10 years ago in the summer of 2012, Anaheim, the home of Disneyland, erupted in furious protests after the seventh fatal police shooting in just twelve months. Two Latino men, Manuel Diaz and Joel Acevedo, had been killed on back to back nights in late July.  The community, particularly our Latino neighbors, were angry and grieving, and they took to the streets wanting answers and accountability. 

One of us was Mayor at the time. The other was a leader in Anaheim schools who soon would be named the Superintendent of Anaheim Union High School District. For both of us, this painful summer was an awakening. In town halls and small group meetings, the families and friends of the victims and the young people protesting helped open our eyes and inspired us to lead improvements to our school system by asking all of Anaheim to step up – from business leaders to activists – to expand learning opportunities and mentoring support for all of our kids. 

Yes, the protests demonstrated the Anaheim police department needed to make significant reforms and a number of improvements have happened since 2012.  It’s a work in progress and more change is still needed.  However, the protesters that summer revealed to us the depth of the “opportunity deficit” in Anaheim for low income kids and how this lack of opportunity was an underlying feature causing Anaheim’s pain and unrest.

We remember a number of emotional conversations and gatherings that summer that helped the community begin to heal and improve. Some of the most important were when the mothers of the young men who were shot. The mothers powerfully expressed their trauma in losing their sons, and their desire for Anaheim to improve how the City viewed and supported young Latinos. In addition to calling for change, the mothers also asked for peace. Without their voices, it is possible we would have had more tragedy that summer.

We also powerfully remember the wisdom of our young people at the town halls in 2012 who discussed the need for more job opportunities and better career preparation. They knew their ladder of opportunity was missing many rungs, and they asked us to create programs that would expand their chances of having successful careers and more college opportunities. Abel Diaz, one of the young leaders, powerfully implored us to increase our focus on providing kids like him a better way to prepare for a 21st century career.

We are proud to say we responded to Abel and the community’s challenge. In the years following the summer of 2012, Anaheim has developed one of the nation’s leading efforts to mentor and develop young people. The progress started with a mentoring program – the Anaheim Innovative Mentoring Experience (AIME) – and it brought business leaders from all over Orange County to meet and mentor Anaheim students in careers they were interested in. This program now has over 80 business partners and includes over 20 career pathways. More than 16,000 students have received mentoring support through the AIME program.

After AIME was launched, the Anaheim Collaborative formed to foster deeper connections for K-12 students to local colleges through dual enrollment programs, to city and county workforce development programs, and to nonprofit leadership training.  We also put a special emphasis on youth entrepreneurship and career development inside of Anaheim Union schools because we wanted our young people to get hands-on experiences in building a business and becoming small business owners.  We both believe that by focusing on teaching our kids how to start their own business or nonprofit organization, and giving them the confidence to do so, the future economy will be led by the Anaheim students who come out of all of our neighborhoods. This teamwork has shown great impact.  Anaheim students now significantly outperform their peers from other districts at UC Irvine and Cal State Fullerton.

Today, Anaheim schools are seen by many as a model for the nation because of its focus on career preparation, its improved graduation rates, and its robust partnerships with community stakeholders. Education professors from around the country are studying this transformation to find the “secret sauce”.  The answer may lay in our history, and the leadership of our students and community members who raised their voices in the summer of 2012 and demanded a more supportive city for our young people.

Tom Tait is CEO of TAIT & Associates (www.TAIT.com), a national engineering and environmental company. In November 2010, Tom was elected Mayor of Anaheim and re-elected to his second term in November 2014. He was termed out of office in December of 2018. Tom ran on a platform of bringing the values of kindness and freedom to the culture of the city.

Michael Matsuda is a nationally recognized 21st century educational leader known for innovation, entrepreneurship, and compassion. Under his leadership, the Anaheim Union High School District has built a new educational model incorporating “reverse engineered” career pathways in partnership with higher education, private, and non-profit sectors, which have extended and transformed educational opportunities for all students.

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