I visited the REACH Ashland Youth Center sometime in May of this year. I remember driving past the shiny new building and skate park a couple of times and thinking, when the hell did that get there? I could have parked my car and walked into the building then and there, but instead I just kept driving by and wondering what mysterious activities occurred at this youth center. Thanks to this blog, I finally made my way over. See, I knew this blog would pay off (not monetary wise, but I could always use a sponsor—I’m talking to you, 21st Amendment)! The surprisingly affable staffers at Supervisor Wilma Chan’s office, who I met at a community meeting earlier this year (again thanks to this blog), even arranged a tour for me.
I waited awkwardly in the lobby for about 45 minutes, watching kids funnel in and out, overhearing teenage conversations that made me question if I could still consider myself young. It was about lunchtime and I hadn’t had anything to eat except 2 cups of coffee and an espresso shot, so my stomach was going full Hardcore Punk garage show. Just as I was getting ready to surrender, remembering my favorite pupuseria was a couple blocks down the street, I was met by Jamie Hintzke who is responsible for community relations at REACH. She gave me a tour while giving me some of the back story of how the project came to be. I felt like Charlie Bucket in the Chocolate Factory. It is not enough to say I was impressed; the place is even better than what I would have imagined for the empty lots in San Lorenzo. The youth center is a two-story LEED certified green building which holds a music studio, an art studio, a dance studio, a computer lab, a theater, a clinic, child care services, a café, and on top of all of that, the building was designed collaboratively with many of the youth of the area.
Did I mention this is completely free of charge for the youth? It’s a socialist dream come true.
Jamie did me like Leo in Inception, and a few weeks later I was reaching out to her about writing a piece on the center. She had mentioned during the tour how REACH was a project started by a couple of young women all in their early teens. She connected me with Janice, a junior at UC Berkeley, who then connected me with two other youth involved in the process-Darya and Dejamarie, senior and sophomore at Sacramento State. Here is a slimmed down version of our conversation**:
So, who had the initial idea and at what point did you all get involved in the process? It seems like all of you have a connection with someone named Hilary.
Darya: I started doing volunteer work with Hilary, who was at the head of getting this center started. I started working with her probably at the age of 11. She worked as the rec manager—there is a small recreation center [in] the apartments I used to live in; [the] person that ran that recreation room would put on different activities for the children and there was a computer lab and kids go back there and do their homework and so that’s how I met Hilary.
Dejamarie: I started with REACH when I was about 8 years old. That was probably about 2005 I think, not sure, I’m not doing the math right now. I was 8 years old and basically I got introduced through my aunt, her name is Dominique. She knew Hilary and lived in the complex where Hilary had worked.
Janice: I grew up on 165th, so I met Hilary when she was at the Eden Apartments. I met her in middle school through the vice principal. He was like ‘Hey you should talk to Hilary, she does work in the neighborhood that you live in.’ She was also working at Edendale [Middle School] and they used to have their meetings there. That’s how [vice principal] plugged me in. I think I met her when I was 11 years old and Hilary was like ‘we’re having folks apply to the YLC [Youth Leadership Council] and you should join us.’
Dejamarie: Originally we were YLC, the Youth Leadership Council, and that’s what we were called at the Eden apartments. As the YLC, we did many events, dances, rallies, all kinds of things. We just pulled the community together and really tried to help them finding something to do while we were trying to get REACH built. And then we switched to FYI, Furthering Youth Inspiration, and from there REACH flourished.
Janice: So it was YLC initially because Hilary, I don’t even remember her position, but she worked at the apartment as a manager and she did a lot of youth programming. I lived at the bottom of the street. So on 165th I lived next door to the liquor store and the Eden apartments are at the top of the hill. It ended up being that she found out I lived on 165th. The YLC was under ACAP [The Alameda County Associated Community Action Program], and then a huge scandal happened; we were supposed to get stipends but we never did. That was drama, so then Hilary ended up moving to DSAL, the Deputies Sheriffs Activities League, which is where she’s working now.
Dejamarie: And basically they would always meet every Wednesday night and they would have conversations about teen pregnancy and gang violence in the community and eventually Hilary said, ‘well we meet and talk about all these problems but what are we doing to fix these things?’ And so from there, a lot of ideas started to surface about what we can do for our community to make it better. That’s kind of when I jumped in. I said ‘Hilary, I want to be a part of it.’ At first I got the ‘you’re too young’ response and then eventually she let me come because my auntie was always there. And then we started with surveys. We surveyed about 800 people in our community and there were multiple surveys where we asked the community what they wanted and why these issues were happening so often. And a lot of the responses we got was ultimately everyone was just like, ‘I’m bored, we’re bored, we don’t have anything to do, so these things just kind of come up when you have nothing to do.’ So then we asked what could help it, and the response was the youth center.
Darya: [YLC] had started working trying to get jobs through the mayor’s summer youth program in Oakland. And they would do these job trainings in Oakland at Youth Uprising. […] A lot of them lived in Oakland or had families that lived in Oakland, so they were allowed to hold a job in Oakland and they brought it to our attention that we didn’t have anything like Youth Uprising in San Leandro. Somebody brought it up-‘Oakland has this, why don’t we have it?’
