Aug. 10, 2009

When youth speak . . . we listen

Youth in FocusA group of high school and community college students spent the summer researching issues that affect young people in Salinas, Seaside and Soledad, and CSU Monterey Bay helped them share their findings.

The researchers presented their work at a town hall meeting at the university's Tanimura and Antle library on Aug. 6 at an event open to the public.

Sixty students were recruited for the eight-week paid positions by Monterey County's Office of Employment Training. Funding for the youth employment program came from the federal stimulus package to help young people become work-ready.

With the California Endowment investing $40 million in East Salinas over the next 10 years and the Community Alliance for Safety and Peace - a group of government agencies, businesses and non-profits - working on issues related to community safety, "it seemed like a good time for youth voices to be heard," said Kim Steimler, who worked as a consultant on the project. "It's a good time for young people to give input to both of these efforts."

Youth in Focus, an Oakland-based non-profit organization that teaches research, evaluation and planning skills so young people can play a part in social change, was hired to run the program. A dozen local project leaders were brought on board and trained by Youth in Focus to work directly with the young researchers.

The young people were recruited from the Boys and Girls Clubs of Seaside and Salinas, Rancho Cielo Youth Campus, an organization that works with at-risk and disadvantaged youth, and the Soledad Center for Employment Training. Each group selected a topic to investigate and designed surveys to gather information.

The four groups shared their work via documentary films, a photography exhibit, PowerPoint presentations and a forum led by the young people.

Before introducing the first presentation, Sergio Cuellar of Youth in Focus' Sacramento office told the audience "the challenge for adults now is how do we create the change these young people want to see in their communities."

First up was the group from the Seaside Boys and Girls Club. They investigated how the economy - the underground economy as well as the legal economy - is impacting young people. Among their findings: the economy impacts racial groups in different ways - more African Americans are under- or unemployed than whites. And 68 percent of young people surveyed reported feeling pressured to make money. They recommended that businesses receive incentives for hiring young people.

The team from the Salinas BGC investigated why so many young people use drugs. Their surveys indicated three reasons: for fun; to deal with their problems; and as a result of peer pressure. Those surveyed said it's easier to find drugs in Salinas than community centers or educational opportunities.

Another interesting fact emerged from the research on youth drug use - about 75 percent of youth who were surveyed said they use drugs for fun while a similar percentage of parents think young people use drugs because of peer pressure.

The team from Rancho Cielo called itself STOP - Salinas Teens Organizing for Peace. They surveyed more than 200 high school students to find out if they are affected by violence in their community and in their homes. Among their findings: more than eight in 10 said they had been affected by gang violence and 24 percent said they associate with gangs.

STOP suggested that more mentorship opportunities be created, along with vocational training, job opportunities and internships. They also wanted more arts programs. And they want to educate adults about how violence affects youth from the youth perspective.

The 18 members of the team from Soledad called themselves the PEACE - People Enthusiastic About Community and Environment - Project. They researched the feasibility of building a youth center in Soledad and learned that young people and adults overwhelmingly supported the idea.

The next steps are to make these presentations to city councils in the area and to formulate an action plan to accomplish what they want to do.

CSU Monterey Bay's Service Learning Institute brought the youth panel to campus as part of a grant it received from the CSU Chancellor's Office to identify the needs of local communities. This was the first of several open house events scheduled over the fall semester to do just that.