California is a state characterized as one of the nation’s most diverse populations, coupled with a vibrant workforce, economy and democracy. In the battle against inequalities across the state, intergenerational collaboration is key, especially when it comes to reaching Californians in underserved areas. That is why the Young Leaders Advisory Council, on behalf of California Forward, is fearlessly working to ensure that our democracy serves a California for all where young leaders across the state are included in the policy-making process and participate in policy development.
As part of California Forward’s Building Equitable Economies webinar series, the work of the Young Leaders Advisory Council will be highlighted in a March 25 virtual event, “CA FWD Young Leaders.” The discussion will be centered through a racial-equity lens on three topics: mental health, climate change and education. This talented group of students and early growing professionals from all around the state bring a multiplicity of ideological, regional and cultural perspectives. They have contributed to generating policy priorities illustrated in the Young Leaders Advisory Council Call to Action, a blueprint that respects the intricacy of the inequities faced today and tangible policy actions to be considered. The following Q&A is a glimpse of the three topics that will be discussed during the webinar.
Stephanie Estrada, YLAC Member: As the Young Leaders Advisory Council is working to reimagine the built environment, what does facing inequity head-on look like when considering the interconnectedness of mental health, climate change and education?
Isaac Alferos, Orange County, YLAC Member, Executive Director, Black + Brown Healing Project: California has a history of color-blind policies that, though intended to correct existing disparities in a way that is fair, oftentimes ignore or widen existing gaps. This is seen through the repeal of Affirmative Action, the inaccessibility of quality health care, and industrial zoning in communities of color.
Facing inequity head-on is a challenge to implement policy solutions that aim to confront the disproportionate impacts on existing communities of color and low-income communities. We know that poor mental health caused by environmental degradation limits educational success and that limited educational success can limit college accessibility, further limiting upward economic mobility and creating a cycle where communities become trapped in unhealthy environments with little to no support.
In this way, facing inequity also means that we recognize that our communities live at the intersection of varying policy focuses and solutions come from working within those intersections.
Estrada: COVID-19 has uncovered pre-existing cracks in our mental health system especially for underserved individuals. What role does cultural and socioeconomic standing play in the service gaps seen today in our mental health system?
Lawson Hardrick III, Imperial Valley, YLAC Member – Mental Health & Resource Equity: There is no question as to how the pandemic has shed light on how underserved individuals are at a higher risk for being unable to access mental health services. It is important to note that I am from Imperial County, a historically underrepresented rural county in California that is designated as an area of poverty due to a poverty rate exceeding 20%.
In fact, a vivid picture I can paint is through sharing with you what my local satellite SDSU campus’ student enrollment looks like. Students at my campus are 70% women, 90% Latinx, 95% of the entire enrollment is eligible for the federal Pell Grant, and 92% are underrepresented minorities (URM), whereas in San Diego, the number is around 37%.
We asked our students some very important questions because as student body president this academic year, I wanted to play a big role in listening as best as possible to help to address basic needs, such as mental health. For 60 years, since my campus’s existence, it has not been able to offer counseling services on-site. I believe this is a huge disservice to students and not surprisingly, mental health counseling was rated as one of the highest services students desired here. Unfortunately, this data highlights how these conditions may be mirrored throughout other rural California counties. If I could dream big, every institution of higher education should be required to have mental health counselors on-site whether it is a satellite campus or traditional campus.
Estrada: Conversations surrounding the impacts of climate change have intensified over time, especially the call to elevate the voices of young people to protect the future of our planet. What structures should be in place today to raise social awareness of the risk and realities of climate change?
Ellinor Arzbaecher, Sacramento, YLAC Member – Climate Change & Environmental Justice: Though climate change is often discussed as a distant issue, the reality is that the effects of global warming can be directly and intensely felt today. With misinformation rampantly spreading and environmental issues often regarded as opinions rather than facts, it is vital to promote widespread climate education. Though there are many diverse methods of raising social awareness, as a recent high school graduate, I am well-aware of our lacking K-12 climate education.
It is our responsibility to not only educate youth on the present and projected risks and realities of climate change, but also provide spaces to develop innovative solutions. Young people shouldn’t have to consult the internet or social media in order to educate themselves on global issues that will impact their futures. We need to be there providing reliable and comprehensive information from the get-go.
Estrada: As students across California are struggling to keep focused on their education, what are some innovative practices in K-12 and higher education that help close equity gaps and what factors play a role in deciding access to these opportunities?
Maxwell Johnson, Sacramento, YLAC Member – Higher Education & Workforce Development: Our society claims to value knowledge and experiences as the merit for someone to speak on an issue or policy. Yet, when issues regarding our youth are brought to the table, it is their voice which is silenced and replaced with the outdated opinions and perspectives of legislators who haven’t been connected to student issues in decades.
In order to keep students engaged we have to provide them the opportunities to directly influence their educational outcome. In the midst of a pandemic and operating in an entirely virtual environment student engagement is at an all time low. By providing students with virtual spaces to discuss and work on issues that they care about, we can easily increase student engagement across the education system. Additionally, providing opportunities such as dual enrollment for students in high school to be able to pursue and advance their educational interests and challenges allows students to manifest their dreams of higher education.
It is important to address the inequity gaps that have emerged in this pandemic. By continuing to increase the access to scholarship opportunities that pay for the real cost of college, we can ensure that students who have suffered from financial distress are not dissuaded from wanting to continue to pursue their education.
Estrada: Why now is it so critical to amplify the voices of youth today to enhance the intergenerational approach to the policy-making process?
Michael Wiafe, Inland Empire YLAC Member – Higher Education, Racial & Digital Equity: With our society progressing faster than ever before in the way that we interact with the world, young people have a particularly unique perspective on policy. Whether it is growing up with technology, an out-of-touch education system, rising costs of homeownership and higher education, young people are inevitably the primary recipient of the compounding effects of decisions that are being made today.
Amplifying the voices of young people ensures that this perspective remains part of the conversation when thinking about issues that will eventually land on our shoulders. Intergenerational problems require intergenerational solutions and the reality is that young people are hardly represented in positions of power, and hence usually get the shortest end of the stick when it comes to these policy decisions. Young people have an acute understanding of the way topics like technological advancement, social equity, and representative democracy are currently affecting the future leaders of the country and should be part of the solution for a better future.
For the first time in the youth space, mental health, climate change and education will no longer be mutually exclusive, this Q&A is just the start of a critical discussion. The Young Leaders Advisory Council will focus on equity and speak about roadmaps to recovery that will build a California that is welcoming for all. Join this webinar to hear how the Young Leaders Advisory Council is helping move California forward.
Stephanie Estrada is a member of the CA FWD Young Leaders Advisory Council and earned her Bachelor of Arts from San Diego State University in International Security and Conflict Resolution, alongside a minor in Spanish. She currently works as a Community Representative for the Office of the Mayor of San Diego and is passionate about educational equity and exploring coffee shops during her leisure time. She is committed to seeing racial minorities and undocumented students thrive and is excited to continue learning how to make educational institutions more inclusive spaces.