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Friday, April 12, 2024

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Arts + CultureFood banks to fresh 'fits, Youth Together provides students...

Food banks to fresh ‘fits, Youth Together provides students with innovative support

Program's creative community-building shines at Skyline High School.

If kids at Skyline High School are hungry, thanks to Youth Together, they can go pick up a bag of food, supplied in collaboration with the Alameda Food Bank. If they don’t feel comfortable dressing in the way they’re required to at home, YT hooks them up by stocking a closet at the school’s youth center with clothes which they grab, wear, and feel good.

Young people often don’t get the resources they need, and the leaders of Youth Together want to change that. Along with its closet and food pantry, YT programs a host of other offerings, such as afterschool programs like the Black Girls Groups and other groups for newcomer students. The group’s scope is impressive. But talking with people involved with Youth Together, what consistently comes up is the way the organization makes them feel heard.

After picking me up from the Fruitvale BART on the day I visited the Youth Together community, the organization’s director of programming, Nancy Phan-Kholes, lets me know what such support meant in her life. She met YT’s executive director Tony Douangviseth when she was a Skyline student, and he made her feel like she and her opinions mattered.

Phan-Kholes told me the story of that reciprocity after I somehow overshot the nearest stop to Skyline High. Throughout the snafu, she was wildly patient and relaxed.

On the drive up to the school, Phan-Kholes talked about how Douangviseth, now a good friend, listened to her when she was a student at Skyline—unlike some other adults she had encountered. She likes doing that for current students. Her pride in working for the organization that once helped her, and her belief that YT makes a difference, is apparent. 

Once we made it to the campus, we went to the classroom where Youth Together was having its weekly core team meeting. After an ice breaker of Rock, Paper, Scissors, student organizers Lina Nguyen and Kiera Hopkins, along with youth organizing programming coordinator Seanna Sou, showed a short video of a 17-year-old Tupac Shakur talking about some of his ideas about schools—how they should all have different curriculum, depending on their students and area.

Afterwards, they went around the circle of about 30 kids, and each one said what they thought about Shakur’s words. Many offered that they didn’t feel like school was preparing them for life. Before breaking for pizza, the organizers encouraged them to talk with their teachers and ask for what they needed.

Later, I got into a conversation with 15-year-old Nguyen and 16-year-old Hopkins at the campus’ youth center. They said they applied for their paid jobs at the program last spring, after people from YT came to talk to their ethnic studies class.

“After I heard them talk about what their org does, I realized that I finally met people who had the same goal as me, people who felt the same way that I did,” Nguyen said. “And people who had the same experiences as me as someone who went to school in OUSD.”

Nguyen appreciated that at YT, people act rather than just complain. Asked for an example of that, she didn’t hesitate.

“Where we’re sitting right now, this youth center,” she said. “Before this, students at Skyline didn’t have a place to go when they needed resources or help or assistance with anything.”

When she started at Skyline last year, Hopkins says, she felt she didn’t fit in, but joining the group gave her a sense of community. Now, she speaks out more in class and talks to her teachers as well as other kids. She’s even gotten involved with other student leadership groups, like All City Council Student Union.

“There are a lot of microaggressions thrown at me because I’m a young Black woman who’s very open-minded but also outspoken,” she said. “That seems like a threat, so they put kids who look like me and act like me in a box, and I feel like with Youth Together, I’m able to share that.”

Her job involves running core team meeting, as well as planning curriculum. That’s important to Nguyen.

“We have core team so we can amplify voices of students and what they need to be successful,” she said.

Working with Nguyen and Hopkins inspires Sou, who went to Cal State East Bay and majored in sociology and minored in Asian American studies after graduating from Skyline.

“It’s so interesting how passionate they are, and it feels good to know that we have young people who are still wanting to fight for a quality education for all OUSD students,” Sou said. “They’re so professional when it comes down to the nitty gritty of things, but then they bring such lively energy, and all it’s always something new.”

Youth Together joins other young people in mobilizing around a special school board meeting after the OUSD strike in February 2019.

She knew she wanted to attend college, Sou says, but she wasn’t sure if that could happen for her.

“We were very much financially unstable, and I also grew up with the statistics that I wasn’t going to be anything. That was just slapped on my forehead because I grew up in deep East Oakland,” she said. “Then [there’s] my dad, he’s also affiliated in terms of drugs, and gang violence. That’s just what he grew up in.”

Getting involved with YT changed things for her.

“I just had so many things that weighed me down,” Sou said. “I was like, ‘OK, maybe being an intern here will spark something.’”

It did. Sou says Phan-Kholes served as a kind of mentor for her, and Sou wanted to do the same for other students. 

“With Nancy, because I had that connection, and I gravitated towards her, I was able to open up and establish a bond with her. She’s actually been one of my closest friends,” she said. “What me and Nancy have is what I want to give back to the students in Oakland. I just want them to feel safe. I want them to feel heard, because that was something I definitely needed as a young person.”

On the ride back to BART, Phan-Kholes talked about how YT partners with other organizations that also work towards change in the school system, such as one that teaches violence prevention skills. On Wednesdays, YT offers crafts after school, such as making jewelry or painting. But what really makes the difference are the people who make the programs happen.

“We have the same 20 students who come in after school every day, that just drop in. They’re not really part of a program, but they come in every day, and they talk to us every day. They do their work, they hang out. They can go home if they wanted to, but they spend two hours after school in the center just to be there with us, or be with their friends. It’s a space that they feel safe.”

Learn more about Youth Together here.

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