Healthy Communities III Reflects on Victories and Lessons Learned
Youth For Healthy Schools members and partners are looking back on the successful completion of the Healthy Communities III (HC3) Initiative. With support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, this initiative further advances the leadership of young people of color in advocating for the creation of healthy schools as a foundation for improved physical, social, and emotional health of students.The leaders of HC3 organized for, created and won real improvements in school and community wellness, positively impacting the lives of thousands of youth and families across the country.
We are proud to recognize the achievements of the eight participating fellows and organizations. To learn more about each campaign and read reflections from the fellows, read below. Congratulations to each organizations for the campaign wins and victories young leaders have achieved in order to create healthier school environments that support the holistic wellness of students!
Food Empowerment Education Sustainability Team (FEEST)
Fellow: Thuy-Mai Nguyen
FEEST is an innovative youth led organization focused on increasing access to healthy, culturally relevant food in Seattle area schools. Cultural organizing is a foundational principle of the group’s food justice work, which began in 2008 with weekly community dinners created and served by youth. In 2016 improving school food became a priority for FEEST and they moved their organizing work directly into schools. The group subsequently won a student advisory committee for the Highline School District Nutrition Services Director, which led to youth created, culturally relevant monthly school menu items, systemwide. These menu items are created by FEEST youth members who “test” them at the groups regular community dinners.
When the fellowship program began, FEEST was just at the inception of an organizational shift from youth development toward a community organizing model. Since 2016, the groups staff size has doubled from four to eight. The fellowship provided important capacity for the group during this significant growth period.
“It built more internal capacity for youth organizing and framework for our organization transition from youth leadership development to grassroots organizing,” said Executive Director Lisa Chen, about the fellowship program.
In addition to advocating for healthier school food options, FEEST partnered with Highline School District and Healthy King County coalition to win grant funding for two water bottle filling stations at Evergreen High School, and one at Chief Sealth high school. FEEST interns distributed stickers to promote drinking water and over 300 reusable water bottles to their peers.
In the coming year, FEEST will continue focusing on nutritional food access, particularly more fruits and vegetables, salad bars, and “from scratch” cooking in schools.
“This fellowship has given me space to explore more capacity and leadership in movement building in tandem with my love of youth mentorship. I feel like my own personal understanding of organizing is expanding and I have been given the space and support by FCYO staff and the cohort to continue this dive at my own pace and consideration.”
Los Angeles, CA
Fellow: Estefany Garcia
Inner City Struggle formed in 1994, utilizing grassroots organizing to build community leadership in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood east of downtown Los Angeles. Through dedicated organizing the group a decade later won school district approval of three new high schools, a new elementary school and a new adult school for the east side. Since then the group has built partnerships, coalitions, and strong community leadership to create healthy school environments.
In addition to its focus on public education, ICS is building leadership on community development issues, particularly pressures on the community from growing gentrification forces. The group blends traditional grassroots organizing centered on leadership development with a voter education and mobilization project that makes it a powerful force for change.
The group successfully advocated for locating two wellness centers at local high schools, Mendez and Roosevelt, after involving youth in research and analysis to understand health disparities and needs, and where the centers would best be located to serve the community. These successes followed on the heels of the 2014 Wellness Now Resolution won by ICS and other community groups, and a $50 million commitment by LAUSD for school-based wellness centers in high needs schools.
Students are at the center of ICS organizing work. Youth organizer Estefany Garcia credits the skills she gained from the HCIII fellowship, particularly training from one of her peers on how to conduct youth participatory action research, for a campaign she developed to encourage more students to eat school lunches. Using YPAR, youth leaders identified barriers and successfully won a lengthened school lunch period and a new menu influenced by students at Mendez High School.
“Before the fellowship I never received formal training on youth organizing and instead learned by observation on how my mentors engaged and supported our community. FCYO is helping me learn and strengthen core skills on how to uplift and encourage our communities to act.”
Youth Empowered Solutions (YES!)
Fellow: Erica Marshall
Youth Empowered Solutions, a statewide organization in North Carolina, defines its work as an empowerment model rather than community organizing. It hires high school students as permanent staff members who lead community campaigns, and provides trainings across the country to youth in how to develop and apply advocacy, activism, and critical analysis skills to community campaigns for change, with racial equity and youth leadership as central organizing tenets.
