UPAS graduates new leaders as part of the YOI program

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The Youth Organizing Institute (YOI) of United Parents and Students graduated 14 students this past Summer in California and Tennessee as part of their program to empower them as leaders of their communities.

The YOI program has been active for the past six years, and the 2022 graduation ceremony was the first in-person since the COVID-19 pandemic started in 2020. 

“YOI is something that we came up with six years ago. This is our fifth class, it was to give United Parents and Students the students voice,” explains Bob Guzman, UPAS Engagement Coordinator. “We liked that we were doing amazing work with our adult parents and community leaders, but really the leaders that are coming after us were not having enough voice.”

One of the more important aspects of the workshop, according to Guzman, is having students from different neighborhoods served by Green Dot Public Schools participate in it. This class included young men and women from Ánimo Pat Brown in Florence-Graham, Ánimo Jackie Robinson in historic South Central, City Schools and Ánimo Inglewood.

“Those communities are so different from each other, but the issues often do overlap. It gives each one of them a different perspective of what life is in our great city,” said Guzman.

The program was created by former Ánimo Leadership teacher and UPAS manager Brianna Christopher. She believed that students should interact more and have a voice in schools and their communities, as well as in defining what Guzman describes as what kind of world they want.

The issues covered in this year’s program included drug use, illegal cannabis dispensaries and gentrification.

Illegal dispensaries

Ánimo Pat Brown’s Rosa Perez chose to present the problem of an illegal marijuana dispensary close to the school, which she says affects not only the community but the students who attend the South Los Angeles school.

“I came up with this idea because it’s very close to my school and where I grew up. Seeing a lot of family members and people in general in that community smoking marijuana or just smoking something in general. It really affected me because I don’t like when people smoke and don’t know the consequences to smoking,” explained Perez through her Power Point presentation in front of fellow students, school and UPAS staff.

Perez became concerned about the problem through a family member. A nephew in Middle School told her that some of his friends, as young as 12 or 13 years old, had started smoking marijuana.

“I felt that the marijuana dispensary across my school was saying that it’s okay for young people to begin to smoke,” adds Perez. While she’s enthusiastic about being a part of fighting the illegal dispensary, she has developed an interest into women’s right due to the overturning of Roe v Wade, which previously guaranteed a constitutional right to abortion.

“I would like to go more into women's rights, or just human rights in general, but I’m more into leaning into women’s rights especially now with Roe vs Wade. I want to go straight to college, I want to major in criminology with a minor in sociology.,” said Perez.

Rojo AJR

Fight against Gentrification

Ismael Rojo, a student at Ánimo Jackie Robinson High School close to Downtown Los Angeles, got interested in gentrification because his neighborhood has undergone changes in the last few years. Among the changes, newer and more expensive housing has started to force less privileged people in his community to move.

“It’s a new thing for me. A lot of other issues were talked about but gentrification isn’t always talked about, it’s not a primary issue on what’s happening right now like racism, inflation,” said Rojo. During his presentation, Rojo discussed possible alternatives to avoid gentrification, including educating the community about their rights and the necessity for a higher minimum wage to help families improve their living conditions and not get lost in the changes their neighborhood might face.

Before taking part in the workshop, Rojo described himself as a quiet person who wasn’t very talkative. After completing the YOI program, he believes it has given him empowerment to be a voice in the community and focus him in ways to be a factor of change.

“At first I was quiet when I got here, I didn’t want to talk to anyone. However, over time I was able to speak on issues and just speak with other persons and I ended up getting more confidence in myself and became a leader,” explains Rojo.

As for the future, Rojo plans to go to college to study science, which has fascinated him during his stay at AJR. He has already started his applications to local and out of state colleges “I do want to keep helping my community, I would like to help them donation wise, and also start petitions to get it all together,” concluded Rojo.

Young, active leader against drugs

When she was very young, Symphany Howard went with her grandmother to UPAS events and assemblies, not knowing what the community based organization was about. Fast forward a few years, and she became one of the youngest participants in the YOI program. According to her, just entering seventh grade, it all evolved naturally.

“I was with my grandma at these events. I wanted to know why there were a bunch of journals there. She said it’s for the kids that have joined YOI. What’s YOI? Youth Organization Institute. Oh, I want to join! She said yes, so I’m here. It’s been a lot of help. Personally, I don’t speak like a lot, but now, I feel free, I can move where I want, I can talk like I want,” said Howard, who studies at The City School near Baldwin Village.

Her issue for the two week workshop was drug abuse in the communities and how to work against them. During her presentation, Howard suggested helping young kids not to get involved in drug use by talking directly to them. “It’s really sickening to see kids my age or older under 18 using drugs, harming themselves, filling their lungs with that stuff,” continued Howard. “I can go to them if I see some kids using drugs that they are not supposed to and say, ‘Hey, that’s harming your body, you could possibly die or get a disease.’”

How the students changed

For Guzman, the YOI program becomes a life changer for most of the students that participate.

“The first day is really interesting, nobody talks. Students are not used to being asked what they want, what they like, what they want to see,” said Guzman. “One of the courses that we teach is “The world as we want and the world as it is,” so this is essentially the first time they’re asked ‘what do you want the word to be?’ Having that perspective really empowers them.”

Guzman believes that the students are taught to think and talk and believe in what third persons want. This curtails their development not only as leaders but as individuals. After they complete the program, he says, they finally let out who they really are.

“When they finish the program they are really sure of the world as it should be and they aim to do that. YOI shows them the voice that they have inside. We just allow them to channel their internal voice,” concludes Guzman.

Kevin Armstrong, UPAS Regional Coordinator in Memphis, had seven graduates in the workshop, held in June. He shared the experience the students had, the first on-person session since the COVID-19 pandemic started.

“It was a really good experience”, said Armstrong. “Two weeks immersed inn organizing, professional and student development, so that went really well.”

The participants from California also included Elizabeth Ponce (Ánimo Venice), Leslie Garcia (Ánimo Watts), Danna Olivar (Ánimo Pat Brown), Chermaine Johnson (Locke High School) and Bela Avalos, an out of state student. The graduates in Tennessee were Anaiah Shives (Fairley High School) and other Memphis area students NaTalee Byers, Na’Deya Byers, Wayland Bolden, Kayden Powell and Brandon Byers.