“From single working parents, to young people navigating systems of oppression, my community has many hidden leaders that simply need to be encouraged or recognized. Leadership shows up in our hardships.”— Alejandro Jurado
“We are not these stereotypes that the media says we are. We’re people who are resilient and come from glorious places.”— Jesse Orñelas
Alejandro Jurado and Jesse Orñelas are part of Youth Leadership Institute’s Rise and Lift program in Merced. In this Q&A, they talk about the impact of COVID-19 on young people in their community, how they partner with the Alliance for Boys and Men of Color and the importance of using one’s lived experience to advocate for change.
Tell us about the community you live in: what makes it so special? What are its challenges and how have those challenges been exacerbated by the pandemic?
Alejandro: Merced has challenges that are specifically impacting young people, including substance abuse, homelessness, mental health and food desserts in low income parts of town. You can really see the segregation by which neighborhoods have access to clean air and parks, and those who are over policed and have some of the highest rates of suspension in the state, particularly for Black youth. There were many issues young people were facing before the pandemic, however with COVID, these things have only been heightened. Since young people are stuck at home, for many, this means not having access to school as their safe space of escaping the situations they are dealing with at home, in addition to not having access to food or technology the school may have provided. It creates a lot of anxiety that young people are being forced to navigate through.
Jesse: One thing’s for sure: community violence has not slowed down during COVID and young people are dying. Just recently, we lost a young person in our program to an overdose. Resources that are needed are not reaching those that are most impacted, and there are school and city officials who are still turning to incarceration and pushing young people out as solutions. It’s not just a need for more resources; it’s about meeting young people where they are and listening to them about what they need.
What is your background and what inspired you to do the work you are doing now?
Alejandro: At the age of 10, my mother, sister and I immigrated to the United States from Mexico to join my father, who came before us. Being raised by my mom, who essentially was a single parent, gave me a lot of perspective. When I moved to the United States it was a culture shock. We arrived to violence, drugs, and a neighborhood where farmworkers, Latinx and Black communities lived side by side. All these complexities gave me a lot of understanding of the society we live in. My parents came here to survive. For them, education was always an exit from the situation they were in, but, when I made it to UC Merced, I didn’t have the tools or support I needed to succeed. Struggling with my mental health, I had to drop out to go to community college. However, that was the beginning of how I began helping youth who were having a tough time navigating their own journey. I started doing voter registration in different communities, supporting organizing with undocumented students, there I started to understand more closely how the immigration systems deeply hurt our communities.
I knew I could help even more through the Youth Leadership Institute. The Institute believes in the leadership of young people in the Central Valley and using their stories to determine what’s needed for our communities. Doing cultural and healing work and understanding trauma young people go through allows me to help and create space for youth to process their experiences, and use that growth to lead campaigns to change their communities and cities. A lot of people see young people as if they don’t know what they’re doing, but overlook the powerful work and transformation young people lead, bringing to their communities healing and liberation. When you talk to young people, they know exactly what they need and what they want to see.
Jesse: I grew up in Southern California witnessing intimate partner violence and, when I was 16, my father committed suicide. As a young person who was victim to such horrible things, I found myself projecting pain on other people and, the day after I turned 16, I was arrested for attempted murder and incarcerated for six months. This prevented me from attending high school and forced me into a community school that was connected to a juvenile probation facility, where adolescent behavior was treated with detention. This was exactly the right formula for bad things to happen: not enough resources, marginalized places for young people being hit hardest, generations of poverty and incarceration and gang involvement and everything that goes with that.
After being incarcerated for the last time a decade ago, I decided it was time for a change. I was forced to either go to college or get a job, so I decided to go to school. There, I learned about the social determinants of health – the things constructed by the system that helped me make the bad decisions I was making. I remember that moment so clearly – I felt played. It was eye opening and frustrating at the same time, but I kept going. I got involved in the Brown Berets, and learned to love the community and skin that I’m in. We are not these stereotypes that the media says we are. We’re people who are resilient and come from glorious places.