In December 2018, the youth staff won a $2,500 grant to purchase two water bottle filling stations for two Title 1 High Schools in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District. The award is a challenge grant, which will be utilized by the young organizers to press local government to install water stations in the four other Title 1 High Schools. The water filling stations are one outcome of the group’s ongoing Clean Water 4 All Campaign to include explicit language in the CMS Wellness policy and a district-wide school board policy that supports unrestricted access to free, clean, safe, and potable drinking water on all CMS campuses.
In addition to supporting the Clean Water 4 All Campaign, the organization has made a profound internal shift over the past two years to a centering of racial equity as an organizing principle
“The FCYO Fellowship has been instrumental in aiding our shift to explicitly embed Racial Equity into our framework as an organization,” says HCIII Fellow Erica Marshall. “This has allowed us to change our internal practices which includes the way we hire and orient new employees, what work culture habits we adopt, and how we partner with our youth internally and externally.”
“This fellowship is teaching me organizing strategies that are assisting me in leading a local school health campaign. As someone who is leading a campaign for the first time, the tips and support I’m receiving help me to be more confident as I meet with potential partners to discuss our next steps in the local work.”
Fellow: Brian Villa
The Ryse Center has for little more than a decade provided a safe space for Richmond youth to learn, grow, heal, and lead campaigns for change, through several programmatic areas: community health, education and justice, media arts and culture, and youth organizing and advocacy. The organization also wages successful civic engagement campaigns to move big agendas for children and youth.
In 2018, the group led campaigns to pass “Kids First” successful ballot measures that created and dedicated public funds to a Richmond Department of Children and Youth.
The Listening to Heal (LtH) campaign, a project of HCIII Fellow Brian Villa, brings together students, teachers, administrators, and parents/guardians in conversation about how schools can be transformed through trauma-informed and healing centered practices, reformed discipline policies and supportive systems for social and emotional health of students. Ryse youth produced a video threading together youth and adult perspectives surfaced from the LtH sessions about trauma, violence, coping, and healing, that is being shared with local educators and decision-makers. Insights from the LtH sessions combined with youth participatory action research and student organizing won in 2017 a Positive School Climate Policy in West Contra Costa Unified School District that concretizes a restorative justice approach to school discipline.
“The LtH campaign and the strategies of the Healthy Communities Fellowship put into practice one of RYSE’s foundational strategies: radical inquiry,” says Kanwarpal Dhaliwal, Associate Director. “Radical means grasping something at its roots; to RYSE young people of color are our roots.”
“I really value the mentorship program and monthly check-ins with the other fellows. The structure in which we are able to openly and strategically offer recommendations and feedback has supported my growth and development as a leader. There have been opportunities where I have been able to listen to and learn from the experiences of other fellows in areas that I have little knowledge. This space has become such an asset in my campaign planning.”
SouthWest Organizing Project
Fellow: Amanda Gallegos
The SouthWest Organizing Project was founded in 1980 by young activists of color to achieve systems level social change rooted in the struggles and issues important to low-income communities of color in the southwest. The group has waged environmental and economic justice campaigns, and engaged its members in voter engagement and mobilization campaigns, since its very early days. In the 1990s, the group developed a youth organizing program that has since become a central vehicle for developing new leaders and social justice campaigns.
With the development of the organization’s food justice campaign in the 2000s, SWOP began to work inside schools, developing in collaboration with teachers and parents school community gardens and programs to engage middle and high school students in healthy food practices. In 2014, youth organizers developed a summer youth employment program that for four years provided 100 students with summer jobs at Albuquerque social justice nonprofit organizations.
Through these sister programs, the organization has developed a new level of organizational skills and deeper relationships with administrators and teachers at two middle schools, Washington and Van Buren, that are rooted in low-income communities of Albuquerque. HCIII Fellow Amanda Gallegos stepped into the youth organizing role at SWOP at the advent of the fellowship period. Her project has led to a role directly in classes at the two schools, providing activities on a range of social justice issues once a month, engaging students in their school gardens, and developing an environmental justice curriculum appropriate for middle school classes.
“The fellowship gave capacity to SWOP to foster a more intentional connection between our food justice and youth work. Because of the FCYO fellowship, we have the time and resources to be in the schools as much as we are.”
