that their community is investing in them and expecting them to succeed. And that’s what this is about.”

While specific criteria — like how long a student must attend a West Contra Costa school to receive the scholarship – have yet to be established, Myrick said students must enroll in a California public university or community college to be eligible. Similar programs in other cities pay full tuition for those enrolled in the public school system since kindergarten, and 65 percent for those who only attend in high school.

A specific grade point average won’t be required, Myrick said. Program funds will be administered through a local nonprofit, yet to be determined.

Myrick hopes the allure of free college tuition will be the catalyst Richmond needs to boost its economy.

“Over the next 10 years this really has the potential to change the trajectory of our city and has so many benefits beyond education,” Myrick said. “People are going to want to live here and put their kids in our schools and that’s a good thing.”

Besides donating $35 million to launch Richmond Promise, Chevron officials also agreed to assist the city with its fundraising efforts to ensure the program can continue beyond 10 years.

Richmond parents are praising the new program, and many say it eases the burden of trying to figure out how to pay skyrocketing tuition costs.

“It gives me great relief to know that my daughter is ensured enough money by the City of Richmond to attend college,” said Dion Clark, whose daughter attends El Cerrito High.

“This puts a whole different light on the future of a lot of kids in Richmond who can be progressive individuals, if given the chance. And it makes me proud and thankful that the City of Richmond is giving them that chance.”

Richmond’s free college tuition plan is similar to an initiative in Kalamazoo, MI. The effort called Kalamazoo Promise has invested about $55 million to assist more than 3,000 students. In 2005, a group of anonymous donors launched the program, pledging enough funds to pay the tuition of students to attend any of Michigan’s public universities or community colleges. Ninety percent of the district’s graduates enroll in college

Since the program was announced nine years ago, the school district’s enrollment has shot up by 25 percent and test scores and graduation rates have steadily increased, said Bob Jorth, executive director of Kalamazoo Promise. The city also has the third lowest unemployment rate in the state, he said.

“If you want a vital community, socially and economically, you have to have an educated population and the Promise seems to be supporting that,” Jorth said. “Seventy percent of students in Kalamazoo public schools are on free and reduced lunch, so naturally affordability was one of the biggest hurdles for students to go to college.”

“It certainly has made a difference in how many students start college,” added Jorth, “but the challenge remains in getting more students through college.”

Local Boxing Coach Training Champions in Richmond

News Report + Photos, Sukey Lewis

IMG_1980“You better go Richmond on him!”

Coach John Island spoke forcefully into his fighter’s ear as they huddled in the red corner of the boxing ring. Jonny Perez was in the middle of his third and final fight at the 2014 Ringside World Championship in Kansas City, Missouri. He was up against a tough opponent from Puerto Rico, fighting for his family, his community and the title.

It was also his birthday. By the time it was all said and done, Perez was 21-years-old — and a welterweight world champion.

“What he said in that corner, what he put in my head, is really what made me win,” Perez later said.

Coach Island has known Perez since he was an angry 15-year-old kid, getting into schoolyard fights at Richmond High, stealing and getting arrested. But Perez turned his life around, and now works as a community organizer with the Freedom Fighters, inspiring other young people to advocate for their rights and participate in their own rescue.

Island himself is no stranger to adversity. He struggled throughout his childhood in Richmond—living in a foster home for a time, and never having enough money. He began boxing at the age of 10, and credits the sport for saving him.

“I became a fighter in life,” Island said.

He would need that tenacious spirit for more than just boxing. After going professional, Island’s career came to a grinding halt after only four fights. The opponent this time wasn’t another fighter, but a cancer diagnosis: Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which affected his neck and shoulder.

Island spent two years undergoing radiation, surgery and treatment.

“It breaks you down,” he said. “I still feel the side effects.”

IMG_1942An unintended result of his own stalled boxing career was that Island began to teach others. He had never thought about teaching before, describing himself in those days as “selfish” with his knowledge. Cancer, it seems, brought the important things in his life sharply into focus. He needed to find a way to keep doing what he loved, and pass on the important lessons life had taught him.

“I found a way to use what I know to change lives,” he said.

Now 41, Island runs the Richmond Police Activities League boxing program for at-risk youth. For the past seven years, Island has been mentoring the city’s youth, helping them stay fit, and teaching them how to throw a punch.

The program has been very successful. Leon Brown, Island’s nephew and one of his protégés, is ranked number three in the world. And Perez wasn’t the only RPAL boxer to come away with a belt in Kansas City earlier this month.

DeVonnie Ray Davidson, 20, won the lightweight division, ultimately triumphing over a tough third-round fighter.

“Dude was trying to knock my head off,” Davidson said laughing. “I just keep my hands up and stay calm and work off the jab.”

He credits Perez for helping him prepare for the fight. Sparring together at the RPAL gym downtown, Davidson said he’s learned how to deal with pressure and keep his cool.

Tall and soft-spoken, Davidson described the physical ordeal fighters go through—especially those trying to “make weight.” After winning his second fight, the boxer had to go for a run to ensure he would qualify as a lightweight—between 115 and 123 pounds.

Davidson has been training with Island for more than three years, and said he would never have gotten this far without Island’s coaching and mentoring.

“Vonnie came to me, not actually sure where he fit in,” Island said. “I taught him from the bottom up — he didn’t know anything about boxing. From there it changed his life, so much.”

Island’s team also included Officer Savannah Stewart of the Richmond Police Department and Sam Mendoza, though the fighters were knocked out in the first and second rounds, respectively.

“I took those ones because they are some of the hardest working [fighters] that I have here. And I really felt like they deserved (it)… To be able to compete locally is one thing but to be able to compete with athlete(s) from all over the world, that says something.”

Island can see the positive impact the boxing program has on his students’ lives. “Everybody is a graduate of high-school, everybody’s going to college, or they’re working. It’s always positive — no drugs, no alcohol.”

IMG_1977Bringing home two championship belts to Richmond, Island feels his boxing program is part of the change his city needs. He said he sees kids without hope, without anything to do, and without strong role models to show them a positive path.

As Perez tells the story of his coach motivating him with the words, “go Richmond on them,” Island interrupts to explain.

“I’m trying to tell him to be himself. He had it in him all along. I’m saying, remember the tough days from Richmond High when he was up to no good,” Island said. “You thought you was out there fighting and doing something. Now use it for a reason — that’s why I remind you where you come from: Richmond. Never forget.”

“Never forget,” Perez echoed.


Richmond Police Activities League is holding a boxing event at 2200 MacDonald Ave. on Saturday, August 16, to raise money for the team. Their goal is to raise enough funds to participate in the National Police Activities League Championships in Oxnard, in late September.

To get more information on coach Island’s boxing program or to donate to the team, contact him by email at islandjohnisland@aol.com.