Youth in California’s Central Valley are reclaiming region's activist roots
By David Washburn
Decades after civil rights icons Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta brought worldwide attention to the plight of farm workers in California’s Central Valley, a new generation of activists are making an impact in the region — with the focus now on the myriad issues facing young people and efforts to get them involved in civic affairs.
The issues — which include poverty, environmental justice, immigrant rights and the school-to-prison pipeline — are not new to the cities and towns that dot the Central Valley. But, with this year’s pivotal mid-term elections looming, groups are emphasizing youth voting and civic engagement with a vigor that was missing in years past.
“Our primary mission is to build an unapologetic youth movement across the Central Valley that encompasses year-round voter registration and voter contact,” said 28-year-old Crisantema Gallardo, who this year co-founded the youth rights organization 99Rootz.
The nonprofit start-up’s small staff primarily targets high schoolers who live in the low-income communities situated along state Route 99 between Bakersfield and Stockton. It is attached to Power California, a new statewide organization funded by the James Irvine Foundation, among others, that was created by the merger of the established voter outreach groups YVote and Mobilize the Immigrant Vote.
“We talked to 5,600 young people about registering to vote and the June primary election,” said Alicia Olivarez, Gallardo’s partner in 99Rootz. “By the November election we want to talk to another 10,000.”
In recent months 99Rootz has been working with UC Santa Cruz sociology professor Veronica Terriquez on a youth education and mobilization effort that they’ve dubbed the Central Valley Freedom Summer, a nod to the legendary 1964 effort to register black voters in Mississippi.
Among the highlights of this year’s Freedom Summer are nearly a dozen day-long “civic engagement” workshops (each in a different Central Valley town) that began in July and will run through mid-September. The events have drawn between 50 and 100 local students who were recruited on high school campuses and through social media.
At a recent workshop session inside a community center in downtown Atwater, Steven Mora, one of Terriquez’s students at UC Santa Cruz, paces around the room like a football coach giving a pre-game pep talk.
“Who can tell me the name of the person who represents Merced County in the U.S. Congress? Mora asks the more than two-dozen high school kids in the room. “Who’s your congressman!”
“Jim Costa,” answers a voice from across the room.
“Yes!” Mora said. “How many votes did he get?”
Mora and two other members of the Freedom Summer team continue with a 30-odd-minute lesson that covers the federal Voting Rights Act, voter turnout in recent elections and the power of local elected offices like city councils and school boards.
What’s different this time?
Terriquez, whose areas of specialty include grassroots organizing and political participation among immigrants, said sessions like this make her hopeful for the future. Yet, she acknowledges that the ultimate goals of the Freedom Summer — getting young people to show up and vote on Election Day — have eluded many youth organizing efforts in the past.
In 2014, the year of the last mid-term general election, voter turnout among California’s 18-24-year-olds who were eligible to vote was 8.2 percent. Overall turnout in the Central Valley has historically lagged statewide turnout. In 2014, for example, the counties of Fresno, Kern and Merced all had turnouts below the statewide turnout of 31 percent.
What’s changed since 2014, say Terriquez and many others, is the current societal upheaval — mainly brought on by the election of Donald Trump and his policies and behavior since taking office — that has mobilized youth to a large degree in a short period of time. They see many similarities to the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s, the last time young people had an outsized role in shaping public policy.
However, in addition to unique circumstances brought on by the Vietnam War and worldwide social change, the movements of the 1960s also featured strong leaders like Chavez and Huerta. Such leadership has been lacking in recent decades, as Central Valley communities with scant resources suffer from a persistent brain drain, Terriquez said.
“Kids from the Central Valley areas go off to college and often don’t come back,” she said. “As a result, there is a lack of qualified staff in these community groups who’ve been exposed to the type of organizing and civic engagement that happens on university campuses and places like L.A. and the Bay Area.”
This reality is what makes Gallardo and Olivarez so important. Both grew up poor in Central Valley towns that few can locate without Google Maps. Both spent their high school years wanting desperately to get out.
In 2001, when Gallardo’s father — at the time an undocumented factory worker — decided to move his family to Atwater from South Los Angeles, he told the then-11-year-old and her siblings they were going to a place where the air was fresher, jobs were more plentiful and the environment safer for kids.
“That’s not at all how it turned out,” Gallardo said.
He was fooled by the region’s big skies and wide open spaces, unaware he was moving his family to a place with air quality that ranks among the worst in the nation — and is most dangerous in the pesticide-laden farmland, the only place he could find work.
Then, in 2006, when Gallardo was 16, any illusions her family had of Merced County being safer for them than Los Angeles were shattered by the murder of her sister. The same year, her brother was sent to prison on drug charges.
That’s when a place Gallardo didn’t much care for became a place she hated. “I remember telling myself that I would leave Merced as soon as I could and never come back — I was done with it,” she said. “My friends and I called it ‘MerDead.’”
The 29-year-old Olivarez grew up in Sanger, a town just outside of Fresno. Her father worked construction and was more or less a single parent. Her mom, like many in her extended family, battled addiction and drifted in and out of her life.
“When I was 17, all I could think of was leaving,” Olivarez said.
The two ended up getting out — in a big way — by being accepted to UC Berkeley. But each suffered her own rude awakening at Berkeley, realizing they didn’t fit in with the children of privilege who make up a large portion of the student body.
Although they didn’t know each other during their undergrad years, Gallardo and Olivarez came to terms in similar ways with their hometowns. And both did something that would have been unthinkable to their teen-aged selves — they went back.
“I kept looking for a community that would accept me,” said Olivarez, who after graduating from Berkeley earned her master’s degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School. “But what I’ve learned through all these different institutions is that it’s about creating your own communities wherever you’re at.”
This hard-won lesson is what Olivarez hopes to impart to students like Johnathan Rangel, a junior at Parlier High School, which is located in the city by the same name in Fresno County. The 16-year-old said many of the people at his school can be “closed-minded” to issues beyond their personal lives and he’s enjoyed the opportunity to meet other youth at the Freedom Summer conferences who pay attention to the larger world.
“[At the conferences] I find people I can relate to and they understand the issues that matter to me,” Rangel said. “We all have this information and you realize your information can help others and vice-versa.”
Terriquez applauds Rangel and other youth for what they’ve accomplished through their networking at the conferences. And she was thrilled that Huerta, now 88, showed up to a conference earlier this month in Delano, a town just north of Bakersfield.
But she’s quick to acknowledge that proof of concept for the Freedom Summer will be the November election. “The election will be the litmus test to see if this strategy works and to what extent.”