In high school, lecture notes were projected onto a screen, and dotted with blanks for the students to fill in. “It was as though we couldn’t write the notes ourselves,” reflected Nailea Lazarit, who is now a freshman at Fresno State University. She believes that young people’s sense of competence and ability is deeply shaped in school, since that is where they spend most of their time.
Lazarit joined YLI in her freshman year in high school to improve in public speaking. It was just the skill she felt she needed as an introverted young woman who dreamed of working with people through a career in medicine. When her friends put on a teen summit, a gathering of youth from across the city to discuss community issues, she was intrigued: “They were kids, yet they were doing all of these amazing things.”
In her second year with YLI, Lazarit became involved in the Smoke-Free Parks campaign. The youth conducted a photo-voice project, taking pictures as they toured the City of Kerman, and discussing the issues they observed. This powerful activity works to build awareness, drawing attention to problem areas within communities as well as disparities between them. The activity disrupts the deadening effects of normalization, sparking discussions of social justice and equity. “Before, we would walk around or walk by stuff. But now, when I see things, I’m aware of what’s dangerous. I notice all of the advertisements, they are always in our faces,” said Lazarit. “The more we become aware of things, the more we are willing to work to change the way things are.”
Based on these discussions, the youth came up with 6 solutions to make their community better, cleaner and safer. One of these was the tobacco and smoke-free parks campaign. The 2-year project started with park clean-ups. Justina Felix, a partner from the American Lung Association (ALA), provided the equipment and counted 2,500 cigarette butts collected by the youth. “If you’re not really looking, sometimes we don’t notice, we don’t pay attention,” said Felix. “The youth were surprised at how much tobacco litter items there were. They didn’t realize how much of an issue it was, and shared their concerns with regards to having family members, pets ingesting the items.” In all, they picked up close to 2,500 cigarette butts, which were brought in large mason jars to City Council as visual evidence of the damage being done.
The youth collected public opinion surveys at local events, and endorsement letters from parents, neighbors, church members, and teachers. They also studied members of City Council – who they are and how they vote – in order to prepare their presentations. Lazarit and other YLI youth then met with the City Manager, the Chief of Police, and the Recreation Community Services Commission to present their data. “I was nervous at first because they were people from the City and they had titles,” said Lazarit. “Their reviews and their compliments really boosted my confidence.”
On October 19,2016, Lazarit presented at city hall. By that time, she was completely at ease. “To see them speak about an issue that was near and dear to their hearts – this is their community, their families go to these parks on the weekend – there are no words to describe it,” said Felix. “To see them so dedicated and so passionate, speaking to their council members, it was so powerful to witness that and observe it.”
The final step was to draft an ordinance in order to avoid unnecessary delays. In a strange contrast with her high school classroom, Lazarit and other YLI youth pieced the policy together from similar policies so that City Council wouldn’t have to do it themselves. On November 2nd, City Council voted to institute the ordinance and the first sign was posted, with a celebratory ribbon-cutting in June of this year.
“It took us 2 years, it was not something that happened overnight. It wasn’t a quick win, instant gratification,” said Felix. There were moments of frustration, but it was worth the wait. “YLI did an amazing job getting the youth to understand the importance of the process, giving us a much better chance of winning rather than going in a rush. The youth were prepared to speak on data and results. In the end, it was a success.” For Lazarit, it was a life-changing experience, not only in public speaking, but in developing a deep sense of self and her capacity for making change: “YLI didn’t treat us like kids, they saw us as young adults, and they saw the potential that we had to be something more than just kids.”