In South Sacramento, a group of mostly Southeast Asian American youth have been finding their voice through local civic engagement and advocacy, but not without many challenges, resistance, heartache — and ultimately, some hope.
Many of the youth, in particular Hmong Americans, started off as volunteers or interns with EBAYC Sacramento, a second branch of the East Bay Asian Youth Center, a 40 year-old Asian American-led nonprofit serving youth in Oakland.
Dexter Niskala was one such youth. When he was a sophomore in high school, a mentor reached out to him at his high school. He dove into the work almost immediately, intensively working on several high-profile, city-wide campaigns to gain more funding for youth services in Sacramento.
The Sacramento branch of EBAYC was formed in 2014, and immediately began working with the local Asian American youth population. EBAYC Executive Director David Kakishiba, who grew up in Sacramento said that API youth are often underserved in the larger youth services.
For the past 40 years, Kakishiba has been working with youth, and he's seen that Asian Americans are often not included. When he was growing up in Sacramento, the predominant Asian American youth population was Chinese American and Japanese American. By the time Kakishiba came of age, the wars in Southeast Asia had ended, and more Southeast Asian refugee populations, including Vietnamese, Mien, Cambodian, Burmese, Lao and Hmong resettled in Sacramento and Oakland. But he saw similar issues: that Asian American youth voices and needs were oftentimes not at the forefront nor prioritized. (Full disclosure: this writer worked part-time at EBAYC in Oakland in the late '90s when in college).
When we talk about Black and Brown youth and issues, don't leave out Southeast Asian youth.Leesai Yang, co-founder Sacramento EBAYC
"Asian American" is such a broad umbrella term, encompassing 30 or more different Asian American populations. For the smaller population that don't fit the model minority myth, there is a double marginalization. The idea of the model minority is that they are high achieving in school, and they may not be expected to speak up, to be active, to organize or become politically engaged.
Leesai Yang, the first director and cofounder of Sacramento EBAYC, notes that Southeast Asian American youth, in particular, share a lot of similar struggles as Black and other Brown youth, and thus have a lot of reason to engage in socio-political issues. "When we talk about Black and Brown youth and issues, don't leave out Southeast Asian youth," Yang said. "We face a lot of the same issues, the school-to-prison pipeline, we all fall under the most marginalized communities." Cambodian, Lao, Mien, Hmong and some Vietnamese populations are most impacted by poverty, gangs and violence, Yang adds.
The Sacramento Hmong youth, in particular, are bucking that model minority myth. "They came to the work not through any political training, or ideology training or with any Asian American politics," Kakishiba notes. "They came to the work based on their experience living the Meadowview [neighborhood], not seeing a lot of support and opportunity. This is how they came to the work and stuck to the work."
Youth Action in Sacramento, Led by Asian American Youth
In summer of 2015, EBAYC began recruiting high school youth to be volunteers and interns. First, they surveyed young people in the community. The youth wanted to find out from their peers how to improve supports and opportunities for youth in Sacramento. The starting research question was, "What would I do with $10 million to help improve the lives of Sacramento youth?"
In Sacramento at the time, only 1% of the general fund went toward youth services. (For comparison, Oakland passed a measure in 1996 that allocates about 2.5% annually from its general fund, totaling now 3%, or about $20 million, in recent years). They wanted to see if they could change that.
"It was very shocking that Sacramento doesn't have stable funding for the youth of Sacramento," said Dee Khang, who was a senior in high school when she became a volunteer, and later an intern, at EBAYC Sacramento in 2015.
Khang was part of the campaign to get signatures and phone-banking to pass Measure Y, a marijuana tax. If passed, the tax would have led to more funding for children and youth in Sacramento. The measure, which required a two-thirds vote, failed by a slim margin in the summer of 2016. In November of 2016, the school district tried to pass a parcel tax (Measure G) what would have increased funding toward youth; it also failed by a narrow margin.
In 2017, EBAYC put a call out to the local community that led to the creation of Sacramento Kids First Coalition. As a multicultural, multiracial coalition — representing more than two dozen organizations — they put a city-wide ballot measure up to voters in March 2020, also known as Measure G.
Jim Keddy, executive director of Youth Forward in Sacramento and a member organization of Sac Kids First, notes that, "EBAYC is the organization that put it all together and got it off the ground," as far as the citywide campaign for Measure G. And Hmong Americans organizing in Sacramento started before this measure. "I've seen the Hmong community here improving schools, involved in advocacy around issues," Keddy adds, going back to the mid-'90s.
The Sac Kids First in trying to pass the measure in 2020 faced some daunting opposition, including Mayor Darrell Steinberg, city councilmembers, the firefighters union, the police union and the libraries, among others. If passed, 2.5% of the city's general funds would go toward children and youth services, particularly the most marginalized and vulnerable youth.
If you want systemic change, directly or indirectly, it starts with people power.Dexter Niksala, youth leader with EBAYC
The reason why the work was so personal for some youth like Niskala is because he experienced struggles, that he felt, if not for youth organizing, may have led to dire consequences for him. Niskala, who is of mixed race descent, Hmong and white, said that his family struggled with poverty over the years, moving from North Carolina to the Meadowview neighborhood in South Sacramento. In middle school, his parents lost the home, and they bounced from house to house until they were forced to live on the streets. "Child poverty is real and it's widespread in Sacramento. Living in poverty impacts how young people feel about themselves and the choices they make. I know a lot of youth with a lot of trauma. And if not addressed, this often leads to depression, anger, violence, addiction and more poverty," Niskala writes in a report documenting the outcome of the children's fund ballot measure.
