The storefront headquarters on this main drag in East Los Angeles, one of the oldest barrios in the nation, wears its name proudly in graffiti-like lettering: InnerCity Struggle.
Inside, armed with spray bottles and paper towels, two teenagers polish the conference table to a high gloss. At computers nearby, other young people scan that day’s press reports on local school funding, which again has fallen under California’s budget ax.
As they prepare for a meeting about their organizing efforts, these youth wield their cutting-edge weapons with skill and determination. Acutely aware that high-tech communication and a professional demeanor can boost their chances of success, they have spent the last year documenting the effects of their overcrowded, under-resourced high schools on Latino students like themselves, who are typically swept aside when it comes to preparing for college and good jobs.
Nancy, an immigrant from Mexico who has been in honors classes all her life, explains:
"My friends in the lower [non—college-prep] classes have unaccredited teachers, while we have accredited ones. We would have college counselors come into the classroom, but only the military recruiters would come into theirs. Things like that should be given throughout the school, not only to a small percentage of students! I don’t want to see my friends have to stay behind or drop out of school, join the military, or work as low-wage labor at a Jack-in-the-Box."
Joshua, who attends nearby Garfield High, details conditions at his school:
"Most of our classes have 40 students in them; you have to sit way in the back with no tables, and some students have to stand up because there’s no room for them. It’s very stressful. Tiles are falling off the ceilings, and lunch is in a little area where you can’t really sit down. Usually, only one or two bathrooms are open for 4,800 students, and they’re in horrible condition."
Not long ago, students might have accepted conditions like these as inevitable in a community bursting with over a million first- and second-generation immigrants from Mexico and Central America. But now they are asking new questions—then conducting surveys, meeting with school administrators, contacting the media, and doing whatever else it takes to rally support for a better future.
Six of these 16-year-old activists gathered recently to tell how they rose to leadership positions in a city-wide network called Youth Organizing Communities (YOC), which works to galvanize change in East Los Angeles high schools. All attend Roosevelt and Garfield High Schools, where they meet weekly at lunchtime with other concerned students in campus clubs called United Students (US).
With 5,500 students, Roosevelt calls itself the country’s largest high school, and Garfield is close behind. Thanks in large part to the efforts of these young activists, both have recently taken important steps toward improvement, from establishing ethnic studies courses to repairing inadequate restrooms.
The two schools form the vanguard of the four high schools targeted by Luis Sanchez, 28, when he came back home to East Los Angeles in 1999 to start Youth Organizing Communities, after earning his degree at U.C. Berkeley. The network merged in 2001 with InnerCity Struggle, a community organizing group.
“We believe any young leader has the capacity to become the director of this organization,” says Sanchez, who himself has just been tapped as executive director of InnerCity Struggle. Of the organization’s core staff, several first joined in high school themselves and now coach the student generation that followed.
Finding the Patterns
That generation includes Ale, who says she “grew up a troubled child, kind of slick,” so that even when she bullied “little skinny boys” she would slide out of trouble with school authorities or the police. “One of my older sisters made it to ninth grade and then dropped out,” she says. “I would tell myself, ‘That’s not going to be me.’” Another sister excelled at Roosevelt, but when their parents divorced three months short of graduation, she took an after-school job to augment the pay from her mother’s job as a janitor. Ale tells the story:
It affected her schoolwork—she would get out late at night and then do homework, and then go to sleep. She started missing school to stay home and study in the morning. She only had three more months before she was going to graduate on stage, but she got kicked out of school.
As she started going to United Students meetings, Ale began to connect her family’s circumstances with her own future:
"I started seeing that it was happening to me—I’m living it, in this poor community. I have to get a job. I went from being used to living in these conditions and not caring, [then] to realizing and being aware of how bad our school and community is, [then] to wanting to do something about it. Now my passion is to help people. I’m not a bully any more—my own friends come to me for advice. I expect to go to college; I want to so badly. I missed out on a lot of classes and now I’m on my way to catching up."
Other students were also questioning the fairness of long-entrenched school structures and practices. When he attended his first college fair, Joshua says, an admissions representative chatting with him visibly lost interest upon hearing his Spanish surname. In the general track classes, military recruiters visited often to make their pitch, but college recruiters went to honors classes instead.
The school’s “tardy room,” where late students are sent to bide their time, draws their particular ire. “It’s a contradiction because they want you to be in class, but they keep you from going there,” Joshua says. “You can’t go to class without filling out papers for a PRC [Permission to Return to Class]. There’s a big line with 15 or 20 students, and when the bell rings, they send you to the tardy room.”
There, Rene elaborates, “They give you a sheet of paper with school rules and they make you copy it out--the dress code, the scheduling, the counselors, how you are getting kicked out. It has nothing to do with what we’re doing in class.”
When her bus makes her late, says Maria, “I beg my teacher to make me absent instead of sending me to the tardy room.” An honor student, she resents wasting her time in a make-work situation. “A lot of students in the school think that students who aren’t doing well are lazy,” she says.
“We have to show people the reality of this world,” Joshua says. “Students who agree with the school leadership are favored by the administration. They don’t want to fight against it because it just starts up trouble.”
Creating the Solutions
Once these students decided to change their school, the United Students club, which draws 20 or 30 attendees weekly, helped them find a pragmatic strategy to do it. In after-school sessions at InnerCity Struggle, a core group of five to ten leaders from each school—the Coordinating Committee for each club—learns the tools of an organizer’s trade: setting an agenda, facilitating a meeting, working a phone bank, leading a school-wide assembly, conducting a classroom presentation or workshop.
At Roosevelt, the first step to the students’ most recent campaign was coming up with hard research that showed the extent of the problem.
