Jamileh Ebrahimi is not a morning person, but she nonetheless wakes up at 6:30 am each day for a Farsi language class. It’s the only way the 23-year-old Middle East Studies major at UC Berkeley can go to school full time and work thirty-two hours as a community organizer. Ebrahimi is a regional director at Youth Together, an Oakland-based nonprofit that helps public high school students advocate for equal resources and violence prevention programs.
On this morning she sits at Cafe Milano, near campus. While students bustle around her, ordering coffee for what’s likely their first class of the day, Ebrahimi is wide awake at her computer, answering work e-mails. “After a while you get used to it,” she says with a smile. “Now I even get up early on weekends.”
Between going to classes and studying, Ebrahimi oversees high school student clubs at six East Bay schools across Oakland, Berkeley and Richmond. She meets with student leaders on each campus, teaches them how to recruit new members, grow as community organizers and help spark policy changes at the local level. She also helps run annual youth summer programs. “A lot of students feel like they’re the only ones experiencing their problems,” she says of why her work is important. “So we’re able to show [them] that these conditions are broader than just their school.”
Ebrahimi knows firsthand the benefits of the organization. She began working with Youth Together almost a decade ago, as an eighth grader at Oakland’s Brett Hart Middle School, after one of the organization’s spokespeople recruited her for its annual summer program.
Fighting for Equal Resources
Conditions in California public schools have been in steady decline since voters passed Proposition 13 in 1978, a measure that severely limited funds to public schools across the state. By 2008 the state ranked forty-seventh nationally in per-pupil expenditures. This year, the 2009 California budget proposes reductions in kindergarten through twelfth grade education by $8.4 million over the next two years.
Youth Together started in 1996 as a student- and community-led effort to combat racial hostility in East Bay high schools. Despite the region’s diversity, racial tensions at many East Bay high schools had been on the rise. At Oakland’s Castlemont High School alone there were race-tinged fights on the first day of school every year between 1994 and 1998. There were also fights between Asian-American and Latino gangs at Richmond High in the spring of 1998 and an incident at Skyline the same year where a fender bender quickly turned into a heated brawl between black and Asian-American students.
The response was swift, as students, parents, teachers and community members from affected schools came together to talk to students and look for solutions. Among the solutions they came up with were early-morning workshops on conflict resolution and the Unity Weeks, which include lunchtime rallies, dances and painting multicultural murals–these are often attended by local politicians such as Congresswoman Barbara Lee and former Oakland mayor Jerry Brown.
That same year, then-University of California, Berkeley, researcher Pedro Noguera, who two years earlier completed a national study on reducing youth violence, conducted a favorable evaluation of Youth Together’s first year of operation. The study found an increased level of academic engagement–which included decreases in truancy and dropout rates–among youth leaders and fewer interracial fights among club members. The results helped secure funding to expand to other campuses, hire full-time staff and pay modest monthly stipends to students to help organize meetings on campuses.