Californians for Justice

californians for justiceMarisol Melendez works with Californians for Justice (CFJ), a group that does advocacy work around education, poverty, and prisons issues. They deal with diversity in California's schools, the rights of low income people, education, and ballot propositions. They run campaigns to inform people of political issues and how they will be affected. Their most recent campaign was against Proposition 54, which would have made it illegal for the government to keep track of racial data (the proposition didn't pass on October 7th during the California re-call election). In the past they worked against Proposition 209, a ban on affirmative action in the University of California system.

At 15 years old, Marisol was a pro at being interviewed. I felt like I was talking to a good friend because we connected like we were on the same level. Marisol goes to a small high school called Far West in Oakland, California, where she was born and raised.

WireTap: What is the Californians for Justice mission?

In my opinion I feel that our mission is to focus on education and equal rights.

WT: What got you interested in this organization?

Marisol at a Prop. 54 presentation at CFJ.

Well I got into it just by Carmen [the adult leader of CFJ] pushing me. What really made me stick through it was just to see the hard work and determination, like [the campaign against] the Exit Exam. They did not stop until they got at least a two-year delay, and so what drove me to stay with CFJ was their determination for what they [believed in].

Editor's note: The Exit Exam is a state mandated test that all Californians starting with the class of 2006 must pass to graduate from a public high school.

WT: How long have you been involved with the organization?

About a year now. It will be a year, in January.

WT: What is the history of CFJ?

Well, it was founded in 1995. We have other offices in Long Beach, Los Angeles, San Diego, Fresno, and Oakland. In the history of CFJ we have done campaigns for affirmative action [and] Prop 209. We have done campaigns for equality education recently, and we are focusing more on low income [people], and people of color. We help the people who need help instead of helping [those] who have access to resources and can help themselves.

WT: Who do you serve?

[People of] all culture and backgrounds.

WT: Why do you think Californians for Justice needed to delay the California High School Exit Exam? With the 2-year delay victory, why does CFJ feel that it should be longer? Two years is a lot of time to teach teens the basic skills needed to pass the test.

It's not a long time. Because if you think about it, I mean two years -- that's good, [but] we want to extend it further, because there is no way you can get quality in education [that fast].

We need more books, we need more resources, we need more money. Like McClymonds and Skyline are ["the good schools" in Oakland], and they are still not good schools.

Piedmont is the richest city in the East Bay, therefore these students are passing the Exit Exam when other schools aren't. That's saying something. This is just one example of disparity that many school districts must respond to with so many budget cuts. As a result, I don't think two years will give us enough time to fix all of that.

At the CFJ offices.

WT: What do you think about the small schools movement in Oakland? Do you think Oakland's community organizers have done a good job with the small schools movement?

After experiencing my time in small schools, yes it is. Some of them could do better, but some of them are really good. [Small schools] focus on each and every student, and they focus on education.

WT: Do you think there is something wrong with California's public education system? If so, do you think CFJ can help reform it?

There is definitely something wrong with our education system. I do feel that CFJ can help. I mean they have already got the two-year delay, and they are so determined and they are such great people that they can strive for what they [believe in]. Through all their campaigns, they [have] people doing outreach and helping out in the community and our cities. They are really trying hard to bring everyone together.

WT: With the money people donate to CFJ, where does it go?

It goes to our campaign; it goes to paying for buses we need to pick up people, it pays for posters to get the word out with different campaigns and proposition that are coming out... It goes to us fighting for a better education.

WT: Do you think that CFJ has gotten the word out to low income people about who it serves and issues that affect them, and gotten more people registered to vote?

Yeah definitely!

WT: What skills or tactics do you need to achieve your goal?

You need leadership tactics, and you need to understand how to work with different types of people, and you know, where people are coming from. Everyone has different points of view I think, and you need to learn to support them and how to really get the word out.

WT: Do you feel that there is anything in this interview that I touched too lightly on, or did not talk enough about? If so what do you want to talk about?

When I joined CFJ I was just going there, because Carmen kind of introduced me and some of my friends, so I went to one of the meetings because I had nothing else to do. But going to the meetings I realized that this was a pretty strong organization -- and I was not really into politics or anything. But they really opened my eyes.

Now when I watch the news, like who was going to be our new governor, and look at the new propositions it makes me think. It gives you an open mind on things I would not have thought of before, but it was really a good experience for me.

To find out more about CFJ check out their website:

Jennifer Johnson Adeyemi is a staff writer at WireTap.

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