Monday, November 1, 2021

Civic Engagement and Activism in Afterschool Programs: An Interview with RYSE's Youth Organizing Director


By Sam Piha

According to the Afterschool Alliance, “The afterschool field is an essential partner in ensuring that all children have the ability to participate in immersive, relevant, and hands-on civic engagement opportunities.” Not only are civic engagement strategies participatory strategies, they contribute to the positive development of youth and the health of our democracy. 

Because young people often have the desire, energy and idealism to do something about the injustice they see in the world, they are powerful agents for change.” - Marianne Stenger, 10 Ways Authentic Learning Is Disrupting Education

We are continuing to post a series of blogs to inform and encourage expanded learning programs to start today infusing civic engagement and activism in their afterschool program. NOTE: There are many program resources on the topic, some of which are detailed in our paper, Youth Civic Engagement and Activism in Expanded Learning Programs. You can view previous blogs from this series here. You can also view a recent recording of our webinar we held on this topic here.

In this blog we interview the Youth Organizing Director from RYSE Youth Center. Jamileh Ebrahimi has been the Youth Organizing Director since 2012. In this role, she builds a vibrant youth organizing culture both at the Center and in the Richmond community.

Jamileh Ebrahimi
Q: Please describe your civic engagement/ activism activities (activity purpose, activity description and resources/ materials needed).

A: Over the past decade, RYSE has been reminding those in power that young people are paying attention to how the conditions in California and West Contra Costa County (WCCC) affect them and their families’ lives. RYSE leads mobilization work that builds youth leadership and works to pass progressive local and statewide legislation that positively impacts BIYOC (Black, Indigenous, Youth of Color).  RYSE's young people ages 13-21 engage in campaign planning, peer education, community outreach, narrative shifting and storytelling, voter/civic engagement (voter registration, phone banking and door-to-door canvassing) and local/statewide advocacy efforts. Youth organizing efforts target our city council, school district, criminal legal system, and local/statewide health, housing, education, and economic funding/policy decisions. 

RYSE is part of multiple coalitions with youth representatives in leadership roles locally and statewide that support our local civic education and voter mobilization/registration efforts. Partnerships currently held with youth justice organizations, school districts, education advocacy organizations, and civic mobilization organizations in the region build a shared understanding of the voter power ecosystem in Contra Costa County.

Q: How do you prepare staff to lead civic engagement and youth activism activities? 

A: RYSE hosts three separate week-long staff development sessions annually, in addition to multiple training opportunities provided for all staff throughout the year. Training includes, but is not limited to: restorative justice, non-violent communication, adolescent brain development, lobbying rules for non-profits, gender justice, and more. RYSE leverages our partnerships with Power California Alliance and the YO! California Network, for additional training and capacity building support covering youth organizing, campaigns and integrated civic/voter engagement.

Q: Who is the target audience for these activities?

A: RYSE serves young people, ages 13-21 and engages over 700 young people annually (98% identify as BIYOC, 14% LGBTQ, 75% low income), centering their experience and expertise. Our voter engagement activities target young voters, 18-34 years old.

Q: Why do you offer these activities and why do kids join?

A: Too often in communities like WCCC, where atmospheric violence and harmful health outcomes are prevalent, BIYOC are seen as deficits rather than assets to their communities. In contrast, RYSE views young people as capable of prioritizing what is needed for their lives and communities and of leading needed change efforts. WCCC is a region navigating ongoing disinvestment, particularly in neighborhoods where BIPOC families live. 

We seek to address the need for more young people in policy, electoral, and civic engagement spaces pushing for accountability in the decision-making processes that impact their lives. Youth-led and community-led framing of policy decisions can better ensure that daily, ongoing, and acute needs are met and reconciliatory practices are established to undo the exclusions and harms they and their communities have experienced.

Source: RYSE

Q: What benefits do kids accrue?

A: RYSE’s Theory of Liberation (ToL) works to transform systems so that BIYOC feel loved. It supports BIYOC’s leadership to spark community transformation on issues impacting their well-being. The ToL asserts RYSE’s values and principles, and guides our outcomes:

  • Youth have emotional, physical, and political safety to acquire tools, skills, and resources they need to understand and change inequities;
  • Youth feel loved with the emotional, physical and political safety to acquire the tools, skills and resources they need to understand and change inequities;
  • Young people construct their own narrative and those of their communities;
  • Systems transformation by youth committed to a platform for liberation in which cultural work and race are central;
  • Develop an expanded hub for youth movement building, power building, arts and culture, and protection against further displacement called RYSE Commons. 

Q: Please describe any challenges you encounter.

A: Last year, our voter and civic engagement activities were impacted due to the global pandemic. Traditional voter outreach efforts, like door-to-door canvassing, volunteer mobilizations, peer-to-peer voter (pre)registration and in-person community events, were limited. We were able to test out new virtual strategies with our Census outreach and education, including virtual phone banking and activities and events were primarily held virtually. We increase our online education efforts utilizing virtual workshops, social media and producing our first-ever voter guide developed by RYSE youth and staff. 

Q: Can you offer any tips to others?

A: Please read our statement - Solidarity with Black Youth Organizers: A Call to Adult Allies, for ways to show up for Black young people and young people of color to support their physical and political safety. For more information on our work or to schedule a tour, presentation or training, please contact:  

Jamileh Ebrahimi has been the Youth Organizing Director at RYSE Youth Center since 2012. As Youth Organizing Director, she builds a vibrant youth organizing culture both at the Center and in the Richmond community. Jamileh is deeply committed to education, organizing, organizational and community sustainability, and movement building, and through her 18+ years of community organizing, she has discovered the importance of community empowerment, healthy living, and justice. She works to ensure that young people serve as key stakeholders and decision-makers on issues and policies impacting their individual and collective health and well-being.

ABOUT RYSE: RYSE Youth Center creates safe spaces grounded in social justice for young people to love, learn, educate, heal and transform lives and communities. RYSE Youth Center was born out of a youth organizing movement initiated in 2000 in response to a string of homicides near Richmond High School. Students organized more than 1,500 youth and adult community members to address the lack of safety at school and in the community. Young people, local officials, and stakeholders partnered to comprehensively assess youth- identified priorities and solutions. RYSE had served over 5,000 youth members and reached 10,000 more through outreach, and community events in Richmond and West Contra Costa County. 

We are hosting a webinar/ Speaker’s Forum on Wednesday, November 17, 2021 from 10:00am- 12:00pm (PST) entitled, Afterschool as a Teacher PathwayThe purpose of this webinar is to inform and encourage OST leaders on how best to develop/join and promote an afterschool to teacher pathway. It is our intention to capture and share valuable and intriguing ideas from educational and OST leaders. To learn more and register, click the banner below.

We have also released a new briefing paper on this topic, which can be viewed and downloaded here.

Today marks the first day of our How Kids Learn Foundation Giving Tuesday fundraising campaign! Through November, we will be asking for donations to continue our work in 2022. To learn more and donate, click here.

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