There needs to be more community centers, teen centers, youth centers, whatever you want to call them out there for us, in the Hayward area, in the San Leandro area. There were a few different ones in Oakland, but we didn’t have any in the San Leandro Ashland area. That’s where we all lived. We lived there all our lives, so we need something and Hilary got the ball rolling on it and she started challenging us-‘What would you want in this teen center? What do you need from your community? What do you want to walk in and see? What do you want to walk in and be able to do? How do you want to feel when you walk in this building?’
What was it like to be involved in the political process at such an early age?
Dejamarie: We talk about this a lot, me and the other youth that were involved. We sometimes sit down and we’re like, uh I think at eight years old we didn’t really know what we were doing, as far as like the political process. We didn’t really understand that’s what we were doing. We understood that we were trying to get funds for REACH and that this was gonna be this amazing thing, and we all had this beautiful image in our brains of what it looked like, and we knew what we wanted it to serve, and how many resources we wanted to have, […] we didn’t realize we were in such a political process.
Darya: It was definitely different. You are walking into these meetings with people that have all this money. They put money into certain parts of the community and you just look up at these people and you’re just a small kid and you still look like a small kid and [to] have this grown adult in your face that is wearing a suit and talking a certain way is just kind of intimidating at first because you don’t feel like they’re going to hear what you have to say, or they don’t even want to hear what you have to say. So, our first few meetings we were super quiet.
Janice: I was like really scared to talk. I like hated public speaking. It was not my thing. I like cried the first time I went because I was so nervous and freaking out and also because we were getting shut down. Some of the board of supervisors at the time were like, ‘why do you need one? Better money can be allocated for other things.’
Darya: We knew what we were there for. We had talked about what we were going to ask for, but Hilary did most of the talking because we didn’t know how to articulate ourselves in that way. I guess we didn’t really know what we were getting ourselves into. I just remember one meeting we went to they asked something like ‘does anybody have anymore questions or more ideas?’ or something like that, and I just raised my hand and asked ‘why doesn’t San Leandro have a community center we can all go to?’ And I just kind of posed that question, and can’t remember his name, some old guy gave me a really generic answer.
Janice: Especially in the EALI meetings, which is the Eden Area Livability Initiative. Yeah so, they’re very different now, but we used to go because that’s where the money was […] And so we would go and there would be folks who were across what we call the ‘railroad tracks,’ or who live in Castro Valley, or who live in San Lorenzo and own homes. [They] would kind of shut us down like ‘why do you all need this?’ Like we’re a bunch of ‘hoodlums’ and things like that. They would just say things like that and question us a lot, so it was really hard.
What was it like being a young woman and being in those spaces? From my understanding, young women played a major role in starting the center.
Darya: It was mainly young women. There were a few boys involved and they were knuckleheads so they weren’t always around. It was definitely a majority of young ladies.
Janice: Yeah that’s true [laughs]. It was very true. I don’t know why it became that way. There were a few boys that trickled in. Folks like Lamont, I don’t know if you met him. It was mainly female dominated and I think that’s also because, partly because Hilary was present and the conversations we had was like, why are our peers getting pregnant at such a young age? Why is there violence in our community? What is the systemic or the root cause of this?
Dejamarie: It was empowering to have such a role in my community as a woman, to be honest. You know as a society we just always feel like we kind of have to hide under or, you know, let the man take the lead. But as I’ve gotten older and I think, from that process of being part of that group, there were some males involved, however, they always seem to come in and out, and the ones that were, like you said, most dedicated or always there, were the women. And to be honest, I think that is one of the reasons I have grown up and I feel proud and I’m happy as a woman and I can walk around and feel like I can make a change.
You all described feeling intimidated being in those meetings. Can you all describe other difficult moments being part of this process?
Dejamarie: Okay so most definitely, I remember one part [that was difficult], and that was always the speeches. We would literally call Hilary and be like, ‘Hilary, we need to have a meeting to make speeches!’ And so we’d all meet on E. 14th in the Deputy Sherriff’s Activities League building. And we’d sit on pillows in the lobby area and make speeches and we’d ask her, ‘Hilary, what does this sound like?’ and she’s like ‘you got this don’t worry!’
You know she would help to boost our confidence. We went to community meetings and we’d talk to all the community members that were involved. We’d go talk to the board of supervisors, we’d present to Nate Miley himself, and there was a lot of other people that we presented to that at such a young age, I just wasn’t able to grasp all of it.
Janice: It was boring, long; I did not understand, we did not understand half the vocabulary that they used; we didn’t understand what unincorporated meant. We thought we had a mayor and that was Nate.
Dejamarie: Right! Right! Sometimes I’d be in a meeting, just like Hilary, and I would be passing notes and be like so wait what exactly does that mean what they’re speaking of? Then she’d explain it to me on paper. So you know a lot of the time in the meeting it was trying to grasp everything that was going on. I think that’s why I’m so well off now as a college student. It was because I was exposed to such dense information when I was so young and it taught me to pick it apart and understand what’s going on.
