National Organizing Exchange Brings Young Activists Together


For some youths, political organizing is not just a way to exercise their values, but a set of responses to crucial circumstances in their communities. On the third weekend in June, thanks to the Funders' Collaborative on Youth Organizing (FCYO) many of these young people had a chance to come together on the small, tree-filled campus of Mills College in Oakland, Calif.

The FCYO National Youth Organizing Exchange brought together more than 50 youth organizations working for social justice around the country to attend workshops and meet with other youth activist groups. The groups took time away from their work on issues ranging from juvenile justice and education reform to environmental racism to network and talk about collaboration.
"We decided to have the conference in the Bay Area because so much organizing is happening here," said Melody Baker, a program associate for the Collaborative and one of the event’s organizers. The FCYO also wanted to have the conference at a place of higher learning in order to set a tranquil and academic tone for the event.






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Rather than working for an abstract goal or "cause," the idea of fighting for local and immediate change came through in every element of the gathering.


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The FCYO is a collaborative of foundations that generates funding for youth organizations. They help youth organizing groups to develop stable and sustainable organizations and try to increase the awareness and understanding of youth organizing among funders and community organizations. All of the organizations at the conference receive support from the collaborative, which paid for two members of each group to fly to the Bay Area for the Exchange. Once there, the diverse group of young activists spent three days visiting the offices of Bay Area-based groups and attending workshops on organizing strategies, tactics and campaign issues.
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Rather than working for an abstract goal or "cause," the idea of fighting for local and immediate change came through in every element of the gathering. CAAAV, for example, a youth group that organizes Asian communities in the Bronx, are working for systemic change out of community necessity. When new welfare laws in that area threatened many of their parents and neighbors, they surveyed the community, held press conferences, made a documentary and organized a direct action at the welfare office. Similarly, several of the youth there who are involved in struggles against the prison industrial complex had either been in Juvenile detention centers themselves, or had friends and relatives serving time.
Precisely because these youth are so active in their own backyards, however, many of them are not aware of the larger youth-led social justice movement that is taking root around the nation. That’s where meetings like this one come in. Ditra Edwards the acting director of LISTEN, Inc., a group that gives technical assistance to youth activist groups and holds a similar meeting annually praised that collaborative for their efforts. "One of the biggest challenges," she said, "is connecting people from all over."
Many of the attendees were surprised to learn that other groups were dealing with similar issues in different places. While activists from New York brought stories about their work to reform the mandatory sentencing of the Rockefeller drug laws and their effect on youth, their Californian counterparts shared their experiences with aftermath of the passing of Proposition 21 and the subsequent practice of regularly prosecuting youth as most states do adults.
According to Baker, similar Exchanges may happen in the future, furthering the FCYO's goal of empowering youth through organizing.


The Participants


Alex

Alex Boykins, 19, was first exposed to activism in 1997 by her mother, who was involved with a program within the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN).

She says, at first, it was difficult to get a youth group together "because young people were not used to having people ask their opinion," Alex said. "In the beginning, a lot of them were cautious, while others jumped right in. They had been waiting for this opportunity."
In the last few years, NYAP has worked to keep an alternative high school open, has exposed racial profiling in schools, and has rallied against a chemical waste dump site. At the Exchange, Alex met people from big cities who were dealing with some of the same problems that she says they see Reno, but on a larger scale.
"Even though the we are a smaller city," she says, "the bigger cities aide us in solving our small problems. And sometimes the problems are overwhelming for the bigger cities, but the small cities can help them. "

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Andrew Wesley, 17, works for the Citizens for Community Improvement of Des Moines, Iowa. He is an activist who has worked on education and transportation issues in Des Moines and is currently working on a campaign for student fares on city buses.
He was excited to be spending the weekend on the serene tree-filled Mills campus. "Coming from a city school, I look around here and I think, I could learn at a place like this," he said.

Lisa Rodriguez (no photo avaliable) is a 17-year-old youth organizer from Chicago. Lisa got involved with the Chicago Youth Council when her mother brought her along to a rally.
"I was really loud and everyone was like 'wow, you should come join the group'," Lisa said.
So she did. Lisa has been working with the Brighton Park branch of the council for the past 18 months.
BPYC has worked to get better school lunches at the schools in their community. They are also organizing to get more police to patrol around grammar schools, more police cars on the street, and a youth-conducted training class for high school security guards focusing on sensitivity, diversity and dealing better with kids.
Lisa says learned new strategies for collaboration that she plans to take back to her group. "My group collaborates with people, but I don't think that we collaborate as much as we can. I think that it can help us a lot,"she said.
"The best part of is the experience of being here myself, " she said. "I got to meet people, and there are so many things that I didn't know about youth organizing that people have taught me."

alex and fenando
Fresh from organizing a hip-hop educational rally, Alex Cross and Fernando Carlo, both 16, came to the conference to learn more about youth organizing. Alex and Fernando are from New York and are members of the NorthWest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition (NWBCCC). They are also involved with Sistas and Brothas United (SBU).

Alex recently got involved with the NWBCCC through a summer job He took an active role and decided to join the organization. In order to join, Alex had to leave the street gang that he was part of. Since then, he has been elected to the NWBCCC Board of Directors.

Fernando has been active with NWBCCC for three years. In that time, he has assisted in a campaign on school repair, a peer mentoring program and a youth organizing summer training program.
The hip-hop rally was held in New York earlier this month, and was a way to inform people of $1 billion cut from the NY education fund's budget.

The organization teamed up with Russell Simmons to get a surprising range of popular entertainers including P-Diddy, Jay Z, Wu-Tang Clan, and Alicia Keys to come out and show their support for the cause.
"When you have people that others idolize, you get their attention. The concert opened up a lot of people's ears," Fernando said. "More people are active because of it."
"We educated people through hip-hop," Alex said.

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Seleah Bussey, 18, works for an organization called Sista II Sista in Brooklyn, New York, which monitors sexual assault in schools. They are working toward the training of school safety officers in middle schools and high schools.
She says she was surprised by the similarities in the struggles that organizations from so many parts of the country were taking on.
"With so many white kids out [in California]," she says, "I figured the schools would be better. But they got the same problems we got in New York. Everybody ain't really that different."

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Robert Foxx, 20, had flown all the way form Harlem on a red-eye Friday night and he was tired Saturday, but glad to be there. Foxx has worked with a few different organizations, and says that the people who work there make a big difference. He says he learned about the group he’s working with now, Youth Organizers United, when they did a presentation at his high school. He thinks that youth organizing is at a crucial point in its development. "It is starting to take off," he says. "Before, I didn’t really care about the issues, then I got educated and thought, hey, this is my problem. "


Emil, (no photo available) 17, is active in a group called Let's Get Free, a juvenile justice organization in the Bay Area. He was recently interviewed by the Oakland Tribune at a rally against the Alameda Superjail, but now he says he regrets speaking to a reporter who described his appearance in a less than respectful way. The media, he said, often distorts what young people say and do. Emil eventually warmed up to the WireTap crew, and admitted that making it to an organizer’s meeting was rough on a Saturday. "I've been working for [Let's Get Free] all week 9-6, " he said. "I'm tired as a mutha*****, but I came to this conference because it's important, you feel me?"

Tamara Crockett is a college senior at FAMU in Tallahassee, Fla. She is studying magazine production and graphic design in hopes of one-day starting her own magazine. She is a Summer Fellow at WireTap

Stephen Baxter, 22, is a recent college graduate and budding journalist from La Jolla, California. He is a Summer Fellow at WireTap.

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