The story behind the story

“Why do you care about the students here?” Leonides Olea, 24, asked me a couple weeks ago.

I was interviewing Olea – a student at the YouthBuild Charter School of California Central, partnered locally with the Fresno County Economic Opportunities Commission’s Local Conservation Corps – for the first story in a series of articles that would chronicle his path toward achieving a high school diploma.

Well, I told him, it’s a long story, and it goes something like this:

Earlier this year, I partnered with Marcus Vega, who was a youth reporter with The kNOw Youth Media, to work on a series of stories about youth homelessness. As we worked on the stories, I also learned more about Marcus’ personal experiences with youth homelessness. (Read his first-person piece about this reporting project and his own experiences with homelessness.)

As I wrote in a blog post about the reporting project, working with Marcus proved to me that education truly is a path out of poverty – but that it can be so difficult for homeless youth to achieve, when they are just focused on day-to-day survival.

But it wasn’t until I covered the first hearing of the Assembly Select Committee on the Status of Boys and Men of Color that I truly understood how many young men in our community are at risk of falling through the cracks.

During the hearing, experts testified about the gross disparities in health, education, incarceration and violence impacting boys and young men of color. If these disparities are not improved, there could be major ramifications for the future of the state – where 70 percent of those under 18 are children of color – and for the country – where half of all residents are projected to be people of color by 2040.

It would have been a depressing hearing, if it were not for the handful of young men who told their own stories of struggle – and eventual success. Hearing those testimonies made me want to connect with a young man in the Valley and follow him, to see what it would take for him to succeed.

And that’s how I found myself at the YouthBuild Charter School, interviewing Olea, a 24-year-old father of five who has embraced the opportunity to achieve his high school degree as if his life depended on it.

“I have been shot twice, I have been stabbed twice, but I’m still here,” he said. “I see that as a sign just letting me know that I’m wanted here for some reason — because if not, I would have been gone a long time ago.”

I believe in young men like Vega and Olea. And so does Dr. Vajra Watson, director of research and policy for equity within the UC Davis School of Education, who described her own belief in youth during a conference at UC Merced last week.

“Education is a gateway to survival – but marginalization is man-made, intergenerational and systemic,” she said. “All great movements begin in the heart of a young person.”

Other reporting on barriers to youth success:

 

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