Meet five local teens whose passions are positively affecting their community.
“The young do not know enough to be prudent, and therefore they attempt the impossible—and achieve it, generation after generation.” – Pearl S. Buck
While the idea of a teen “acting out” traditionally espouses a negative connotation—runaways, drugs, parties, or gangs—there are teens who are currently standing up and acting out on behalf of their conscience.
Contrary to most news headlines, there are plenty of remarkable teens serving as progressive role models who are just plain getting a bad rap—soldiering on amidst all the stereotypes of 2010 teens that prefer to dwell on the depressing, the violent, or the discouraging.
While focus tends to remain on a videogame-obsessed legion of kids that could be labeled Generation X-Box, there’s also something to be said for the advantages of modern technology and how it’s utilized by modern youth. More than ever before, teens have worlds of information at their texting fingertips, with a plethora of outputs of information constantly surrounding them—all the i-things, TVs, computers and cell phones. And there are many kids now tapping into these modes of communication for research, support and strength as they fight for sundry causes.
Take notice of five local teens that captured our interest—they aren’t just taking things sitting down. Affiliated with pioneering youth organizations—Food, What?!, STRANGE, Watsonville Brown Berets, Jóvenes Sanos and PETA2, each doubles as student and teacher.
Though their concerns may be different, including healthy farming, gay rights, animal rights, and more, each teen is similar in their demeanor. As I met with them individually, I was surprised to find a common thread; they are rather mild in their speech, calm and contemplative. They listen and think before they talk. But don’t be fooled, while they’re not forceful or hurried in their tone, their words are potent. All are humble and genuinely devoted to affecting change in their communities, and most noticeably—regardless of background, economic standing or education—they each exude a sense of empowerment that’s quiet yet commanding.
Just as much as these teens are inspired, they are inspiring.
Organic Farming and Food Justice
Abel Johns calls his earliest days growing up on an Indian reservation in Nevada “the most unhealthy period of my life, which was the most important because I was really little and growing, when I needed to be well fed but I really wasn’t.” Today, the soft-spoken 17-year-old at Natural Bridges High School in Santa Cruz is standing at the forefront of the local youth movement advocating organic farming and healthy living. And he hopes to transfer all that he’s learned here, back to his Paiute tribe.
You could almost say that Abel has been an activist since the age of 3. His first memories of standing up for a cause began when his mom would take him to marches and rallies soon after he learned to stand (“I don’t remember what they were for, but I remember getting really tired because it was such a long walk,” he looks back and laughs). After his involvement in a sustainable agriculture class and garden at Natural Bridges High School, and continuing with his role in Food, What?!—a teen empowerment program run by UC Santa Cruz’s Life Lab Farm that teaches students how to grow, cook, eat, and distribute organic fare—Abel has spent the last year getting down and dirty in the world of sustainable farming. It’s changed his life and he’s committed to helping change other people’s lives.
“I remember being really small and not liking vegetables very much, but maybe I didn’t like them because I never had them,” Abel says. “It’s really important that low-income families and poor neighborhoods can have easily accessible organic food.” He adds, “You do organic farming because it’s great for the soil and everything around it. I also do organic farming for my community. If people have the opportunity, they will eat better and be healthier and have a healthy state of mind. And that in itself can help you with so many different problems within your life.”
Through his involvement with Food, What?!, Abel has harvested CSA produce for families living in the low-income Beach Flats community of Santa Cruz, has become a well-trained chef and caterer, and has helped to maintain gardens in local schools. He recently represented Santa Cruz County at the Rooted in Community National Conference in North Carolina this July and at the Bioneers Conference in San Rafael this October.
For a kid who says he was so devastatingly shy that he couldn’t even talk to anyone when he first came to Santa Cruz as a seventh grader, Abel has come a long way as a proponent of food justice—and he only plans to go further. “What usually motivates me is that things make me sad at first,” he explains, “then I try to think of different ways that I can help, and then I actually start talking to people to see what I can do. Then I get into it, and I just try to do as much as I can.”
