By Laneisha Butler, Youth Organizer
Last month’s Youth Power conference hosted by the Funders’ Collaborative on Youth Organizing, a collective dedicated to “promot[ing] the leadership of low-income young people and young people of color in social justice organizing,” reminded me why my work as a Youth Organizer in Oakland is so crucial to creating change in my community. Traveling to Albuquerque to attend the conference, I embarked on neighborhood tours which provided context to the racial and economic justice struggles of our host organizers. Though the places and communities looked different from ours here in Oakland, the stories were so similar.
Driving this home was Albuquerque’s International District, an area that has historically suffered from poverty and remains under-resourced, yet has incredible resilience and organizing against these injustices.
The International District was formerly named the ‘War Zone’ by city officials because of the poverty, high number of pedestrian deaths, and concentration of other forms of ‘violence’. Realizing the power that words have in shaping perception and realities, organizers fought to change this district’s name to show respect to the land and its high density of Native Americans, decriminalize the community, and acknowledge its diversity [about 30 different languages are spoken by residents]. Our tour guide took us to a school where teachers, youth, and partner organizations had participated in neighborhood walks to assess community needs. They presented their results to city officials, informing them of their need for basic infrastructure investments including safety improvements to crosswalks, installation of streetlights, development of a space for youth to play and grow healthy foods, and increased access to public transit. When city officials refused to invest in the community, organizers found ways to move projects forward, developing signals to alert folks when to safely cross streets, building and installing their own solar powered streetlights, partnering with schools for gardening, and running a campaign for free bus passes.
Albuquerque does not look anything like the East Oakland neighborhood in which I grew up, yet the lessons that I learned from touring the International District apply just the same. When you can bring people together who care about their community, change can be accomplished regardless of who is in power — this is why I am an organizer.
The use of historical context as an important tool to engage folks to take action is something I hadn’t seen before. My tour of the International District inspired me to modify my voter outreach presentations to youth so that they include Oakland’s history, which hopefully will engage more students. Up until this point, my voter outreach presentations focused heavily on policies, laws, statistics, and facts about the Civil Rights Movement, but lacked local context. I now understand the importance of grounding my outreach work and education in the rich story that comes from own communities. This includes educating young people about the Native American nations who called Oakland home before colonization, and providing details about the organizing skills, community services, and political agenda of the Black Panthers. I’m excited to see how youth respond to this new messaging.
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