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Creating ‘Space’ for Healthy Communities in East L.A.

  • In her opinion essay, Jennifer Maldonado talks about East L.A., empowerment, transformation, bringing wellness to young people and her childhood friend.

I was a student at Woodrow Wilson High School in Los Angeles from 2005 to 2009. The school sits on top of a hill, overlooking the city. We had a great view. But we – a predominantly Latino student body – did not have the resources to aspire.

Books were dated, classes were crowded, there were few counselors and the school didn’t have that many teachers. Like young people everywhere, I was influenced by my surroundings. At school, there was peer pressure to fit in. My working-class community struggled with jobs and survival.

I did not know how to interpret and change what I and many of my friends were experiencing. We saw peer-on-peer violence, racial tensions, gang violence and broken families which are outcomes of an impoverished community. My elementary and middle school friend, Cindy, fell into gang life at an early age because of the street she lived on.

I saw her investment in the gang increase. Eventually, she stopped attending school. I lost contact with her. I began to wonder if any counselors or other adults at our school tried to support her. Looking back, I believe that Cindy’s path was partially the result of the lack of student support in our education system.

Embracing Change

One day, I found an opportunity to create change, or should I say, it found me. My high school organized a club fair. I was eager to get involved. I saw a banner that said, “United Students.” I was drawn to the logo. It was a fist. I interpreted the image as empowerment and change.

At a table, Raquel Armenta, a site organizer with InnerCity Struggle at the time, asked a question no adult on campus had ever said to me: “Do you want to change your community?”

“Yes, but I don’t know how,” I said.

She told me I could, by making my voice heard and actively participating in school and community decisions. I quickly became involved.

I participated in the Quality Education Investment Act (QEIA) campaign with United Students. The QEIA was millions of dollars from the state of California to update materials, hire more counselors and reduce student-teacher ratios.

This was my first opportunity to engage my peers, to collectively change our school. I was prepared by InnerCity Struggle staff on how to conduct classroom presentations, deliver comments at outreach events, facilitate delegation meetings and develop methods to relate our campaign to the outcomes we envisioned.

Raquel Armenta (left), a youth organizing director with InnerCity Struggle, Monica Garcia (center), a member of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board of Education, and a student (right) celebrate the passage of a LAUSD resolution in 2014 that supports Wellness Centers on more high school campuses. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Maldonado

I surveyed my classmates and helped demand that the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education prioritize Eastside high schools because our needs were ignored.

There were United Students clubs at four Eastside high schools: Wilson, Lincoln, Roosevelt and Garfield. By embracing collaboration, we won the QEIA campaign. I was not going to enjoy the benefits of QEIA because I was about to graduate.

But I understood that generations after me would have a much better educational experience. I realized that I was developing into a leader. I enjoyed working with my peers.

Elevated Awareness in College

I graduated from the University of California, San Diego with a bachelor’s degree in ethnic studies and a minor in education studies. During college, I served as a Joy De La Cruz Art and Activism intern at the Cross-Cultural Center, which is part of the university.

It was there that I learned how important “space” can be in supporting the needs of a community – in this case, the student body.

I created a university course about the musical history of Son Jarocho, a genre originating in Veracruz, Mexico. At the Cross-Cultural Center, I facilitated readings and supplied instruments so that students could learn the history and practice hands-on songs.

When I asked students why this course was important to them, many said they felt empowered and valued by it. The Son Jarocho course related to the Cross-Cultural Center’s mission to provide a space for critical dialogue and connecting art and activism.

My university and work experience gave me the tools to return to my community in Los Angeles and join students fighting to hold educational institutions accountable. Our message was that all community members need safe and affirming spaces to be healthy individuals.

Going Back to the Community

Upon my return, I had the great pleasure of being welcomed back to the InnerCity Struggle family. I was chosen as a Healthy Communities Fellow with the Funder’s Collaborative on Youth Organizing (FCYO) – one of seven such positions across the nation.

I work with youth to organize school communities to provide holistic care that caters to student wellness. FCYO is committed to fostering generations of empowered youth through organizing a leadership network.

In 2011, United Students and the parent component, Familias Unidas, led the Food Justice Campaign to connect health concerns with academic success of students. We recognized there was limited availability to healthy food near homes and schools.

A year later, InnerCity Struggle produced a report – “Food Justice for Eastside Schools” – to highlight the crisis students in East Los Angeles face in regards to their health. We found that one in every four adolescents in California is considered “at risk” in terms of obesity.

Locally, one in every three East Los Angeles children is considered obese and that there are other health factors, such as asthma, type 2 diabetes, cardiac disease and sleep apnea. United Students surveyed 350 high school students across five campuses in East Los Angeles.

The group found startling results in three areas: access to food, food quality and a lack of time. Of the 350 students surveyed, 56 percent did not eat lunch. Reasons varied from not enough time due to long lines for food to poor quality of what was offered.

InnerCity Struggle found that 62 percent of the 650,000 meals distributed each day were classified as high fat main dishes. This reality led to the demand for systemic change – the establishment of Wellness Centers.

Last year, the LAUSD passed the Wellness Centers Now! resolution to support more of these facilities, especially in neighborhoods with working families. The vote included $50 million to support such centers.

The “Food Justice for Eastside Schools” effort informed InnerCity Struggle’s next action steps in creating a place to prevent high health disparities involving youth in East Los Angeles.

“Health Justice for Eastside Students,” in 2013, was a study in collaboration with the Praxis Project, a research organization, that looked at the already-established Wellness Center at Esteban Torres High School in an unincorporated part of East Los Angeles.

The Wellness Center partnered with health providers and the school to offer physical, mental and reproductive services at no cost to more than 2,300 students. This hub allowed families better access to health resources in one central location – the schools.

This report led to students and parents voicing a solution to the health crisis in East Los Angeles. Their voices led to the unanimous vote at the school board in favor of the Wellness Centers Now! resolution. This resolution channels Measure Q funds – California voter-approved money – to build or improve existing Wellness Centers.

Presently, InnerCity Struggle works with board members, health service providers, foundations, principals, students and parents to help implement this health-related resolution. We, as a group, are developing safe and healthy communities.

At my job, my goal is to help young people demand a seat at the table where school policy decisions are made and to help build the growing movement for youth health and wellness in schools.

As I work with students at Wilson High School, I share with them that wellness remains the key to supporting young people and families. Wellness needs to be holistic.

And I believe that if there had been a Wellness Center at Wilson High School when I was a student there, Cindy – my childhood friend – might have had the much-needed support to resist gang life.

Looking back, it feels like I’ve come full circle.

Jennifer Maldonado is a Healthy Communities Fellow with the Funders’ Collaborative on Youth Organizing. She works at InnerCity Struggle, a Los Angeles organization that promotes safe, peaceful and healthy communities particularly in Boyle Heights, unincorporated East Los Angeles, El Sereno and Lincoln Heights. In college, she was active in the Moviemiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (M.E.Ch.A). In the top photo, Maldonado (center) poses with Lucia Ortiz and Jesus Palacios during a FCYO meeting in Colorado in November 2014. 

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