He doesn’t just advocate while working on a project. His activism extends from the home garden he’s planted (“I don’t have too much land but I use what we’ve got. We have a lot of tomatoes right now that kind of took over,” he notes), to his daily conversation with peers: “A weird habit that I got from Food, What?! is I ask other students at my school what they ate for breakfast and if they ate breakfast—and people would say, ‘Oh, I had two Cokes and a donut.’ It was outrageous what they ate and it made me sad. I just try to motivate them and keep nagging so that maybe they’ll [eat better].”
So what did Abel have for breakfast on the morning of our chat? “Today I had eggs from the Food Bin with apple and Kashi cereal,” he says, before making sure to add, “organic eggs.”
After he finishes high school, Abel plans to go back to Nevada to instill a sense of healthy farming and healthy eating on his Paiute reservation. He says he’d like to implement a program similar to Food, What?!, in which there is hands-on training and education.
“Even though it’s a whole different environment in the desert, it’s still a very poor place with very unhealthy people that have the same tendency to buy unhealthy food because it’s cheap,” Abel says of the reservation. “I think I can do something there. It’s not engraved at all into the [reservation] culture to grow vegetables or fruits, and I feel that I can start by trying to bring that to them. I feel like, if not all of them, some of them will get something out of it. All I really want is to help and for other people to learn to help—and that it just keeps growing.”
Learn more about Food, What?! at foodwhatblog.blogspot.com.
LGBT Rights and Equality
Stories of anti-gay bullying against youth have barraged news headlines this year and each alarming gay teen suicide waves another red flag across the country. There’s no better time than now to have teens mentoring other teens on gay pride. So while homophobic politicians and Prop 8 supporters loudly espouse plenty of hate speech, there are people like Watsonville’s Kim Urzua bravely championing a safe—and fair—world for the LGBT community.
When Kim was a sophomore attending Watsonville High School, she realized that she didn’t want to just date guys. “OK, I’m kind of different from everybody,” she remembers feeling. After coming out as bisexual, she quickly became aware of the discrimination it can lead to.
“I started seeing how queer people are treated in high schools and different places,” she says, her rainbow necklace standing out against her black shirt. “I’ve witnessed bullying and harassment toward friends, and I’ve had harassment experiences when people would look at me and belittle me because of my ethnicity and my sexual orientation. It just makes me stronger and makes me want to fight more and tell everyone to fight harder, because we can do this. Just because we have a different sexual preference doesn’t mean we have to be treated differently.”
Now 18 and attending her first year at Cabrillo College where she plans to join the Gay-Straight Alliance and is leaning toward a career in counseling, Kim has established herself as a stalwart activist for gay rights. As the president of STRANGE (formerly the Queer Youth Alliance), she leads weekly meetings at Inner Light Ministries to provide a safe space for queer teens on Sundays from 5 to 8 p.m. STRANGE (“it’s not an acronym for anything, it’s about how we all possess a different quality within us that makes us strange from everyone else,” she explains) teaches about positive things going on around the county, takes teens to conferences and PRIDE marches, and (just last week) to the Youth Empowerment Summit put on by the Gay-Straight Alliance in San Francisco.
For low-income teens who couldn’t afford to attend conferences, Kim and fellow teen activists organized the first annual Serenity Out in the Open fundraising banquet this spring at Inner Light. Kim also helped to organize and co-MC’d the S.E.X.Y. (Safe Empowered X-traordinary Youth) Conference at Santa Cruz High School this April, and she is one of four recipients in the county of a 2010 Queer Youth Leadership Award.
While Kim was initially nervous to make a stance, after joining STRANGE she found the kind of comfort and guidance she needed to garner confidence. And that’s exactly what she aspires to do for other teens. Taking on such a public role for such a personal cause at a young age, Kim says “it comes back to my heart, my friends’ hearts, and the public’s heart. That part of me that knows how dear this cause is to me gives me energy to stand and be open about it, to talk about it and be a spokesperson.
