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Special Series: Youth Works to Change ‘Unjust’ Policies

  • “America's Next Leaders 2013” is an Equal Voice News special series that highlights young people who are strengthening their communities.
January 24, 2014 6:00 pm by

Like many young people, Lorren Dangerfield has a finely-honed sense of injustice. By the time she won the Shriver Award at age 17, Lorren had already spent four years working to stop industrial pollution in poor neighborhoods and promoting fairer discipline policies in public schools.

Lorren Dangerfield. Photograph by Tim Matsui for Marguerite Casey Foundation/Equal Voice News

In many school districts, suspensions and expulsions for Black and Latino youth far exceed those for other racial and ethnic groups. For Lorren, the connection was clear: More time spent out of school meant more difficulty catching up, a greater likelihood of dropping out and a direct route to poverty.

“Education is the best chance for moving people out of poverty,” Lorren says. “But it’s really hard to get through the education system, especially for kids who get discouraged by their teachers or whatever’s going on at home.”

Lorren began to press for community service work as an alternative to suspension and expulsion, and the San Francisco Unified School District agreed. “For the first time in my life, I had seen a reward for my hard work,” she recalls of the Restorative Justice Initiative, which she undertook with the San Francisco nonprofit People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER).

When Lorren had joined POWER as a shy ninth grader, she had been reluctant even to speak. But, the group’s campaigns for environmental and restorative justice began to resonate with her.

“The work spoke to me because we would talk about environmental justice issues around a Superfund site, which was where I used to live, and it all came together,” she recalls. “Learning about all these chemicals that I’d never known were there made me want to know more. It really hit home.”

Second only to her efforts on school discipline was Lorren’s work to incorporate ethnic studies into the standard high school curriculum. A pilot program debuted in four schools and has since been expanded to others. To Lorren, it is essential that students be able to identify with the faces they see in their textbooks, and she believes learning the history of their own people may instill a greater sense of social responsibility.

“I thought they’d see that the free education we receive is both a right and a privilege,” Lorren says. She took that conviction to the Board of Education – backed by more than 1,000 other students – and persuaded them to create the pilot program.

“She sees her personal transformation as directly tied to the transformation she wishes to see in her community,” says Juana Teresa Tello, the organizer who first introduced Lorren to POWER.

Currently a student at Sonoma State University, Lorren put her award money toward tuition. She is majoring in global studies, with a focus on international economic development.

She also focuses on bringing new youth into POWER. “I’m teaching them what I learned,” Lorren says. “I have fallen in love with politics and policy and working to change unjust laws.”

From January through March, Equal Voice News is publishing a profile each Friday of 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. The Bay Area Equal Voice Coalition nominated Dangerfield for the award. Tim Matsui shot the video.

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