What do you feel are the greatest threats and opportunities facing communities of color, and boys and men of color, across California?
Alejandro: The greatest threat is that to our existence. Our physical and mental health are being profited from and exploited in so many ways. The way our communities are kept impoverished, overworked and exploited has direct links to our early deaths. There are so many traumatic experiences that we are impacted by that a regular person shouldn’t go through, but for us, it’s become normalized. Our reliance shows when even with the heavy impacts of an oppressive system, our communities take the journey of healing and creating solidarity amongst struggling people; to take the journey that Jesse has taken and using personal experience to use our voice to mobilize and organize to dismantle and create. Destroying the systems that keep us down, creating alternatives for ourselves and building community – that is what gives me hope.
Jesse: The biggest threat is the fact that white supremacy has a hand in everything. We see that corporations and big agriculture expect us to be thankful for minimum wage jobs with no future in towns like Merced; that the Mayor expects us to be grateful for jobs that pay a minimum wage with no meaningful career path. Poverty continues to be a threat to us as well as lack of political representation. But at the same time, our greatest asset is resilient people. Black and Brown folks have resilience in their DNA and we can weather the storm. What we’re experiencing now is the desperation of white supremacy. All we have to do is use our resilience to weather this last storm to extinguish it.
How did you get involved with the Alliance for Boys and Men of Color, and how do they support the work that you do?
Jesse: As you can imagine, it’s hard to find a job after being incarcerated. Merced is the belly of the beast. The government and city officials have traces and hints of white supremacy. My focus was to get resources to young people and, when I landed a job with the Youth Health Project, I was fortunate to have a supervisor named Marilyn Mochelle who said, “What you have lived through should be a resource and I think you should get involved in the Alliance for Boys and Men of Color.” She reached out The California Endowment and got funding to do work in Merced. It was surreal that my experience was being seen as an asset, and it felt good to know that the struggle me and my family had gone through has resulted in a job that doesn’t feel like work sometimes.
Currently, the two sites that Youth Leadership Institute has in Fresno and Merced align with the Healing Together campaign. We have participated in the Advocacy Days at the Capitol with PolicyLink and the Alliance for Boys and Men of Color to push for passage of numerous pieces of legislation that would result in the betterment of youth of color. We focus a lot of our work in local campaigns that affect boys and men of color, such as Schools not Prisons and Educational Justice. As an organization, we have also been part of their work in signing letters of support to elected officials around police brutality and advocating for CEOs to sign letters of support for numerous initiatives that have passed at the state level.
How has your work been impacted by COVID? What are you seeing among the young people you work with? Any solutions you would like to push for?
Alejandro: With COVID our work shifted quite a bit. The way we engage with the youth has all moved to virtual, which creates obstacles, however, we have persisted and continue to create space, even if virtually, for youth to come together. An aspect of young people’s lives that has been greatly impacted is their academics. Education was, and continues to be impacted. COVID-19 has created a lot of uncertainty for many. Seniors were in the process of applying for colleges and now don’t know what the new year will bring, many youth are now faced with parents who are no longer able to provide for them. We are currently working on a campaign around education justice, looking at how different resources can be allocated to better support young people. Our goal through the campaign is to ensure that when they do return to school, they are not returning to the same issues.
Jesse: The needs of young people are not being met. We need to listen to our young people and communities – the experts – as to how funding and resources can be best allocated to support them.
What does leadership mean to you and how does it show up in the work that you do or in your community?
Alejandro: Leadership to me means using any tools, resources and experiences available to us to advocate for our communities, share any knowledge we might have and ultimately build strong relationships that will ground the power of our collective. From single working parents, to young people navigating systems of oppression, my community has many hidden leaders that simply need to be encouraged or recognized. Leadership shows up in our hardships.
Jesse: To me leadership looks radical: it’s led by love; it’s led with empathy. It’s going into the belly of the beast and not compromising our value that liberation for all oppressed people must happen for all, or none at all.