Students search for solutions
Learn about economy in fact-finding tour
By CYNTHIA MORENO / Vida En El Valle
(Published Tuesday, July 19th, 2011 10:40AM)
FRESNO -- While some students are riding the wave of the economic meltdown, others are looking to find solutions to the problem -- even if they have to use their entire summer vacation to do it.
"These are very interesting times. We are witnessing a rise in injustices and political structures that are failing us," said Maira Pérez, 15, a sophomore at Kentlake High School in Kent, Wash., who visited Fresno last week.
Pérez and 40 other students are traveling to cities in the western United States, including in California, Oregon and Washington, to learn about the localized effects of the economic crisis.
The 13-member group made a pit stop in Fresno as part of its tour, meeting with various community leaders and organizations.
"Fresno definitely has a different set of problems that set it apart from other parts of the state that we have visited so far," said tour participant Stephanie Martínez, 21, a graduate of Oakland's Castlemont High School.
Pérez and Martínez decided to forgo their summer fun to tour 11 cities in California that are suffering because of the economy. The tour, which kicked off in early June, is expected to last through mid-August.
The two were selected in the spring to represent their communities as part of a collaboration between the Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Center of Oakland and the Institute for Community Leadership of Seattle. They are gathering people's stories about the effects of the economic crisis.
Along the way, the students have had many eye-opening experiences.
"One of the first things we noticed is that Fresno is a very diverse community and that most of the issues here appear to be affecting the youth the most," Pérez said.
Among their observations, they said, is that Fresno has unusually high teen-pregnancy and high school dropout rates, as well as high poverty levels.
When they visited with members of Barrios Unidos, a nonprofit organization in Fresno, they learned that few programs help people in those three categories.
"It seems as if the economic crisis has become somewhat of an excuse to cut programs that help those who need help the most, like women, the poor and the hungry," Pérez said.
As the group's youngest member, Pérez said she understands a life of struggle.
Her farmworker parents fled their native Michoacán, México, for a better life in the United States but faced discrimination and racism, despite their willingness to succeed in the country. Pérez said the injustices she observed while growing up motivated her to take part in the tour.
"I noticed that my parents had bad wages despite how hard they worked," Pérez said. "I knew that they were working under terrible conditions. They had no water, no shade and no rights. They were overworked, and they never complained because they were committed to making the best living they possibly could so they could provide for my family. This was a strong motivating factor for me to go out there and fight against racism, inequality and injustice."
Visiting Fresno inspired similar feelings in Martínez but more specifically about education.
"I grew up in a part of Oakland where 85 percent of the students drop out for various reasons," she said. "We have a broken education system there. These students wind up dropping out because there is not a program in place that focuses on their success, and there are not enough people there or resources to help guide them, so they can graduate out of high school successfully. That is why so many can't contribute to our economy and why so many don't end up going to college."
Pérez and Martínez said they've noticed that many people seem focused on their individual problems and how to fix them rather than on problems affecting everyone.
"People need to realize that they are not living in a vacuum and that what is affecting them and their families is the exact thing that is happening to their neighbor and the person who works down the street," Martínez said. "This economy is affecting everyone, and we should all try to work together to bring about some viable solutions."
Pérez said many people in her hometown in Washington are unaware of the economic crisis at a national level.
"They just don't know what is happening outside our community," she said. "It's almost as if they want to ignore those problems because they will magically disappear. We need to confront these very serious problems and start taking the immediate steps to restructure."
Another group participant, Jabari LaChaux, 17, agreed.
"When you leave your own hometown, you are very aware of what is going on that's wrong there, and you have an idea of what needs to happen in order to fix it," LaChaux said. "But when you walk away and visit other places, you start to learn about the different struggles that are happening in different communities, and it makes you understand the big picture of what is really going on. You also start to understand that everyone, in one way or another, is suffering right now."
Perhaps the most important issue for the young women is politics.
"We know the 2012 elections are right around the corner, and we feel the voices of people of color in this country need to count," Pérez said. "We have the numbers; now we just need to go out there and vote so that this economy gets fixed and so that we elect a president that will not slide into an 8-to-5-hour workweek position."
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