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 eightth 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.
A core element of Youth Together’s programs since 1998 has been its summer programs, which Ebrahimi once attended and at which she now teaches. In addition to trainings, the summer programs also have a political-education component that Ebrahimi thinks is missing for many students of color in low-income public schools. Students learn about historical figures from their own communities, such as Dolores Huerta of the United Farm Workers, Malcolm X and the Puerto Rican nationalist Young Lords Party.
As the daughter of an Iranian-American father and African-American mother, Ebrahimi has always had a vested interest in racial justice. “There’s a critical need to re-address our histories,” she says of the importance of ethnic studies in her work. “One way that we see students being interested in school is by learning their own–and each other’s–histories and seeing [themselves] in their education.”
By the time Ebrahimi entered Oakland’s Skyline High School during Youth Together’s second full year of operation, she had begun organizing with other students for an on-campus, after-school youth center. Skyline had over 2,000 students. And while the school was located in an exclusive section of the Oakland Hills, most of the students were bused in from low-income communities of color in the area known as “the flats.”
The students advocated for resources they knew existed in more affluent public schools–after-school tutoring, college transfer assistance programs, and arts and culture programming. In addition, the students asked for a conflict resolution team, made up of a coordinator and trained students to mediate the fallout of student fights and offer an alternative to the often-used, largely ineffective suspensions of students.
Ultimately, they received their demands, but for two years Ebrahimi worked with Youth Together to conquer the fears of the affluent neighboring homeowners association, which Ebrahimi remembers warned that the center would be a “holding cell for criminals.” Despite the racist undertones of the opposition, the students gained the support of the Oakland City Council, which agreed to help fund the project. The center opened in 2002. “It showed us the power…we had as individuals in our community, and bringing resources into our community,” she says.
After decades of institutional neglect, Ebrahimi knows that changing the structure of public education will be a long process, but she remains optimistic. “We have to have faith in our communities,” she says. “The reality is that even with the stimulus money, conditions in our schools aren’t going to get better any time soon, but there’s a host of people–from students to organizers to legislative [officials] who are working to make things better.”
There have been small victories. Last November, Ebrahimi worked on behalf of Youth Together with the Organize Da Bay Coalition, an alliance of grassroots youth organizers, to successfully pass Oakland’s Proposition OO. Known officially as the Oakland Fund for Children and Youth Act, the proposition doubled city funding for a vast array of violence-prevention youth programs in Oakland. Although the measure is under review by the City Council to be repealed due to budget cuts, it remains an important turning point for youth advocates and activists in Oakland.
Ebrahimi hopes that college and high school students across the nation will be inspired by the successful Youth Together model and replicate it in a way that works on behalf of local communities. Ebrahimi also suggests that high school students, their friends and parents should join their School Site Council–a committee of elected teachers, parents and students who work with the principal to develop, review and evaluate school-improvement programs and school budgets. After all, it’s those impacted by schools on a day-to-day basis who can help make some of the best decisions.