Begin at the Beginning: New Merced Office Gears up to Listen and Learn

Our History

On Wednesday, February 28th, YLI will be expanding our offices for the first time in 14 years! This expansion celebrates the incredible work of YLI’s youth, communities, and staff over our 27 years to include youth voice in local decision-making.  The strength of our youth leadership programs in the San Francisco Bay Area and Fresno County have paved the way for healthy growth to new regions like Merced, where there is a need for more youth programming. Close ties with the Merced community through our Fresno office, and Training and Consulting Services made the city an ideal site for expansion.

Launching a thriving youth leadership program in a new city begins with listening to, and learning from, the local community. The youth and community of Merced have much to teach YLI about the opportunities currently available to them, and we are eager to meet people from all walks of life. We are thrilled to have brought two Merced residents — Program Coordinators Claudia Gonzalez and Jesse Ornelas — onto our team to help guide our local work.

For our part, YLI will be bringing our 27 years of experience and powerful, innovative programming to help young people develop their leadership skills. Critical to this work is shifting the narrative — among both youth and adults — about the value of youth participation and input in local power structures. Even in progressive cities teeming with youth programs like those in the Bay Area, YLI consistently encounters long-held perceptions that youth are uninterested in and have little to contribute to local politics. Jesse shares that “Young people and their opinions are not currently valued. Building relationships with elected officials, community leaders, and like-minded organizations is fundamental to changing this narrative and the access youth have to decision-makers and decision-making tables.”

One thing we have already heard is that neighborhood safety is top of mind among Claudia’s young participants. Young people are often primary targets of both gang and police violence, and the insights gained from their lived experiences and deep knowledge of their neighborhoods make them invaluable assets in finding solutions.

“It is so important simply to have a physical space for youth to gather and talk about the issues that are important to them,” says Claudia.

The new office will host a formal open house to celebrate YLI’s expansion and the power of Merced youth on February 28th from 5:30-7:30pmClick here for details and to RSVP!

Programs, serving youth ages 14-24, will include Boys & Men of Color and Joven Noble. Both programs will work to build authentic youth-adult partnerships, develop youth leadership skills, and build youth-led campaigns to advocate for policies that address critical issues in their communities.

For more information about our programs, visit or contact Jesse Ornelas at [email protected] or Claudia Gonzalez at [email protected].