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"Youth Organizing Tackles the "Racism You Can't Name","

by Julie Quiroz-Martinez November/December 2006 issue of Poverty & Race

The California High School Exit Exam provides a graphic illustration of structural racism and a compelling story of youth organizing to challenge it. California legislators passed the exit exam into law in 1999 with the stated goal of improving academic performance in public schools. This year, the exit exam’s real teeth were finally bared. Beginning in 2006, California schools are required to deny diplomas to high school seniors who don’t pass the exam. Not surprisingly, most students who fail are black and brown youth concentrated in the worst public schools. In fact, in what as known as the Williams lawsuit settlement (Williams v. State of California), the State of California acknowledged that these schools lack the books, qualified teachers and basic health and safety standards needed for a good education.

No one understands the exit exam implications better than students at Richmond High School, located in Richmond, California, a city with a population that is 36% Black and 27% Latino, and has an official poverty rate of 16%. Of Richmond High’s 345 seniors in 2006, 83 (24%) failed the exit exam. “The exit exam affects most of the student body, both Latinos and African Americans,” observes Raquel Jimenez, program director of Youth Together, an organization that facilitates youth organizing at Richmond and other high schools in the region.

It was students at Richmond High, therefore, who led a campaign to convince the county board of education to defy the law. “We started gearing up a few years ago,” recalls Jimenez, “as part of a statewide effort by Californians for Justice, a statewide grassroots racial justice organization. The work at Richmond High was part of a larger organizing and legal strategy demanding equal learning conditions for all students.” According to Jimenez, who began working with Youth Together a decade ago as a 22-year-old fresh out of college, a Richmond High student came up with idea of asking the school board to take a stand against the exit exam. “It was exciting to think about a school board engaging in civil disobedience. We thought it could be a really powerful example for other school boards.” Dave Brown, a sympathetic school board member, agreed to introduce such a resolution.

When the school board met in April 2006 to vote on the resolution, it faced intense local and even national media attention and a room packed with hundreds of students and parents. In the end, the school board voted down Brown’s resolution that would have granted diplomas to students completing an alternative “Senior Year Demonstration Project.” “We lost the vote,” concludes Jimenez, “but we succeeded in letting a mass of people know we weren’t asking for lower standards for students, but for schools to live up to higher standards. And we provoked really defensive remarks from the state superintendent of schools.” Jimenez sees this as “a battle of whose story is being told.” “It’s a struggle against racism that you can’t name,” she observes. “This society has defined racism as being about individuals. It’s not talked about as systemic.

The local work in Richmond is a critical piece of a larger strategy with a structural racism analysis at its core. Youth Together works closely with the lawyers who filed the suit seeking to block the exit exam on the grounds of unequal protection. In fact, Youth Together helped recruit students to serve as plaintiffs in the case (Valenzuela v. California State Board of Education) that is set to go to trial before the California Supreme Court as early as next year. While the legal challenge did not help the 83 Richmond High seniors denied diplomas this year, the battle continues.

“Young people can’t change the system by themselves,” Jimenez argues. “But young people have experience with schools, with prisons, with violence that reveals structural racism and mobilizes parents and other adults. We need legal strategies that reflect that analysis and organizing.” Mike Chavez of Californians for Justice underscores the need for grassroots organizing: “Even when we have a legal victory,” he observes, “it is the ongoing grassroots pressure and engagement that ensures implementation.”

The ongoing story of the California exit exam reveals some of structural racism’s key features:

  • Ostensibly “color-blind” public policies and institutional practices that serve to deepen chronic racial disparities in education.
  • A “level playing field” ideology that blames individual students for systemic failures.
  • Components of a powerful infrastructure that continues to lock people of color into low socioeconomic status.

Perhaps even more importantly, this story suggests that youth organizing provides a rich source of experience and leadership that is crucial for building a movement capable of bringing down the structures of racism. While Richmond High students did not succeed in changing county school board policy, their work is contributing to a larger regional and statewide infrastructure, putting out alternative media messages, and sparking bold ideas in other localities.