“My message to people is, open your eyes and realize what’s around you and what’s happening—don’t just shelter yourself,” she begins. “Speak up because people are listening. People are there to help you out and stand there with you, and even though you might not notice, there’s always a helping hand and a safe space. You don’t have to be afraid.”
While sharing her own story and standing up for LGBT rights is something she feels more motivated to do than ever, Kim admits that it’s been challenging because of the toll it takes on her family. She says her mom “still doesn’t accept [that I’m bisexual] but knows in the back of her head that I’m not how she would want me to be; she doesn’t like it.”
I ask her if she’s nervous about this article. “Not really,” she says. “It’s nothing that [my mom] doesn’t know about and it’s nothing that anyone doesn’t already know about. I’m really open about my life and everything.
“I once felt that I couldn’t speak up in my community, but now I do. It feels great telling people that somebody’s there for you and there’s a safe space for you. Fighting for the cause and being an activist—I’ve really loved it since I started.”
Learn more about STRANGE at scccc.org/youth-services/services/lgbtiqq-youth.
Safe Farming and Social Justice
Sal Lua is the kind of person that’s hard to have a conversation with—someone is always interrupting by coming up to him to say hello. During our chat, fellow teens, the adult head of security at Watsonville High School, and Pajaro Valley Unified School District Board of Trustees member Karen Osmundson all gravitate toward the 18-year-old Watsonville Brown Beret with a sense of warm familiarity.
It’s no wonder why. With a quiet yet kind demeanor, Sal interacts easily with people of all ages and emanates a welcoming Yoda-like calm.
As the mellow soundscapes of The xx play through the radio at the Brown Berets’ headquarters that doubles as a co-op Bike Shack on Main Street, Sal, an artist and the lead mechanic at the helm of the spot, takes time away from training a high school volunteer to chat. Posters of Che Guevara, Malcolm X and Bob Marley hover overhead inside the Shack, while the outside wall is blanketed by the luminous colors of a vast mural depicting scenes of protest—all reflecting the Brown Berets role as a nonprofit organization open to the public to help resolve community issues and proactively mentor local youth.
The day before our talk, while most kids were doing their usual after-school wind-down, Sal, who attends Watsonville’s Academic Vocational Charter Institute, was speaking in front of the Watsonville City Council. The topic was no light matter. He was taking a stand against the controversial use of cancer-causing methyl iodide as a pesticide on local farms—and it was his third time doing so. Methyl idodide was just approved by the state Department of Pesticide Regulations as a substitute for methyl bromide.
As a science teacher for the Environmental Science Workshop at local elementary schools, for Sal, the controversy hits close to home. “A lot of the schools I teach at are right next to strawberry fields and other types of fields, and the field owner never sends notices to students when they’re going to spray methyl bromide, and now they want to use methyl iodide,” he says. “They never give any warnings; it gives you nose bleeds, it gives you headaches, and it just messes you up, especially if you’re a kid.”
As an older brother, the controversy hits right at home. Sal and his family live next to a strawberry field and the reality of chemical spray is in plain view. “When the fields are being sprayed, I tell my little brothers to go inside and to not go outside until the wind calms down, because it’s also the drift that affects us too,” he explains. “My mom doesn’t know about this, my brothers don’t know about it; the community isn’t informed and it doesn’t know it’s in danger so they don’t react to it. That’s what we try to do in Brown Berets, inform the community.”
Since his involvement with the Brown Berets began this spring, Sal has helped organize marches (like the annual Peace and Unity march against gang violence) and protests, has consistently spoken at city council and school board meetings, and has educated himself and others about serious local issues. He was part of the movement to bring higher paying industrial jobs to Watsonville, speaking to the city council in support of the Manabe-Ow business park development that was recently approved. And he’s a dedicated worker who uses his role as a science teacher and Bike Shack mechanic to promote green living while giving others the chance to take advantage of the opportunities he’s embraced. “When we hire people at the Bike Shack I look for people at risk, like gang members or kids on their way to being a gang member,” he says.
