Why Los Angeles Might Be Ground Zero for a New Generation of Youth Activists

The first-ever county-sponsored social justice conference for teens could spark change on campus.
Fidel Rodriguez speaks to high school students attending the Rise Up for Humanity conference. (Photo: Kortney Lucas)
May 3, 2016· 5 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

“Stand up if you live two blocks from a liquor store or fast-food restaurant.”

That was the instruction given by a 20-something facilitator to a room of about 25 black and Latino high school students from underserved neighborhoods in the greater Los Angeles area. They were just some of the nearly 200 teens of color who attended “Rise Up for Humanity—Justice for the Forgotten,” a conference hosted last Friday by the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission.

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Although the session’s topic was environmental racism and injustice in communities of color, some of the teens in the room looked surprised as they saw almost everyone rise from their seats. Other youths chuckled as they shared the names of various fast-food joints in their ’hoods—and what fatty, salt-laden items they liked to order from the menus. Then everybody sat back down.

“Stand up if you or someone you know has asthma, bronchitis, or other breathing problems,” continued the facilitator. Every teenager in the room stood up. “Keep standing if you or someone you know has diabetes and/or heart disease. Keep standing if you or someone you know has cancer.” No one sat down, and the laughter faded into a stunned silence.

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(Photos: Kortney Lucas)

Given the high rates of poverty, the lack of green space, the proximity to industrial sites, sky-high rates of obesity and related diseases, and the proliferation of food deserts in communities of color across the United States, the facilitators at the conference, held at the Goodwill of Southern California headquarters, could have asked those questions of teens in plenty of cities and probably gotten similar results.

By building student knowledge about environmental racism and other social justice issues—including Islamophobia, the school-to-prison pipeline, rape culture, and immigration—Rise Up also sought to empower young people.

Amanda Gorman, the 2014 Youth Poet Laureate for

Los Angeles. (Photo: Kortney Lucas)

“We know information can spark engagement,” Fidel Rodriguez, the senior intergroup relations consultant for the commission and the conference’s lead organizer, told TakePart. “And the final element is how do we engage teens in the arts so they can express whatever they learn to go back to their schools and communities?”

Rodriguez, who has spent the past 20 years working on projects that connect the arts, young people, and social justice activism, kicked off the conference with a personal example of how the arts can plant the seeds of change. He explained that in 2015, he went to see U2 perform at the Los Angeles Forum, and the band played the song “The Troubles.” The teens at Rise Up had never heard of the Irish struggle for independence, so Rodriguez gave them a two-minute lesson on the decades-long violent conflict.

At the U2 show, “up on the screen while they performed the song, it had all the individuals who had died in bombings, and it said ‘justice for the forgotten.’ I’m telling you how art inspires people,” said Rodriguez.

To that end, the conference’s main sessions featured a performance from Amanda Gorman, the 2014 Los Angeles Youth Poet Laureate, who is headed to Harvard this fall as part of the class of 2020, as well as a dose of real talk from activist and hip-hop artist Immortal Technique. Gorman also led a workshop on achieving social change through poetry. Other skill-building workshops included a session on songwriting as a social change agent with Grammy Award–winning producer and musician K.C. Porter and his longtime collaborator, musician J.B. Eckl.

Immortal Technique, whose real name is Felipe Coronel, told students how political and economic unrest in Peru compelled his family to emigrate to Harlem, New York, in the 1980s. During his first year of college, he got into trouble with the law and was incarcerated for a year, he said. After his release from prison, he went back to college but was increasingly drawn to challenging the injustices he saw in the world, particularly in the justice system, through hip-hop.

Immortal Technique talking to students at the Rise Up

for Humanity conference. (Photo: Kortney Lucas)

He also took the nation’s teachers to task for having an approach to pupils he characterized as “I got good grades—why can’t you?” and for not creating culturally relevant lessons. Students “want to hear about the first time someone called you the N-word or called you a wetback,” he said. They don’t “want to hear about the simplicity of math and science. Our people invented that.”

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“You really have to create a space where youth can speak unabashedly, where an adult is not going to give them cookie-cutter answers,” Immortal Technique told TakePart after his speech. “I know we ask a lot of teachers, but I think we have to ask them to do a little bit more. These kids are going through hell in the streets, so sometimes they need someone to say, ‘Hey, listen, once upon a time nobody believed in me either.’ And they need a teacher who will love them no matter what, all the time.”

That message resonated with Devyn Gersham, a black 15-year-old from the heart of South Central Los Angeles. “I like what he raps about and what he’s been through. So I wanted to see how it is that he overcame things and became successful,” Gersham said.

Gersham, who attends Fremont High School, a struggling campus in the Los Angeles Unified School District, also raps and creates stencils of Cesar Chavez in his spare time. “In South Central, there’s a lot going on. You have to worry about the police, and then you have to be afraid of gangbangers,” he said. For Gersham and many of his friends, the poverty of their families means they often struggle to pay for housing, food, and other basics.

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Despite those challenges, Gersham has big goals. He wants to be either a doctor or an archaeologist and said attending the Rise Up conference energized him. “I get to pass the knowledge I gained onto my friends,” he noted. “There’s certain things we can do to stop the violence, to stop the struggle, and we have to work our hardest to get to college and focus on our goals.”

Rodriguez told TakePart that he and other members of his team at the L.A. County Human Relations Commission will spend the next month in schools, supporting the problem-solving projects created by students. What that will look like depends on the school and what the students decide to tackle, he said.

Musicians K.C. Porter and J.B. Eckl lead a songwriting

workshop. (Photo: Kortney Lucas)

Nearly 30 students from Gardena High School in the Los Angeles Unified School District attended Rise Up. Many are involved in the school’s culinary arts program on campus. “There are no grocery stores in that community, but they have an overload of fast-food restaurants, hot-dog stands, and taco stands that serve high-fat foods,” Rodriguez said.

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But by the end of the school year, the culinary arts students plan to work with four community gardens “to create amazing meals at lunchtime to show students the power of being able to eat food that’s produced in their own community and is healthy for you,” he said.

Given the homeless epidemic in Los Angeles, other students may decide to turn the spotlight on the number of people sleeping in cars, at bus stops, or on city streets. “They could research the issue and then decide to do a lunchtime photography exhibit of homeless people in their communities,” Rodriguez suggested. “We just want to see that they are thinking about these issues, and reflecting on them, and taking action.”

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Rodriguez hopes to expand the number of students participating in the Rise Up conference next year and is open to sharing the idea with education and social justice activists across the nation.

“I hope they keep this conference going so students can come back and build off of what they’re learning,” Tanisha Denard, a 21-year-old youth justice activist from Gardena, told TakePart. She presented a session on what youths should do if they’re stopped by the police. “The students were really involved. Sometimes students are shy, but if you give them a chance, they really will step up and make a difference in their communities.”