LOS ANGELES – A group of 25 high school students, dressed in their Sunday best, prepared to present the findings from a busy summer of research conducted across the city. Their message was simple to the assembled city leaders, parents and others who gathered recently Los Angeles City Hall: Pay attention to youth and their communities.
The presentations from students from several high schools across greater Los Angeles was the culmination of a weeks-long summer research program during which the students studied ways the economic crisis has affected their communities. In South Los Angeles, students reported on the impact of poverty.
From East Los Angeles, students discovered the economic crisis had helped boost the high school drop out rate. The high school students, presenting their findings to the Los Angeles City Council and other city officials, were sponsored by UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education and Access.
Ernest Morrell, associate director of the Institute for Democracy, Education and Access, said the seminar aimed to promote conversations about educational reform and youth development. “The presentation is a validation for them that what they do matters,” he said.
Activist youth with a message
Ricky Torres, a Crenshaw High School junior who participated in the summer research, was no stranger to speaking out against the recent budget cuts even before joining the seminar. Torres participated some of the walk outs when teachers at Crenshaw High School were given pink slips as LAUSD cut its budget to reflect the recession.
“We were helping out the teachers. We didn’t want the best teachers to leave,” said Torres.
At the presentations at City Hall earlier this month, each group of students prepared a PowerPoint presentation that included information about the different issues they studied, an overview of the community they studied, the research, their findings and recommendations for change. Each group also presented a video documentary.
The East Los Angeles group found that more than half of the students they surveyed have considered dropping out of school to get jobs because of the economy. More than 70 percent of the people had concerns about health care and losing their homes. And more than half said they believed students are no longer a priority to public officials.
The students who went into the San Fernando Valley and West Los Angeles said they didn’t expect to find many similarities, but were surprised to see how these communities were also affect by the economic crisis.
The South Los Angeles group gave a brief history of the social oppression that has plagued this community. They talked about the rise of drugs and violence in the 1980s, the riots, and the high poverty rate.
“When we wake up in the morning, we have a higher access to death than any other community,” said Torres, who lives South Los Angeles.” I feel fear every single day. In other communities you see people outside having fun . . . you don’t see that in South Central.”
Youth and their “rhetorical power”
The South Los Angeles group concluded that a lack of resources in this community is to blame for the low graduation rates at Manual Arts and Crenshaw high schools. They suggested that the Los Angeles Unified School district create a research team to serve students in this community.
“Don’t believe the lies,” Jimenez, a senior at Wilson High School, told the audience. “You have the power to change these oppressive conditions.”
After each group of students finished their presentation, there was a sense of relief and pride on their faces.
When asked whether he felt the last 10 summers of co-directing this seminar was helping change Los Angeles, UCLA’s Morrell paused and said: “We have impacted leaders who have a different kind of respect or fear of the kids around the city. Kids have a rhetorical power and honesty and legitimacy and a moral authority to do things that adults can’t. I do think these kids have a made a difference in their families, in their schools, to their teachers and a difference to the city’s school system.”
The UCLA institute is a network of UCLA scholars and students, professionals in schools and public agencies, advocates, community activists, and urban youth. IDEA’s mission is to make high quality public schooling and successful college participation routine occurrence in low income neighborhoods of color. More information about the institute and its work is available here.