It was 6:30pm on January 8th when Christina Garcia, 16, Collin Lee, 16, and Lily Vang, 17, all got the call for an emergency session at City Hall: “I was chilling on my bed,” Garcia said. “I had to drop everything. I grabbed my stuff and yelled to my mom as I headed out the door, ‘I’m off to fight again at City Hall!’” Lee said.
Their “fight” was over a liquor license upgrade for the A&M Market in West Fresno, which is located directly across the street from the Church of Jesus Christ of Fresno, the Trinity Church of God in Christ, and the Templo Bethel, where many children, youth and families go to worship. It’s within about a 1 mile radius from Edison High School. The upgrade would allow the market to sell hard liquor in addition to wine and beer.
“The upgrade violates the Responsible Neighborhood Market Ordinance,” explained Garcia. She and other youth leaders successfully advocated for the policy, which was passed with an unanimous vote in May of last year. The policy puts a cap on the number of liquor licenses that can be distributed in Fresno and establishes a 1,000 foot perimeter around spaces frequented by youth, like parks, community centers and churches.
Despite the clear interest of the Fresno community – which showed up en masse to support the Ordinance’s passage – to reduce youth exposure to alcohol, A&M Market moved forward with plans to apply for permits, bringing their case before the Planning Commission. Well aware of the powerful voice of yli youth leaders, they kept these plans under wraps. “We found out about the plan from Council member Miguel Arias just an hour before the Planning Commissioner meeting began,” said 17 year old Lily Vang, who testified alongside Lee. “When the store owners and commissioners saw us walk in, they all stood up in their chairs – they knew we knew what was up.”
The Drunkest City in America
Drinking is a major problem in Fresno – one that profoundly impacts the community and has touched the lives of all three young women. “Fresno is known as the drunkest city in the nation,” said Vang. DUIs and car crashes are a constant. Liquor stores and advertising abound in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, which are hit particularly hard.
In December of 2018, they were notified that 7-Eleven was planning to build a new gas station and market in the vacant lot at one corner of Roosevelt High. “It was a safety concern,” said Garcia. “We already have 35+ liquor outlets within a 1-mile radius of our school. It’s not safe to have big diesel trucks pulling up where kids are walking across the street.” Lee pointed out that the lot is also used by community members: “There are taco stands. People sell flowers. It’s where parents pick-up and drop-off their kids.”
Veteran organizers, the youth have built deep relationships – and even champions – on Fresno’s City Council, who told 7-Eleven they’d need to get their plan approved by the youth leaders. “When we said no, they rolled up their plans and stopped,” said Lee. That victory was the impetus for the Responsible Neighborhood Market Ordinance they advocated for in 2019. “We partnered with American Petroleum and Convenience Store Association,” said Lee. “We shared data points and got young people to tell their stories. By the time we got to the vote, the whole community was on board and came out to the meeting. And it passed with a 6-0 vote.”
Since then, it’s been press conference after press conference, and City Hall meeting after City Hall meeting. “At one point, we were going to something almost every day,” shared Garcia. In 2019, they conducted another round of the Fresno County Student Insights Survey to pinpoint how youth are obtaining alcohol. They found that “67% of young people are getting alcohol from a friend”, a college aged or young adult who is of age to purchase alcohol.
Based on this information, they developed the countywide “I Won’t Provide” Campaign – a pledge inviting college-aged youth to be part of the solution by drinking responsibly and refusing to provide alcohol for underage youth. They led a press conference at Fresno City College, and are working on a dissemination strategy to get the pledge on different college campuses and community events. They are still working on getting signatures, and the pledge can be accessed here for those who are interested.
Youth in the Lead
As they close in on the end of their high school careers, Vang, Lee and Garcia are looking to continue their leadership work in college. “I noticed that many City Council and state Assembly members have political science degrees,” said Garcia. “I’m thinking about getting into that when I hit college and continue working at yli.”
Lee has dreams of running for a seat on City Council or as mayor. “Maybe even for president one day!” he laughs. “I want to be that elected official that the youth are talking to.”
Vang is interested in a business degree. She’s incredibly proud of herself and the work she’s done at yli: “I wasn’t really that social when I began. I grew a lot in public speaking, and I now have the confidence to speak in front of a lot of people. I can finally tell my own story and be part of the positive change in Fresno, the city where I grew up.”