Lester Meza knows the impact of education inequities firsthand. Raised by a single mother who emigrated from Guatemala to the United States, Lester, as he grew up, envisioned himself going to college and having a successful career.
But when he entered high school, Lester found crowded classrooms, low expectations and little encouragement to attend college.
By his sophomore year, Lester had transferred to Los Angeles Unified School District’s Esteban E. Torres High School. The first new high school to open in East L.A. in 85 years, Torres High was the direct outgrowth of community organizing efforts to transform education for low-income urban youth.
There, Lester and a few friends founded United Students, a branch of the grassroots group InnerCity Struggle, to improve college access for Torres students. They led tours to Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley – “mostly to give students a better idea of college life,” says Lester, who sees higher education as a lever to lift people out of poverty.
The Torres High School chapter of United Students was one of five in L.A., and, through it, Lester grew into an eloquent advocate. He spent a year pushing for better student medical and mental health services and gathered 500 signatures in support of a free reproductive care clinic, which opened in 2012.
That was only the beginning. Through the Boys and Men of Color Initiative, a partnership linking community organizations and advocates in Oakland, Fresno and Los Angeles, Lester conducted peer outreach and testified at legislative hearings about the importance of improving academic outcomes for African-American and Latino youth statewide. “It took another year, but we were able to pass public policy changes on unequal student discipline and get a School Climate Bill of Rights,” he says.
“These were just little steps,” Lester says. “There’s a bigger picture, and it’s that for many decades East Los Angeles has been viewed as a hopeless cause – even by people who live here. They think ‘Our kids will never amount to being college graduates and will never have higher-level careers.’ But knowledge is tied to the fight against poverty, because when you know how to move the system, your community is less likely to be poor. I really think better public policies are our greatest tools to fight poverty.”
Lester’s activism, however, has come with a heavy price. His mother, a factory worker, struggles to keep food on the table, and Lester used some of his Shriver Poverty Warrior Award money to relieve debt she had accumulated. The rest, he put toward living expenses for college. He planned on studying computer engineering at Sacramento City College last year. Ultimately, he wants to run for public office.
“Trying to keep my school life, activism life and home life in balance was very difficult,” Lester says. “But I think we need real people with real skills – doctors, lawyers, teachers – in politics. I want to change many of the issues I experienced firsthand. The lack of quality education is a challenge that poor communities face and I plan to address it through elected office.”
From January through March, Equal Voice News is publishing a profile each Friday under the theme of “America’s Next Leaders.” Each story features a young person who contributes to his or her community. In 2012, these young people received a Sargent Shriver Youth Warriors Against Poverty Leadership Award. Each year, Marguerite Casey Foundation, which publishes Equal Voice News, honors young people with this award. Equal Voice for Southern California Families Alliance nominated Meza for the award.