Niskala said he was doing well in school until his parents separated when he was in high school. He began skipping school. So when the EBAYC mentor visited his school, he decided to become a part of the work to make his community better. "If you want systemic change, directly or indirectly, it starts with people power," he said.
He became involved in his sophomore year in high school and his junior year, and later, a paid intern and started speaking at city hall meetings. He saw how the local school in Elk Grove, where he stayed sometimes with an aunt and uncle, a suburban area outside of Sacramento with a large Hmong population, had better services at schools. College was an option and there were more career readiness programs there. But at his school, Luther Burbank in Sacramento, students were sent a different message. "I feel like the school is set up like a prison. It was really shocking to see the difference of where I lived (in Elk Grove) with where I went to school. We had active police officers, with guns on their waistline, at our school. What's the reasoning for that?"
He said that because many of the youth were already feeling marginalized, campaigning for something became deeply personal. "These young people were built up to advocate for themselves," Yang, 33, said. "They were given an opportunity and platform and they do have a voice. Their stories do matter, and they can do this work. They deserve better so they can have better opportunities versus what they currently have."
One of the first things Yang did is bring his Sacramento youth, most of whom are Hmong American, to see the RYSE Center in Richmond, CA, the EBAYC center in Oakland, Ca, and other places in the Bay Area. RYSE Center has been hailed as a "haven for Richmond teens," with a focus on education, health, youth organizing and arts and culture. The Sacramento youth began to see what was possible with more funding. Soon after, the youth surveyed their peers, including youth in juvenile hall.
Niskala said he worked the hardest he had ever worked in his life during the six months leading up to the March 2020 vote that included Measure G. Niskala recalls that during this time, the area was suffering from poor air quality following the Paradise fire. The youth started pounding the pavement, doing it the old-fashioned way, by talking to people and eventually gathering more than 38,000 verified signatures from community members within six months. "There was literally smoke shrouding our city," he recalls. "It was a lot of effort from our team and coalition."
Last March, the votes for Measure G failed to pass with only 45% in favor, despite support for the campaign especially in neighborhoods of color. For the Asian American youth, it was just another letdown in addition to losing the ballot measure in 2020. Youth leaders felt let down by both their local governments — police, firefighters, councilmembers and the mayor.
Yang said despite the disappointments, it was good for youth to do the organizing, "For them to really see how things work in government, the amount of energy that's necessary to make something happen." It taught them resiliency, and to never give up, "That should be a reason why we continue to fight to be heard." In the meantime, Steinberg has agreed to postpone the next youth ballot measure to 2022, giving Sac Kids First valuable time to regroup and improve the measure, as well as its approach.
The Future of API Youth Organizing in Sacramento
What does that mean for this group in the future? There is a long way to go. Since COVID, EBAYC and the Sac Kids First continued to advocate for youth, including making sure a portion of COVID relief money, about $8 million total, go toward youth. With the ballot measure behind them and with COVID still looming, they focused on supporting local youth in what was possible given health guidelines.
Kakishiba says that the youth who remained committed to developing their political ideology and advocacy says it has benefited them. "For those who stayed a while, they learned a lot about Sacramento politics and politicians and how they work, or don't work."
Yang agrees. "It really gave them the platform to be leaders for the next generation."
For Khang and Niskala, they have found a path to being leaders and youth mentors themselves, after starting off as youth activists while they were in high school.
Khang, now 23 years-old, says that if she had not been involved with being a youth activist back when she was in high school, she would not be where she is today. "It opened up my circle," Khang said. "I used to be very shy, I didn't like speaking out. It has made me speak out more often, and also educate those in my community what should be in the community." Khang said that it led her to feeling more empowered, as a Hmong American woman. The support of the adults helped her gain leadership skills, knowing that they would be there to help her. One of the people she credits is Yang.
During this time, the first Hmong American woman became a councilmember in Sacramento: Mai Vang, in December 2020. To many in the Hmong American community there, she is evidence that their experiences and perspectives matter.
While Khang is not sure if she is interested in public office, she is giving back to her community as a leader. In October 2020, she was hired on as a full-time staff counselor, working with young Asian American women. She mentors young people who are most underserved, including those are probation. She tries to guide them with life skills and helping youth with resumes and job interviews, among other ways of supporting youth.
During COVID, while schools were closed and many teens were suffering through mental health issues of being stuck at home and not being able to see friends, EBAYC Sacramento opened up their office for social distanced and masked study sessions. It's for the youth who "need quiet space," but also, Khang notes, teens just need to get away from their families sometimes — and the Hmong American parents trust EBAYC. "This is a safe space for them," Khang said. As much as they could keep the offices open due to rising and falling COVID rates, they offered a space with guardian permission.
Niskala, now 22, is also a youth counselor. "I never thought I would be blessed with the opportunity to do it, but here I am now," he said. "It's kind of a dream come true." His experience struggling as a youth, dealing with poverty, homelessness and lack of feeling engaged at school, and later becoming a youth leader, has led him here.
Niskala works with Asian American youth who were much like himself, who attend the school where he attended. Many are Hmong like himself while others are Lao and Iu Mien. "They're like my little brothers, my own little cousins. It feels good to be able to give back to them. It's really a full circle. It feels really good to do it in a community [I] belong in."