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Young Voices is a series of interviews conducted by Occidental College students, assisted by the Keck Grant, for Professor Jan Lin's Urban Sociology course. Each interview highlights an individual who has made an impact in their communities. First up is Miguel Luna from Urban Semillas, interviewed by Emie George.
As the founder of Urban Semillas Miguel Luna is instrumental in affecting local change in communities that suffer from language barriers and therefore often go unrepresented in decision making that affect their lives.
Sitting on bales of hay in the Glassell Park Community Garden, Miguel answered questions regarding his role in the various communities he works with, the future of his organization, and most importantly, young voices and the significance of youth engagement. While the interview was interrupted a few times by various community members passing by, Miguel's interactions with the local residents served to further demonstrate his passion and success in the work he does.
So Miguel, you work with Urban Semillas. Tell us a bit about the organization and the communities you work in.
We are a community based, watershed driven, socially conscientious organization that focuses on building capacity for communities to have a role in policies that may have an impact on their lives. We've been doing this since 2007 and been able to reach a lot of communities -- we do a lot of work in the Northeast L.A. area, we work in South L.A., we work a lot in the Valley. It all depends on, you know, where the issue is. I think our success has been, not exactly where we do things or what we do, but how we do it -- we don't have a cookie cutter approach to reaching communities or dealing with initiatives.
Can you describe the particular identity or reputation of your organizational work?
What really identifies the organization is that we're able to do reconnaissance in our community. Hearing what people are saying -- not speaking for them but rather helping to augment that voice -- so that they can communicate in a way that is understood by planners and city representatives. In the same way, we facilitate for city agendas or individuals like urban planners to be able to communicate well in a way that the community understands.
And your role within Urban Semillas -- how would you describe that?
I'm the founder and executive director. Urban Semillas is not a large organization. At times it's a one-man show. Based on where we're working and on what issues, I hire or stipend community members to work with me. I have two people who consistently help me handle the youth act engagement, and another person who handles the program coordination. But mostly it's community members that work with me on issues.
How did you initially enter into this role and how has it developed over the years?
I've always done community engagement. Prior to Urban Semillas, I had an organization that worked with developmentally disabled adults. I did that for 10 years. It was a role about, again, building capacity, engaging community and human relations. It's always been about human relations. [Prior to that] I started at Heal the Bay on environmental issues. And from there worked with many other organizations. And though I agreed with their direction, sometimes their approach wasn't the one that I would take. That is what propelled me to do Urban Semillas.
There is a lot of hunger for wanting to get involved. And people just don't have the time or don't know how. And so my role has developed as someone who can help bring important community issues to the views of the decision makers in those areas.
Let's talk about influences. Who are your inspirations, what are some influences that affect your work and drive you to do what you do?
I think family is the inspiration -- not just my family but also the families in the community. Their tenacity at wanting to fight for a better quality of life regardless of barriers that come with not understanding the language, economics of their family situation, or the environment surrounding them. They are happy -- there seems to be no correlation between money and happiness. I think that's very inspirational and so, if we can capitalize on what makes communities happy, we work towards that.
And of course I'd say that I'm inspired by global figures. Like the recently deceased, the recently transitioned Wangari Maathai. She really played such a huge role in her nation -- in the continent really -- to stand up for women's rights, for human rights, and the rights of the environment. One person doing all of that is amazing. If one person can do that, many others can too.
In my class we've talked a lot about social media and how that affects society today. To what degree is social media important to your outreach, whether it be a web site, Facebook, Twitter...a blog?
Well you know, I have a Facebook. I mix my personal stuff with what I do in the community. Twitter is more specifically to Urban Semillas: water issues, "urban ag" issues. The website serves as a good placeholder for those who don't know about the organization -- the one place where you can see, "Oh, what's this organization up to?"
But the one media that has been really helpful is, I guess you could say YouTube, but more specifically small, short videos that communicate the community's needs. I don't think its right for me to be the one to speak for the community, so this allows me to capture the voices from the community and give that message to people who have not been made aware of that. For instance, it's easy to take the issue of water in Maywood, and interview people about current conditions regarding water, water pollution, unfair fees for water that is not drinkable, or people can't even bathe in...and take those stories to the decision maker in Sacramento or someone in Washington. It's much more relevant to have it said from the community than me saying that -- it carries much more weight.
What people or other organizations do you collaborate with in these initiatives?
