Youth CAN! Building Student Power; A New Perspective.

Students engaged in Councilmember Alondra Cano's Closing Keynote
Students engaged in Councilmember Alondra Cano’s Closing Keynote

On November 8th, 2014, 120 youth gathered at El Colegio High School in South Minneapolis to discuss pressing issues of climate justice and community organizing. With workshops on diverse topics such as Intersectionality, Climate Change, and Aquaponics, this event helped me understand the problems as well as the resources within our community. Overall, YouthCAN! was a great place to learn about climate justice and meet others engaging in community action around this subject.

​At my school (De LaSalle) our Green Team is small, and doesn’t have a large influence over school issues. Though most people in Green Team are excited about changing the current energy situation at our school, the overall student body is relatively apathetic. I came to YouthCAN! as not only a concerned student but also as someone wanting to learn more about community organizing. YouthCAN! delivered. The first workshop I attended focused on using art as a community education tool. Upon seeing a demonstration piece called “What the Frack!”, I realized that my school could engage students in climate change education and action using performing arts like this.

Over the course of the day, I realized that climate change fits into a long-standing tradition at our school: Social Justice Week. This is a week in the spring where we focus on justice issues in our community; in the past we’ve talked about women’s rights and ableism. Usually there is a lot of class discussion and education surrounding the issue of choice. Climate justice would fit well into Social Justice Week as a theme, and would be a good topic for education. After learning about these art-based educational techniques at YouthCAN!, I decided to propose Climate Change as our Social Justice Week theme next week at Green Team. This would be a great chance to organize with the whole community to focus on climate issues as it relates to social justice!

​YouthCAN! was a great chance to broaden my horizons personally as well as organizationally. The next workshop I attended, White Privilege, served as a great example. As a Colombian-Jewish American, I do not always feel “white”. However, I realize that I benefit from our society’s racist assumptions more than my darker-skinned hermanas Latinas. In the White Privilege workshop, we talked about ways that white and lighter-skinned people encounter different treatment in society, specifically in dealing with institutions like the police. While the conversation was enlightening, some of my friends who attended the workshop thought it was not deep enough. However, this blossomed into a conversation between us that had our group exploring how we deal with racial systems in school and with family. Overall, I experienced a heightening of awareness related to my privilege in society, and a desire to link communities together for further dialogue.

​The last workshop I attended was the r ecruitment session, where we learned about attracting people to join our cause (whatever cause that may be). The leader of this workshop helped attendees understand techniques to spread awareness of our groups and ways to attract members. One of the more important things I carried away from this workshop was the AIIA method: Ask about the person and get to know them, Inform them of your group’s purpose and action, Involve them by specifically tailoring an opening to their interests, and Appreciate their interest and involvement. This strategy is much more effective than simply inviting someone to a faceless meeting; I will definitely use it with the Green Team recruitment at my school.

​While the workshops were enlightening, the highlight of YouthCAN! for me was the powerful words we heard from the featured speakers. Will Steger spoke on ice movement in the Antarctic and Arctic, using his own experience crossing the ice caps combined with scientific evidence to provide us with a better understanding of climate change. Another amazing speaker was Kim Wasserman, a community organizer from the Little Village neighborhood in Chicago. Her story was one of the most amazing things I took away from the event. As a resident of Little Village, she was unaware of what a factory in her neighborhood was until her son was diagnosed with asthma as a very young baby. After her doctor suggested it might be due to environmental factors, she investigated around her neighborhood and realized that the factory was actually a coal power plant. Over the next twelve years, she organized the community to protest the power plant and finally close it down. I have a tremendous respect for Ms. Wasserman: the determination, integrity, and care that she had in her efforts was beyond inspiring. She spoke to the difficulty of organizing a marginalized community against an oppressive system, the importance of community-based change, and the role of determined persistence in any movement. Though it is difficult to change entrenched systems, Kim Wasserman proved it possible.

Another highlight of YouthCAN! was meeting Alondra Cano, the first Mexican-American to serve on the Minneapolis City Council. Ms. Cano spoke on her childhood in Litchfield, her experience as a student organizer at the University of Minnesota, and the activism she has been involved in. Ms. Cano’s words changed my viewpoint: I have never seen myself as a community organizer. Seeing someone like me talk about the change she has made in our community made me think about the fact that I can impact our community too. We still lack diversity in our institutions-our public universities, our city councils-and Alondra Cano has made it clear that we can bring diverse outlooks to public institutions to create effective change. Ms. Cano said that if we are not getting in trouble, then we are not doing enough. Personally, I know it’s time to step up, participate in the movement, and get in trouble for a cause that I believe in.

​Overall, my experience at YouthCAN! was very positive, and inspired me to further action. I came out of YouthCAN! with a broader understanding of the issues facing my school, my community, and the Twin Cities as a whole. I also came out of the event with a greater understanding of the potential for youth to organize, and a better knowledge of the resources and organizations agitating for social change. In addition, I learned to dance the Charleston! YouthCAN! was a great experience, and I will definitely be coming to the next YEA! MN meeting on Monday!


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