Anaheim youth face numerous challenges, including gang violence, a lack of park space, high housing costs for their families and trouble finding well-paying jobs.
Now, dozens of students are being trained on how to advocate for their community and work to address underlying issues.
At a two-day summit this week, more than 80 youth – mostly high school students – learned about key public policy debates in their city and how to engage with government representatives.
“Too often the challenges our youth face in our community are tremendous,” said Miguel Hernandez, executive director of the Orange County Congregation Community Organization, which co-organized the summit with the student group Anaheim BROS.
The goal is to empower “youth to work towards helping others,” he added.
The event, which was held at Anaheim High School, included student-led trainings on how to identify community concerns, organize a coalition and petition local government.
Community advocates also addressed the students, including Jose Moreno, the president of Los Amigos of Orange County.
He encouraged students to think deeply about the root political dynamics that influence policy decisions.
“One thing is to be involved. Another thing is to ask, ‘Why are things the way they are?,’ ” said Moreno.
“Why is it that here in Anaheim, [which is] 55 percent Latino, there’s not one city councilperson that’s Latino?” he asked.
City officials plan to invest about $1 billion in Anaheim’s resort district over the next several years, Moreno said, yet say they don’t have money to build new parks, soccer fields and swimming pools for youth.
“When you all raise your voices and say, ‘Hey, we matter too’ – that’s when things change,” Moreno told the students.
The elected student chancellor for the BROS, Carlos Bernal, said the organization wants to help boost college attainment, opportunities for higher-wage jobs and representation in government.
Bernal said BROS members, who meet every week during the school year, want to advocate for immigration reform and show up to more public meetings of the school board and City Council.
The students are “trying to break the stereotype that that teenagers don’t care” about their community, Bernal said.
The BROS also want to expand their membership to other high schools in the district, including Katella, Loara, Savanna, Magnolia and Oxford Academy.
At a news conference, local officials endorsed the engagement summit, including Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait, Anaheim Union High School District Assistant Superintendent Manuel Colón, Anaheim High School Principal Anna Corral.
The summit was organized by OCCCO and the BROS, with grant funding from Disney, the Angels baseball team and the Anaheim Ducks.
Tait said BROS members recently made a difference when they led about 200 high school students on a visit to City Hall to ask for help with being prepared for their future.
Out of that request, Tait formed a mentorship program that so far has matched 60 students with mentors in the local business community. He hopes to expand the program to hundreds of students.
“I can tell you that would not be here if it weren’t for civic engagement by the youth in Anaheim through BROS specifically, so I thank you for that,” Tait told the students.
A major advocate of student civic engagement in Anaheim has been the school district’s new superintendent, Mike Matsuda, who spoke to the summit on Thursday.
Much of the summit was spent in breakout sessions where BROS members led trainings around Civics 101, identifying issues, transformative leadership and taking action.
The training sessions were designed and led by students, who adapted their material from Michigan State University curriculum on youth civic engagement.
In one workshop, students identified a series of strengths and problems they see in their community.
The problems included graffiti, bad streets and sidewalks, a lack of bike lanes, police brutality, homelessness, stereotyping, air pollution, drug abuse, economic hardship and the ongoing drought.
The students also brainstormed about potential policies to address their concerns. Some suggested raising the minimum wage and improved programs for the homeless.
At another workshop, on “taking action,” students learned about the difference between community service and public policy.
Community service, while highly important, deals with the symptoms of issues like homelessness, the student moderators said.
Public policy, meanwhile, tries to addresses the underlying issues.
Moderators gave their fellow students a scenario: If their school has outdated technology and textbooks, and the school is low on funds, how would they deal with this using public policy?
One option, the students replied, is to gather signatures for a petition and present it to elected officials, like a City Council, school board, state legislator or Congress member.
Another option, the students replied, is a peaceful demonstration.
After walking through the steps to organize a peaceful protest – including getting the word out on social media, making signs and creating chants – the students went outside to practice a brief mock demonstration.
“What do we want? Upgrades!” they chanted.
Students also marched to City Hall in support of peace for children worldwide, including unaccompanied children in the U.S. from Central America and children in Gaza at risk in the current conflict.
At City Hall, the youth joined a peace vigil:
The summit also coincided with the release of civics survey of about 270 local students, which found that more than half of respondents didn’t know which government institutions can enact immigration and public education legislation.
Additionally, the survey found that local youth placed a strong importance on the family institution.
Students broke out into groups to talk about their reaction to the findings and what they would add.
Among the additional issues they identified were families with low-wage jobs, teen pregnancies, and inadequate infrastructure.
The engagement summit was held just over two years after back-to-back police shootings prompted downtown riots that rocked Anaheim. One of the demonstrations led to the front of Disneyland.
Organizers plan to hold another civic engagement training summit in September, as well as next January.
“The youth [are] our future, and I think we should really take advantage of our young age and really get the energy that we have and point it to something that’s good,” said Bernal.