Youth United for Change
Fellow: Nick Ospa
Youth United for Change formed in 1991 to build the power of working class youth of color to hold school officials and government officials accountable on educational issues. Through school and community based organizing, YUC develops leadership and amplifies the voice of young people to achieve systemic change. The group has a comprehensive agenda, working to end the school-to-prison pipeline; to ensure fully funding, environmental justice and healthy conditions for all schools; and advocating for implementation of community schools in low-income neighborhoods.
A significant recent victory of YUC was district-wide improvements to water access and infrastructure in Philadelphia schools. The group successfully pressured the school district to take an inventory of every water fountain in the district, identifying that 15 percent were not working. As the school district began repairing fountains, YUC joined with other community groups to win a demand that the district install three water hydration stations in every Philadelphia public school, with installation beginning in 2016. And in 2017, spurred by the lead crisis in Flint, MI, the group was a leader in a broad-based coalition formed to improve the environmental health of schools that successfully pressured the school district to test for lead in every water outlet at every school.
In the final year of the fellowship, YUC began implementing a campaign to improve mental health support structures in schools after youth members identified high rates of stress and anxiety among their peers, and a lack of school counselors and other support necessary for mental health.
“At the end of the day, schools aren’t equipped to support students’ mental health needs. What’s built into the functionality of the school system is something that is antagonistic to the mental health of students. Schools actually cause stress and anxiety and produce other harms to students’ mental health in a way that is not productive towards their academic nor human development.”
Community Food Advocates
New York City, New York
Fellow: Kristina Erskine
Community Food Advocates began in 2010 when long-time anti-hunger advocates Kathy Goldman and Agnes Molnar realized that regardless of how much improvement was made to the quality of school lunches, low-income youth would rather go without than be stigmatized by an income test qualifying them for free or reduced lunches. CFA was launched to press for universal school meals, and achieved that goal for 1.1 million New York City students in September 2017, through the “Lunch 4 Learning” campaign.
CFA Executive Director Liz Acles credits a broad coalition for the win: parents, students, cafeteria workers, teachers, and principals unions, and neighborhood based groups throughout the city used advocacy and creative organizing campaigns that placed youth voices at the center. And in early 2017, CFA was able through the Healthy Communities III initiative to establish a full-time position on their own staff for youth organizer Kristina Erskine, who had been working as a youth advocate part-time on the campaign. Kristina’s full time fellowship expanded CFA’s capacity to engage students.
“Youth who had never testified before worked with CFA to prepare their presentations on the impact of a financial needs tested process on school lunch on their lives, walked into City Hall, and made powerful personal and strategic arguments for system-wide expansion of USL,” says Acles. “New York City Council members have repeatedly remarked on the impact of student testimony in the final decision.”
After winning universal free lunch and breakfast, and before she transitioned out of the organization, Kristina and CFA staff laid the foundation for what has become the group’s Youth Food Advocates, with the goal of developing youth leaders as effective advocates for change. Their current campaign is to push for redesign of the cafeterias in all NYC high schools, as one way to encourage more students to eat school lunches. And they’ve developed a partnership with East Side House Settlement, a community based organization in the South Bronx to grow Youth Food Advocates in 10 area high schools.
Padres & Jóvenes Unidos
Fellow: Cinthia Suasti
Padres & Jóvenes Unidos is a multi-issue, people of color led grassroots organizing group in Denver focused on education and racial justice, immigrant rights, and quality healthcare. JóvenesUnidos is the group’s youth organizing initiative, through which youth lead the Counselors not Cops campaign to eliminate the school to prison and/or deportation, pipeline, and to improve the social and emotional wellbeing of students through investments in culturally-relevant mental health services, academic counselors and restorative justice.
As the Healthy Communities III fellowship kicked off in early 2017, Padres had pivoted sharply toward defending the immigrant community in Denver, over which loomed an increased threat of deportation in the wake of the 2016 election of Pres. Trump. The group won a “Safe and Welcoming Schools” resolution by the Denver Public School Board in February 2017, and worked within an informal community coalition to win in August a city policy to provide safety for its immigrant community, called the Public Safety Enforcement Priorities Act.
And like other organizations in the cohort, Padres sought lead testing of public school drinking water, winning an appropriation from the legislature in 2017.
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