Last month, over a meal of pupusas, Martha Dina Argüello and I had the opportunity to talk with the youth members of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice (EYCEJ) Youth in Action! (YA!) program, about movement histories and our roles in it. Martha and I shared our stories and then the young people in the room began to share their stories and ask questions. And this is where it got good. You can listen to an audio recording of the talk via StoryCorps here: https://storycorps.me/
They told us stories about their lives growing up in Southeast Los Angeles. They shared their concerns about growing class sizes at Bell Gardens High School. They talked about their hopes and plans for going to college. They told us about how the challenges they face balancing family, friends, school and their activist work in the community. The young women shared ways they raise their voices in the classrooms despite teachers and others ignoring them.
Their stories generated questions and stories from the EYCEJ organizers in the room as well. They asked Martha and I about how we navigate activism and movement building as women of color, especially in places and spaces dominated by white men and white institutions. What movement history could inform their work and their lives? How do we do this work in the long term?
I can’t remember how Martha and I responded to the questions but what I do remember is how the conversation knit together all of our stories past and present — as a third generation Japanese American woman who found her voice in the environmental justice movement, an immigrant Nicaraguan woman radicalized and experienced in her work with the Black Panthers, youth and organizers with family ties to Mexico, Guatemala, Long Beach, East LA, Boyle Heights, and Bell Gardens. Even though we were born in many different decades, have had many different experiences growing up, have been involved in many different campaigns, and have way different capacities with technology (e.g. using smartphones, powerpoint, live streaming from periscope, etc.), our stories reflected a shared commitment to growing our movements and also our commitment to each other as we do the work together.
We never know how our small activities will affect others through the invisible fabric of our connectedness. In this exquisitely connected world, it’s never a question of ‘critical mass.’ It’s always about critical connections.
There is no doubt that the young leaders from Bell Gardens High School (as well as college students and young organizers) are the next generation of movement builders in our work. But in a movement context, their presence and leadership are also central to the work here and now. In the EYCEJ meeting room that night it was only through the youth that the rest of our stories were able to come together in rich and intersectional ways. The high school students were deeply rooted in their lived experiences and they made sure that our discussions remained focused on the intersectionality of race, gender, age, and nationality. They were acutely aware of the injustices they faced but rather than dwell on their problems, they probed us for new perspectives, examples, and tools for becoming better movement leaders. Grace Lee Boggs also says that our human evolution is not a linear process; talking story with and through the students made that point in clear and brilliant ways.
The youth of EYCEJ weave their stories with many others –youth, organizers, and allies from many neighborhoods and movements – and their rising collective power is making change in the East and Southeast LA, and Long Beach. Whether it is fighting for smaller class sizes, demanding cleanup at the Exide plant, making sure the I-710 Freeway expansion brings community benefits instead of more polluted air, fighting back against Walmart, or growing their own food, EYCEJ continues to build leadership – new and old- and models the way for other communities across the country.
Join us on June 23rd to meet these young movement leaders and be inspired. #FightingForLife #WeAreJustTryingToBreathe
Written by Martha Matsuoka
Martha Matsuoka is Associate Professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Executive Director of the Urban & Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College. Her teaching focuses on environmental justice, community organizing, urban policy, environmental movement history, and community-based research. Her research focuses how community-based organizations organize to influence policy and planning and currently focuses on ports and freight transportation. Martha is one of two honorees at this years Fighting For Life 2016 Celebration.