“Different kids have different outlets,” Sal states. “My outlet is working on bikes and art, and the Science Workshop is more experience for me because teaching is what I want to do for most of my life. Some kids find an outlet in video games or watching television, or drawing and painting, everybody’s different. But if other kids don’t find something better than being in a gang, then that’s what they’re going to stick to.”
Sal admits that he knows what that’s like. Far from his current reality, during his middle school years he found friendships and refuge as a gang member. “Personally, I’ve been in more than one gang and I had a really strong bond with the people in it,” he begins, “but when I got into freshman year gangs got too crazy and everybody started fighting, so I got out of that and was doing my own thing for a while. Then I found the Brown Berets, and that’s my outlet right now.”
Learn more about the Watsonville Brown Berets at brownberets.info.
Restaurant Ordinance for Healthy Eating
Having just mailed out her college applications, 17-year-old Elvira Guerrero says she hopes to pursue a career in the medical field or criminal justice. Considering her efforts this year with the youth health advocacy group Jóvenes Sanos, under the wing of the United Way and Go for Health!, the Watsonville High School senior is right on track.
In response to the fact that more than 30 percent of Watsonville youth are obese, Elvira and her teen cohorts in Jóvenes Sanos (Spanish for “Healthy Youth”) have been working tirelessly to examine, educate about and enforce healthy eating in local restaurants. In October they recently helped to pass a landmark restaurant ordinance that mandates new rules for restaurants applying for building permits in Watsonville. Offering water, serving smaller portions of food, placing salad dressing on the side and providing healthier snack alternatives are some of the actions the ordinance advises incoming restaurants to take.
“There are simple things restaurants can do to their food, like not process it as much, make it healthier and still have good ingredients and nutrition,” Elvira explains. “The food ordinance is to make restaurants a little healthier for everyone. Since we live close to a school and it’s an open campus, we see that a lot of people tend to buy what’s in the restaurants and if they are able to make portions smaller people wouldn’t tend to eat as much as they do.”
Elvira, who was raised on a farm in Michoacán, Mexico by parents who work in agriculture, is no stranger to eating right. So, when she moved to Watsonville at the age of 8, watching others feast on a diet of American fast food was a shock. “We [raised] our chickens, we had fresh milk that we could buy from our neighbor, and everything was fresh,” she says of her childhood. “My parents never took us to fast food, that was out of the question because everything was fresh and natural. Coming here to Watsonville, I saw a dramatic change from what I was used to and I still haven’t gotten used to the fast food thing.”
Heightening a sense of urgency, Elvira and her team of teen advocates learned about the extreme rate of childhood obesity in Watsonville and the problems correlated with processed, fatty foods.
She desperately wants to help, she says, because “my grandma has diabetes, my parents have a history of diabetes and I know I don’t want to be a part of that. I don’t want other children to suffer. I know people my age or younger that have diabetes and I want to make that change to make my community better.”
Hitting the streets to talk with local markets, restaurants, and community leaders, the teens in Jóvenes Sanos had meetings with outgoing city council member Antonio Rivas, administrators in charge of school food and representatives from Go For Health!—keeping up a progressive dialogue for more than a year, until the ordinance was passed. The team also surveyed restaurants to collect feedback on the proposed ordinance to make sure it set standards that, according to Elvira, “are not irrational and are capable of being done.”
Despite even meeting opposition from a representative of the California Restaurant Association, who came up from Los Angeles to argue against the ordinance at a Watsonville City Council meeting, Guerrero engaged the city council and the public with her own plea promoting better nutrition. She won.
“I feel like I have a voice,” Elvira smiles. “Being part of Jóvenes Sanos, I see that I can do a change in our community instead of thinking ‘I wish this could change but I feel like I can’t do anything about it.’ I now feel like I can change something that I don’t want.”
