Cultura, Organizing, Resistance and Action (CORA), Merced’s first-ever youth leadership academy was held last month over the course of two weekends. A diverse group of 12 young people — including several system-impacted and foster youth — attended from schools in the towns of Merced and Atwater. The majority had never participated in this kind of program, whose topics included the foundations of social justice; a history of social movements like Black Lives Matter, the Black Panthers, the Chicano Movement, and how they connect to the present moment; organizing and advocacy basics; and leadership development.
Key among the objectives was to help participants articulate the issues that they have been experiencing in their communities — and to begin envisioning a campaign for community change.
One youth participant, Citlali Haro, a 17-year old student at Atwater High School, shared how she came to be involved in CORA — and where her leadership work is taking her next.
My dad is really into politics. My sister, too. She helped me realize some things about oppression, about how differently immigrant families are treated, about their struggles. Both of my parent are immigrants from Juchipilas, Zacatecas, Mexico — my grandparents still live there. My dad is a trucker and my mom takes care of the family.
It took awhile for me to find the revolution inside me. I began finding out about a lot of things that weren’t right. The issues faced by migrant families, police brutality. I believe that everyone is equal, and my goal is to treat everyone equally, not by the color of your skin.
Then March for our Lives happened, and I decided it was time to stick up for what I believe in. In my school, there had been 5 lockdowns in first year, tons of threats. It was scary. School is supposed to be a safe place. During the rally, Claudia (YLI Merced’s Program Coordinator) saw me standing there. She walked up to me and started telling me about Girls & Women of Color. I decided to check it out, and connected with a lot of women who have different problems — we talked about our struggles, what we’ve been through. We quickly became a family, and began figuring out what it is we wanted to work on.
We started going to school board meetings and became very involved in the fight against sexual harassment in the school district. The result was that an official protocol for sexual harassment was mailed out to all students and families in the district. We really accomplished something.
When I heard about CORA, I felt like it was a way to take my leadership a step further. It was a really great experience. I learned new things about different types of oppression, and how to become an activist. My favorite activity was the Privilege Walk, where players are asked to take a step forward for each privilege they experience. It was eye-opening about the hard times young people experience, and how they STILL show up to do the work. That was the biggest lesson for me: No matter where you stand, you can always make a difference. It doesn’t matter about your background — it matters what you do now.
By the end of the program, we came up with a goal — we decided that what our community needs is a center where kids can go. In my town, you have to pay to be in sports, so not a lot of people have this opportunity. We need somewhere where people can go if they want to, so we started looking at possible ways to get the money. At the same time, over-policing is a huge problem in the county — it’s not necessary to have so many police officers. We decided we’d work on redirecting funds from the police to a center that would help to keep kids active.
I left the academy feeling a strong attachment to everyone who had participated. For me, leadership is about motivating people to fight for what they believe in, if there are a lot of people telling them that they can’t. To be the voice for the ones that don’t have one.
On August 9th, the group met again to discuss their campaign. They decided on a name for their advocacy group, Merced Youth Neighborhood Enhancement (MYNE), and are planning to meet monthly to build their campaign to redistribute funds from law enforcement to youth activities and safe spaces. Stay tuned!
CORA would not have been possible without the support of our community partners: Merced Building Healthy Communities, Greater Merced Chamber of Commerce, J&R Tacos, Soldavi Realty, Merced Youth Connect — thank you!