Two years ago, I worked on a report entitled Changing the Rules of the Game: Youth Development & Structural Racism. Through research, convenings, interviews and site visits, we uncovered a small but vibrant number of youth organizations seeking to apply a structural racism analysis in their work. Observing the work of these organizations, we came to the following conclusions:

1. Practitioners lack support for addressing structural racism issues they face in their everyday work.
Our preliminary scan of research and organizational descriptions suggested that racism and racialized outcomes received little explicit attention. But the youth organizations we subsequently met with and visited told a dramatically different story. For them, understanding and addressing racism was fundamental to their day-to-day youth development work and broader theory of change.

One youth organizer suggested that every organization working with young people—not just youth organizing groups—has a role to play in addressing racism:

    Even if a group is not doing collective direct action, youth need to know how different institutions function in order to survive day to day. Like in youth employment, they may tell you how to go to an interview. They may tell you “You can’t dress like that, you can’t act like that.” But do they then tell them what the research shows about discrimination? It’s like they’re saying, “It’s all on you.” They’re not telling them that there are institutional factors that determine whether they’re going to succeed. – Jeremy Lahoud, Generation Y, Chicago

Lahoud’s comment also suggests that even organizations that perceive themselves as “neutral” on the question of racism may in fact be perpetuating or contributing to the challenges youth face.

2. A keen analysis lies at the core of any structural racism approach.
Using different vocabulary and approaches, each group acknowledged, to varying degree, three defining features of racism:
  • History – present-day racism was built on a long history of racially distributed resources and racialized ideas that continue to shape our view of ourselves and others.
  • Hierarchy – racial categories and exclusions still determine the distribution of resources, power and opportunity.
  • Infrastructure – a broad range of policies and institutions sustain the history and hierarchy of present-day racism.

The core racial justice “practice” of these groups is the engagement of young people in critical examination of the root causes of the issues they face and solutions to the problems they experience. In a recent interview, Raquel Jimenez of Youth Together observed:

    Our workshops with youth members promote big-picture analysis. We do workshops on Proposition 13, which happened in 1978 and froze California property taxes and basically allowed the upper classes to refuse to pay for other people’s children’s education. We look at state funding of education and how the issue is not equal funding but funding targeted to schools that have been underfunded.

Along with an intense focus on analysis, many groups expressed an urgent need to create opportunities for youth to process deep and painful emotions regarding racism. Groups seeking to create opportunities for healing often described their approach as blending analysis with emotional exploration, viewing this intersection as critical for engaging youth who have been most pushed to the margins.

3. Collective action is key to understanding and addressing structural racism.
Because racism affects people as a group and not just individually, anti-racist approaches must also operate at the collective level. For example, Reggie Moore of Milwaukee’s Urban Underground describes how racism informs the way young people in UU’s after-school leadership development program shape their community action projects:

    The selection of civic participation projects is based on the personal connection or experience youth have with an issue based on their race. We have focused on Black voter turn- out, police-involved shootings, police in schools, and teen homeless, all looking through a racial lens.

Invariably, this collective action involves a highly developed participatory process of issue identification that acknowledges young people’s collective experience of racism. Our report found that not only do groups develop campaigns with a racial justice lens, but perhaps most importantly, they do so through a participatory process in which youth research, respond to and ultimately reframe issues that affect their lives.

4. Developing a structural racism approach requires specific and intentional organizational investment.

One of the most time- and resource-consuming aspects of maintaining a racial justice focus is the need to develop a shared political and racial justice analysis among staff and volunteers. Along with direct support to youth organizing groups, national and regional intermediaries are a key resource that can offer materials and training grounded in a well-developed racial justice analysis.

Raquel Jimenez agrees that investing in youth organizing is key: “Youth have knowledge that can inform strategy,” she maintains. “Youth are fearless. The question is when adults are going to become equally alarmed.”

Julie Quiroz-Martinez lives in Oakland, California, where she is co-principal of mosaic, a collaboration of consultants who assist organizations and foundations to develop new ideas, strategies and capacity for achieving racial and social justice.

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