When all the hard work paid off and the ordinance was approved, Elvira excitedly called her parents, who are working in Mexico, to tell them the news. “I was proud that I did something for children in the future,” she begins, “and it made me feel good that my parents told me I was doing things that many people would not do.”
Learn more about Jóvenes Sanos at unitedwaysc.org.
Animal Rights and the Environment
Beau Broughton wants to make one thing clear: “Animal rights activists aren’t just crazy people throwing red paint on fur coats.” The Felton teen, now attending his first semester at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, has done well to prove his point.
Because of his dedication to peaceful activism while attending San Lorenzo Valley High School, this spring the 18-year-old was awarded a Libby (short for “liberation”) Award by PETA2, the youth branch of the international animal rights organization. Beau was given the nod over 175,000 fellow PETA2 activists.
It all started because of a book. During his sophomore year in high school, Beau read Santa Cruz writer Erik Marcus’ “Vegan: The New Ethics of Eating.” After being inspired by Marcus’ insights and watching a PSA on MTV about the treatment of dairy cows on modern factory farms, he researched and decided it was time to change his diet.
“I definitely felt a sense of shock and I felt ‘How had I not known this and how had I continued to support this for all these years?’” Beau remembers. “I felt betrayed by society. I felt a sense of remorse that this was going on and that I was supporting [the meat] industry that was conflicting with my values. The book talked about the environmental impact of livestock production, as well as the health aspects as well. I saw that this was an industry I no longer wanted to support and began to stop consuming animal products.”
Changing his own eating habits was just the beginning. While he worked to transform his private life and home around his beliefs (“It can be hard not to eat Grandma’s lasagna, people take it personally,” he says), he would go on to be a vocal activist in the greater community.
Sensing a need to answer questions and dispel misconceptions, Beau started the Animal Rights Club at his high school so that fellow students had a place to learn about animal rights issues. The club hosted vegan lunches and guest speakers each week, and instituted an “Adopt-A-Turkey” Day in collaboration with Saturn Café to donate proceeds to a Farm Sanctuary in Northern California that tends to hundreds of animals and promotes an alternative choice to the typical Thanksgiving meal.
After January’s Haiti earthquake, Beau spearheaded vegan bake sales to raise money for those devastated by the natural disaster. Raising $200, he says he wanted to show that “animal rights activists care about humans as well, because there’s a stereotype that animal rights activists care more about animals than humans.”
Despite having grown up going to the circus and rodeo every year with his grandparents, in his teens, Beau made a concerted effort to stay far away from both events—until he decided to protest at them. This summer he demonstrated at the Salinas Rodeo and for the past two summers he’s headed to San Jose to hand out fliers and educate about the negative aspects of what he feels is the Barnum & Bailey not-so-greatest show on earth. There, he says, “people don’t realize that the elephants are beaten, chained up, separated from their mothers at a young age to be trained. It’s a brutal process. The circus is a fun place to go to but it’s not fun when you find out about the cruelty and the abuse that goes on backstage.”
Beau says one of his proudest achievements was when he and his friends banded together with community members in a rally throughout Downtown Santa Cruz for the International Day of Climate Action last October. Leading a march from the Santa Cruz Wharf to the town clock on Pacific Avenue, brandishing kazoos and signs, he and his team were making a statement as the UN climate conference was about to hit Copenhagen. “We were there to show our politicians that there was support for fair and binding climate policies,” he says. “We were really taking charge of something and showing that teenagers can be activists.”
Having recently celebrated his fourth vegan Thanksgiving dinner—“traditional Tofurkey,” vegan cupcakes and all—Beau is now on his way to becoming an environmental science major and sees himself continuing in the nonprofit sector. He’s confident that he’s not the only one.
“I think anything that people can do to disprove the stereotypes about teens these days is a step in the right direction,” he says. “Teens are getting interested in the world around them and looking beyond themselves, and it’s a great thing to devote a part of your life to making the world what you want it to be.”
For more information on PETA2, go to peta2.com.