“Social change really hit me right before the election…There is no longer a neutral.”
Karina Gamez, 16, knew she had to do something after the November presidential election last year. She had learned about payday lending when YLI staff made a presentation on economic justice at Oceana High School. This predatory financial practice targets low-income people of color, offering small loans with minimal requirements. With only 2 weeks to pay back the loans, lendees are often caught in a vicious debt cycle, forced to take out additional loans to cover exorbitant interest rates.
Gamez and other YLI youth began to conduct community research, finding that most people in their community supported capping the number of payday lenders that could operate in the county.
Then Gamez learned that her own family had been a victim of payday lenders. Last July, her father took out a payday loan to cover rent and fees for his work permit. It took him and his family a year to get out debt. “It ignited something in me. Something changes, something clicks, all of the sudden your work gets so much more powerful. I’ll do anything for my family. When community organizing gets personal, it adds a level of power, and makes your work better,” said Gamez.
She and other YLI youth presented to the Progressive Alliance, and met with City Council members to identify a champion. They worked with Community Legal Service to develop language for an ordinance to ban new payday lenders from establishing within city limits, which was presented to City Council in July of this year. On November 6th, the City Planning Commission approved the ordinance, and the youth are rallying the community to urge City Council to pass the bill into law by the end of the year.
The work has required a great deal of public speaking, and many YLI youth leaders have indicated that learning to prepare and confidently speak on the issues that matter to them are among the greatest skills that they have cultivated at YLI. Says Gamez: “I’ve grown to look past my fear of City Council and make my voice heard as a citizen of Pacifica.”
A critical piece of YLI’s work in partnership with youth is recognizing what youth have to offer now – not just as “future leaders.” Gamez declares that “Youth view is refreshing – new, exciting and effective – something that adults can’t see.” Young people are keenly aware of the issues impacting their communities and often have innovative solutions unburdened by years of entrenched concepts and values. Their voices and leadership are essential in the struggle for social justice right now.
As this campaign comes to a close, Gamez is already thinking about where to focus her efforts next, and it is nothing less than the hottest issues in the Bay: affordable housing. She points out that this “a root cause about why people are going to pay day lenders…If we addressed that, we’d see a difference in who is taking out loans.” She knows what it is to be a leader: “A leader is someone who represents people who can’t speak for themselves…I want to pursue this leadership role in my school and beyond school. Being a representative of not just of our school, community but of society.”