Bringing Community Voices Into the Classroom

Amy and David pose with Day One student activists, photo from the Day One facebook
Amy and David pose with Day One student activists, photo from the Day One facebook

Youth Voices is working with middle school students from three schools in the El Monte City School District: Columbia, Durfee, and Wright. The students, participants in the English Language Development program at their schools, formed teams to explore, investigate, and write about an important issue in their community; all the while they are learning and expanding their knowledge of civic journalism and community engagement. Follow their work on social media by using the hashtag #KCETYV.

Students from Columbia School identified a variety of important issues that they will investigate for their Youth Voices project. These include: more healthy food choices in El Monte; making Arceo and Fletcher Parks safer; developing a skate park and a BMX bike park; and collecting the history of El Monte High School and a local Shakey's Restaurant. These issues emerged from a series of discussions and activities that encouraged the students to think about their community of El Monte in a more critical way than they have done in the past. This process allowed the students to see what they appreciate about their city, and how they could be improved. The connection between their topics and their daily lives is clear: this relevance is pivotal in motivating the students to work and advance their projects.

As part of their ongoing activities, the students were visited by two guest speakers who presented information about their work in El Monte. Amy Wong and David Diaz, from Day One and BikeSGV, spoke to the class about their campaigns to raise awareness about nutrition and health, and to build a strong foundation for a biking community in El Monte. The presentation touched on most of the students' topics and provided information on how to conduct community outreach and connect with public officials.

Wong and Diaz talked about "bike lanes, healthy living and they gave us ideas for our causes," according to student Tommy T. Their presentation included a video and information on the lack of healthy food options in El Monte, as well as the city's high obesity rate. Tommy adds, "Many people in El Monte are overweight so having more healthy restaurants will help reduce the overweight problem."

They also discussed their work on bike transportation, specifically about how bike lanes can provide safety for bicycles. Thu, a student in the class, learned from the presentation that "many people ride on the sidewalks because they don't feel safe on the streets. But that is dangerous for people on the sidewalk and the bicyclist; it could lead to very serious accidents. Another point they mentioned was the need for bike parking. This lets people with bikes know there is a safe and easy place to store their bikes when they go to school or work."

Many of the students in the class found their presentation helpful and informative. In their reflections, the students, including F. Mora, mentioned their appreciation for Wong and Diaz's emphasis that "The main idea is to work together and never give up. We can make more happen in El Monte if we all help each other."

The guest speakers also provided specific advice to the students about their topics. For Yvette L., whose team is working on making Fletcher Park safer, they provided suggestions for community engagement: "David suggested we talk to people in the neighborhood to get their support and then go to city officials to convince them to put more lights in the park so it wouldn't be so dark." For others like Fatima M., whose team is looking at developing a BMX bike park, it was about identifying a new resource for their investigation: "[Day One] can help us design the park or maybe help us talk about its development. There are no resources for our project so they could be very helpful."

Having guest speakers in the classroom is a wonderful way to engage students while offering them new resources for any project. For Youth Voices, a civic journalism and community engagement program, it's essential to connect with community organizations and leaders, and inviting them into the class is one way to make research a much more interactive and tangible exercise.

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