Our society needs to shift the blame from youth to systems.
As a child, I moved around a lot, living in Los Angeles, parts of Southern California and San Fernando Valley until I was 14. When I was in seventh grade, the home we lived in was within reach of gang violence. Our neighborhood was constantly targeted by the LAPD. The environment I was in was pushing me into vocational school and away from higher education. While there is nothing wrong with that route, I learned early on how the influences and environment that surround you can provide a clouded picture of what you can actually achieve.
When my family moved to a different community in South Sacramento, the school I attended had one of the highest expulsion and suspension rates. I watched as my friends took different paths than me. That struggle within myself — was I guilty or proud that I had turned out differently — had a profound impact on how I experienced education. I felt like school was a shackle on one leg, and my culture was a shackle on the other. I was ashamed of speaking Spanish, and never thought of school as a gateway to a better life, just a means to graduate.
What changed my outlook was mentorship — having supportive adults who were able to guide me to what I could become — and having the encouragement to dream. I was given multiple opportunities, room to fail and, ultimately, grow. This allowed me to transform my dreams into achievable goals and accomplishments, which would not have been possible without my mentors.
While I was lucky to have my family around, I didn’t have consistent adult support. My parents worked day and night. This was just the system in which we live in — parents not being able to spend time with their children because they’re too busy working to put food on the table, or not being able to plan for a future because they were too busy worrying about the present. It’s the same for education equity. Our society needs to shift the blame from youth to systems. Disparities in our education system exist because of income inequality. Right now, there is no national leadership around how to continue with school during a pandemic. We see that those who are able to afford education and have access to resources are not impacted, but what happens to the rest of us? Those of us systematically less able to adjust to remote education. The assumption is that we’re all going through the same thing, but kids like me are being punished for having to support our family during a global pandemic.
Because of my experience, my work centers around education on a state and local community level. As a Board Member for the Mentor of California Affiliate of the National Mentor Partnership, I focus on programmatic expansion and drumming up support (funding and geo political) for mentoring programs across the state. On a local level, I tutor and mentor youth as part of the My Brother’s Keeper (MBK Collaborative) and support the 1300 Campaign, which launched in Sacramento to increase the number of boys and men of color going to college. I am also the Chairman of ASUCD’s DREAM Committee that provides basic needs resources for undocumented students on campus, including textbooks and supplies. Finally, my personal brainchild is the Dream STEM Initiative, funded by the Donald A Strauss Foundation, a virtual boot camp where young people and AB540 folks can learn coding skills from Undergraduate and Masters students.
It is imperative for youth to have a voice. There is a disconnection happening in that we are creating public policy around youth without their voice or input. A lot of the time, we, as youth of color, are involved with systems that negatively impact us, and are victims to punitive punishments and biases because of our skin color. If we are to get youth to college, we need to shift the responsibility from the youth, who are under the burden of a system not built for them, onto the system for removing the barriers to college. By becoming a mentor or joining the 1300 campaign, we can make this a reality.
Alejandro Galicia Cervantes is a Junior at UC Davis double majoring in Economics and Political Science and minoring in Community Regional Development, with an ultimate goal to end up in Congress.