“Everything comes from what the students’ questions are,” Maria says. Youth staff from InnerCity Struggle helped them in the discovery stage, Nancy explains:
"We learned how to communicate with students, what is an appropriate way to outreach, to go up and ask them what they thought about the school. We knew we would get a lot of negative feedback. We made them aware that they had a voice in what was going on.
Using that information, the US group decided on the indicators they considered most important to a better high school: challenging classes for all, information for everyone about college and how to prepare for it, and continuous academic press whatever the obstacles poverty presents."
Then, narrowing their focus to a few carefully worded questions, they surveyed over 750 students, or 13 percent of Roosevelt’s student body. The results showed stark inequities in the opportunities students experienced.
Roughly two out of every three Roosevelt freshmen do not make it to graduation, student researchers found by analyzing state and local data. Military recruiters greatly outnumber college counselors at Roosevelt and often approach students outside class, whereas few students receive sustained support for college planning. More than half of the surveyed students had skipped class rather than risk going to the tardy room, which almost all regarded as an ineffective deterrent and a waste of time. They saw overcrowded classrooms, inadequate bathroom conditions, and the year-round schedule as inhibiting their learning. And they favored introducing culturally relevant classes into the high school curriculum.
The next step was to bring pressure on the school administration to change. Arguing that school conditions are closely linked with student tardiness and attendance, United Students created an alternative plan that would replace the tardy room with a proactive strategy to keep students engaged, motivated, and in class. At a student-led forum they presented the plan to Roosevelt’s principal and won her support.
That experience taught the young activists crucial lessons in effective communication.
“All the school policies are made in the shared decision-making council, where there’s only one student leader,” says Nancy. “Now we know the proper way to approach them. You have to have the confidence to set up a meeting together with the principal. We are organized, and when they walk in we offer them an agenda, we treat them professionally. We gained those leadership skills.”
“ I learned how to speak to adults,” says Ale. Rene offers an example: “When they talk down to you, using little words, you talk back to them using proper grammar and bigger words. You’re showing them that they can’t do that, that you’re educated as well.”
Working the Media
Students also needed media attention, they realized, to get their findings into the public eye. In weekly three-hour evening sessions at InnerCity Struggle headquarters, the US leaders go through a three-month intensive training on media literacy. “We learned that a small percentage of big companies control everything that we see on television,” says Joshua. “They don’t really say the truth if it’s going to lose money.”
Rene adds, “I used to read the newspapers and watch the news and think that everything was accurate. Now I realize there’s a lot of inaccuracy. I know not to believe everything we read or see.”
Following the news from five Los Angeles daily and weekly newspapers, the students track coverage of education, prison spending, military spending, and recruiting. “You learn to analyze what they are saying,” says Maria, who continues:
"Then they teach us how to talk to the media, saying what we feel. We needed more restrooms at Garfield, so another group of students that were here before helped us make a video about the conditions of the restrooms. They took it to Channel 9, and because of that, everything the students wanted to have people know came out on TV."
The strategy worked, says Nancy: “The school superintendent allocated $20 million into improving school conditions. We’ve had a lot of interviews on the radio, and with the L.A. Times. We’re so young, but we’ve done so much and it feels good. I was a computer illiterate before!”
Learning Through the Campaign
Other students voice similar pride in what they are learning through their organizing experiences. “We learned to make our own media, so we don’t have to rely on TV,” says Robyn. “They showed us how to make movies using the computer, splicing pictures together, using programs like Photoshop and Illustrator.”
They have learned persistence in advancing their cause. “To change things, you have to learn patience,” says Rene. He details why it’s important:
"Before, if someone would tell me something I didn’t agree with, I would go off on them. Now I will gradually hear them out and then explain what my point of view is. If you don’t, you’re going to end up saying something that you don’t want to say. Even if it’s an accident, it might sound like a contradiction, as if you don’t know what you are doing. It’ll get a whole bunch of people against your campaign. I started going over talking points so I knew what to say exactly, sticking to them with patience."
InnerCity Struggle keeps close track of how its student organizers are doing in school. “Just like a good school would do, we make sure they take the courses they need to go to college,” says Luis Sanchez. “We know how they’re doing in their classes. We prep them for the SATs, and we walk the seniors through the whole application and financial aid process. We take them on trips to see colleges, helping them find a place they will feel culturally at home.”
The attention and respect open new intellectual horizons. “You become interested in different things,” says Nancy. “Before I used to just read fiction. Now I’m more involved in politics. I read feminist theory and politics.”
Many who did not see themselves as college-bound are now revising their plans. Ale, who once wanted to be a performer, now thinks about going into science. Maria had wanted to act. “But now that I learn about all the things that are happening I want to become politically involved,” she says. “I want to become a lawyer so I can help my people, anyone whose voice is not being heard.” Rene aims to open a record shop. “Music is a big form of politics, media, influence,” he says. “Music has everything.”
Joshua dreams of becoming a teacher of English and history. “I want to teach kids that they can do something about it,” he says. “Most of our teachers just follow every single rule. That’s not the best way to teach, to me. I would connect with kids and care about them. I would be one of those teachers they could go to.”
Robyn wants to continue to work for school change, perhaps as a media activist with InnerCity Struggle. “We do need a new school very badly,” she says. “Even if it can’t be built for us, we’re still thinking about our cousins, nieces, and nephews. We don’t want them to get a bad education like we’re getting right now.”
For all of these students, the experience of organizing for change has fundamentally altered their perceptions. “I always thought of going to college, getting a good job, and moving out of East Los Angeles to a ‘better’ city and community,” says Nancy. “Now I don’t want to move. I want to come back here to my community and help it out. I grew up in this community and I want it to be better for the next generation.”