“The most important tool of our work is the voices of young people and residents coming together to make change and to advocate for greater investment in our neighborhoods.” – Maria Brenes, Executive Director at InnerCity Struggle.
InnerCity Struggle (ICS) has a long legacy of working for change in the Eastside of Los Angeles community, which is predominantly immigrant, Latino, and low-income. For almost 25 years, they have been organizing students and residents to take an active role in changing the landscape of their communities for the better. Initially, the organization’s goal was to disrupt the pipeline from school-to-prison and redirect public investment to better prepare young people for success. They continue that work today as well as works on increasing civic engagement and preventing housing displacement. They have changed lives for the better by leveraging a strategy of base-building and leadership development through three platforms: youth organizing, parent and resident organizing, and civic engagement.
Brenes acknowledges that initially the hardest part of the work was to demonstrate that change was possible. The goal of ICS is to empower students and residents to elevate their voices and teach them that power through numbers can change the conditions of their community – such as in the case of the Student Equity Need Index.
Due to decades of disinvestment in public education, the State of California moved from first in the nation in per pupil spending to number 47 in 2018. The data also show that the children in the Eastside of Los Angeles have lower achievement rates in reading and math compared to more affluent areas in the region. In response, ICS helped form the Equity Alliance for LA’s Kids to help lead efforts in organizing students and residents to influence the school board to vote to adopt the Student Equity Need Index. The resolution that was proposed to the school board allocated state funding based on need that could be used towards a menu of options like college access, restorative justice, and wellness support. Approval of the resolution would indicate the board was acknowledging inequitable schooling, neighborhoods, and student experiences.
By the day of the school board meeting where the resolution was considered, ICS and their allies had secured just two votes out of the four needed to pass among the board of seven members. Some board members were undecided, while others had expressed opposition. It was believed that a unanimous vote would be needed to ensure effective implementation of the resolution. After months of campaigning, the possibility of concession was looming. Refusing to give up, students and parents mobilized, made their voices heard, and helped change the equity landscape of the second largest school district in the country. The resolution was passed with a unanimous vote!
“Students spoke. They filled the board room. They cheered. They chanted. They had their shirts. They testified. And we got a unanimous decision,” said Bernes. “We cannot underestimate the power of organizing and mobilization.”
“When we talk about schools and the conditions that schools are in, it is a civil rights issue. It is an equity issue,” said Laura Zavala Director of Policy & Research at ICS. “If we are not providing the conditions and the quality to provide the optimal learning experience for our students, we are doing a disservice, and it is an inequitable environment.”
In the past months, with the support of a grant from Voices for Healthy Kids, Zavala and ICS have begun to dig deeper into what it means to have the right conditions at school and to understand the policies that do or do not exist to support those conditions. As part of that work, they discovered that students were concerned about a lack of access to quality water. As a result, they are now working towards proposing a resolution to the school board that aims to strengthen equity within the existing water access policies, such as securing a certain amount of water stations, ensuring every school has high-quality water access, and ensuring conditions of water sources are up to a certain minimum standard.
The students are proving they are more than just a voice. Next, they will take part in a photo lab project where they will take pictures of water sources at their schools, code the pictures, and develop a series of recommendations. This work will then be incorporated in the overall resolution and play a critical role in communicating their direct experiences to the board.
The students in Eastside Los Angeles, and specifically those in ICS’ United Students program, have learned their voices can make a difference. After going through the program, many students continue to develop their civic voice and pledge to find ways to stay connected to the community.
Having earned a full scholarship to UCLA because of her work and relationship with ICS, Alejandra Peguero said she will explore social policy, social work, and the social impact of the arts and build on the organizing and advocacy skills ICS has taught her.
“I’m more comfortable asking questions about what I don’t know. I see myself as someone who has the power of changing things that are unjust. [ICS] changed the way I perceived youth voices. I saw the impact it can have when youth come together and organize around issues they are affected by. Our voices are often dismissed, and decisions are made for us without our input.”
And for others like Brandon Najera, ICS has fundamentally shifted his life perspective. “It really opened my eyes and helped me come to peace with certain things. I have had a lot of tension with my family, but I realize the challenges in my neighborhood – what we go through – isn’t my parents’ fault. ICS helped me realize maybe some things that happen to me aren’t just my problem. It’s a systemic thing that happens to a lot of people in my community.”
Najera will go onto UC San Diego this fall to explore ethnic studies and determine the best way he can continue to give back to his community – he wants to become a community organizer after graduation or go on to law school and come back to help drive change.
“I’ve seen myself grow so much from just barely being able to speak to other students in the program to now being one of the people that helps organize walkouts and speaks in rallies. Going out to Sacramento to speak to legislators has given me the drive to continue to dedicate myself to the community.”