Janice: That just goes to show it’s like not inclusive at all. And even working in local politics at the time, it’s so complicated and hard […] We have to have a stake in it, and people don’t know that we can have a stake in it. And I think that’s one of hugest lessons I’ve learned personally. I feel like, I don’t want to speak on behalf of everyone else, but I feel like after the youth center project and going through that process, we found that we had a voice and we can make a change.
Dejamarie: One of the most challenging things as well was sometimes we weren’t given a ‘yes.’ We walked out of meetings with our heads down, really sad you know like ‘man, we went in there and made those speeches and didn’t get a “yes.”‘ But we still always pushed and pushed and went to more meetings and more meetings and spoke more and that’s one of the other reasons why REACH has come to be, because we never gave up.
We got so many ‘no’s.’ And it was really intimidating getting ‘no’s’ from local government officials, people who are in your community that you see around and they say no. And you’re like okay. But we never gave up, we always went and we always spoke and I think eventually people understood that this is something that we really need and it’s going to be really good.
Janice: Even doing community outreach is hard; I wont open my door to a stranger. We’ll put up the chains on our door. We are not going to open up just because other things have happened in the past. Youth [outreach]—it’s even harder, like why would I sit in a two hour meeting. I don’t even understand why we did [Laughs]; why we sat in so many meetings, and why we kept going, and it was the relationships because we were all friends with each other within the YLC and the FYI. So it didn’t feel like an obligation, but more so hanging out with other people.
That’s why I am so adamant about them creating a YLC, […] And that’s the only thing about being part of the county is that they’re very bureaucratic, and I also believe that social justice issues need to be discussed within the community because people don’t know, and I honestly didn’t learn a lot of it until I got here. Because we were kind of social justice oriented back then but it was on a very like surface level. It was teen pregnancy, what is safe sex, those kind of things versus talking about how people of color have always to be oppressed, and why is that the case? And even like police brutality at the moment, I don’t know it’s really hard and difficult. Like I respect everyone who works in the center, but also these conversations need to happen.
How can local government improve in its community engagement? Do you have any insights on increasing youth participation and developing youth leaders?
Dejamarie: As far as the leadership continuing, I think that it just takes that one impact to have a domino effect of leadership. Janice and I, for instance, we both worked on the research project at REACH. After being impacted by Hilary, we feel the need to continue to make change in whatever way possible. And we do that at school, where we are for college, and we do that even when we come home because we know that [trying] to get improvement is good.
As far as government doing a better job locally in communities, I think just reaching out to more people and letting them know that these meetings exist, and there are these things that are trying to be passed in our community, and inviting them to come, or making them feel comfortable. Or even doing surveys like we did. Sometimes you can’t always get someone to feel comfortable enough to come out to a meeting, but surveying them makes a difference as well. They’re still voicing their opinion, it still counts towards something, they can do it in the comfort they prefer.
Darya: I think it would be a good start if the government officials, city councilmen, were involved with the children, or the youth. I think that would be a start. It just seems like they have this perception of youth, this misconception, [that] we don’t know what we are talking about, we don’t know what’s going on, we don’t see what’s going. So, if they just showed slight interest in what we have to say, I can guarantee you there would be so many of us that would be like ‘okay I’m going to a city council meeting that’s on Wednesday night at 7 o’clock.’ They would go because people are showing interest in what we have to say.
I think that it takes some pull and a little bit more effort for people to even say ‘we want to hear from the youth.’ I think that’s what it would take because that’s how I felt. We got invited to this meeting, this city council meeting or whatever it was, but a meeting with all these powerful people that have power to make changes that we want to see and they invited us. They heard about this small group of youth advocates that want to make all these changes in the community and they invited us. So, as soon as we got there we were under the impression that they wanted to hear what we had to say. So we weren’t shy to talk. So we were able to get everything off our chest. If they just show a slight interest in what we have going, and what the youth community needs, that would be a start.
Janice: It’s been brought up, that there should be something like Ethnic Studies at the youth center or at least conversations to start. That’s why I say it’s really difficult, in bureaucracy, because our project initially started as [a campaign] and we weren’t governed by the county. And nowadays its different, the political process. You got to make sure you’re aligned with the mission statement […] I don’t know. I love the youth center a lot and I will always be a part of it, and working with the youth we are very transient. We will just produce, and that’s what I wanted the youth center to be was a place for youth to be rooted in and feel like they had place to do their thing and then move on with their lives and make shit happen. And these conversations have happened. There’s also [conversations] about funding, it’s just very complicated now.
Life didn’t make sense until I came here [UC Berkeley]. What it meant to be a refugee, or having immigrant parents, what it meant to be a person of color living in these communities, and how like Ashland and Cherryland are concentrations of poverty, and like what does that mean? Knowing that we go to schools, a lot of us low-income first generation, and if we make it, first generation college students. I just wish that REACH could be the epicenter where they could learn about their identities and translate that into whatever they want to do in their lives, versus waiting to get to college because not all of us get there. And college isn’t for everyone and it’s not made for [everyone], but then that’s why more of us need to be in there.