Many. The one I always have a continued relationship with is Heal the Bay. A soccer league -- Anahuak Youth Sports Association -- has been the anchor for me in the Northeast L.A. area. And the city, even though it's not an organization, has been very instrumental in facilitating good policy. For example, house member Reyes has been very helpful in assisting with water issues, particularly human right to water. We also work with organizations like the Council for Watershed Health, Tree People, you know, your traditional environmental and watershed organizations. Beyond the organizations are block groups and community leaders that have really helped to create this network of people that are making change in their communities.
To what degree is your work connected to or affected by class? To racial or ethnic diversity in neighborhoods?
It's affected when gentrification plays a role in the work that is being proposed. For example, there are a lot of revitalization efforts that I'm involved with. And there is always the question of, 'If you revitalize my community will I then be asked to leave because I won't be able to afford it?' And that's difficult because in the city of L.A. we don't have -- though it's been attempted in the past by Councilmember Reyes -- to require a percentage of affordable housing within development projects. So when it comes to beautification and revitalization, they understand they want it but...
...at what cost?
At what cost and at what scale and at what speed? You can improve a community and revitalize it but you have to do it at a pace, and with tools and functions that allow for people to continue living there through revitalization and after revitalization. I guess you would say you have to slow down gentrification to allow those people to buy into those communities -- the communities they live in.
As far as race, there is always tension within race relations in the city of L.A. An example would be a community like Compton or Watts where the Latino population has grown exponentially and has either matched or surpassed the numbers of African Americans. And it becomes a struggle when people don't address it; It becomes difficult when you're working in a community where those issues are just swept under the rug. I like to address those issues head on. Sometimes successfully, sometimes not. But you know, it certainly plays a role in my work.
To what extent do you represent the local scene, in terms of arts, music or food, and culture? Your impressions of the local cultural scene?
Hmmm (laughs), I think I am the scene. I think I am -- and I'm careful to say that I don't speak for -- but I am who I want to reach. I am the Latino who tries hard to live sustainably but understands that there are a lot of competing factors.
I think the cultural scene in the Northeast L.A. area is amazing. It has so much art. Look for example at Boyle Heights and East L.A., and all the murals on the storefronts. They're not bringing people from afar; they're engaging the local youth to paint these murals, who in turn keep the murals and the walls clean because people who would tag on them are the same people who painted them. Food is also very important in the community, not just what we eat but how we make it. The traditions have been passed down from generation to generation. Music of course -- it's just something that lives in our culture.
Let's talk about the future a little bit. What are your plans for Urban Semillas or for the projects you're involved in?
We will always have water issues at the core. Local food issues -- important as well. But always water. So wherever there's a water issue that has an impact on a community or has a role in improving an area -- I'm not saying I'm going to be there but I certainly would love to be involved.
I think more and more, as far as Urban Semillas, I want to focus more on youth development. Not that I'm giving up on adults -- but youth has always been a focus. How do I, and the organization as a whole, target specifically youth development?
Do you find that you are the typical age of the people involved in this type of work? I'm curious as to whether you see yourself as a younger adult participating in this field.
Yeah...I'm no spring chicken so uh...
(Laughing) But you're a young guy.
Well...chronologically I'm no spring chicken. But I've always considered myself very young at heart, and certainly in my approach to the work I do. I'm able to reach a lot of youth in a way that allows them to take hold of a topic and own it -- it's because I really enjoy working with youth. And um, in some ways...I'm very immature at times. I have an immature approach to things. I have (chuckling) foul language, which makes me very popular with youth.
(laughing) You kept it clean for this interview.
I did. I did very much so. I care about the issues that are impacting the youth. From issues of self-image; issues of teen pregnancy that have nothing to do with water issues but because it plays a role in someone's life -- I'm very sensitive to those things. And it's very hard to pull the wool over youth, because they'll call you on it. 'Hey you said you were going to do this...yeah I did huh?' They have really good memories.
There is a growing number of youth that are becoming active in environmental issues and social justice issues. I've seen that in the last five years -- and more so in the last two. Especially so when it comes to all the state cuts that impact their education, their legal status of being here, and pursuing the dream, their individual dreams. A lot of youth have really become active in wanting to vote, and wanting to voice the direction this country takes.
So when we talk about the future, it's really important to talk about youth?
Absolutely. In a nonpartisan way, I ask youth to engage in mostly local issues. People talk about food deserts, and I think we have civic deserts in our communities. A lot of people become enamored with voting for the president, but if they take that passion and really get engaged -- they'll understand that the decisions they make today will have an impact locally on their families today and their future families tomorrow.