From High Schooler to Activist: How I Came to Build a Culture of Health in East LA

Apr 7, 2015, 2:12 PM, Posted by Jennifer Maldonado

A young activist tells the story of her journey empowering students to influence the health in their local community. This article was originally published in Equal Voice for Families on January 26, 2015.

I was a student at Woodrow Wilson High School in Los Angeles from 2005 to 2009. The school sits on top of a hill, overlooking the city. We had a great view, but our predominantly Latino student body did not have the resources to aspire. Books were dated, classes were crowded, there were few counselors and there weren’t enough teachers. My working-class community struggled with jobs and survival. I did not know how to interpret and change what I, and many of my friends, were experiencing—peer-on-peer violence, racial tensions, gang violence, broken families, and poor health, all the outcomes of an impoverished community.

My school friend Cindy fell into gang life at an early age. I saw her investment in the gang increase until she eventually stopped attending school and I lost contact. I began to wonder if any of the adults at our school tried to support her. Looking back, I believe that Cindy’s path was partially the result of the lack of student support in our education system.

One day, I found an opportunity to create change, or should I say, it found me.

Embracing Change

My high school organized a club fair and I saw a banner that said, “United Students”  with a fist for a logo. At the table, Raquel Armenta, a site organizer with InnerCity Struggle, asked me a question no adult on campus had ever bothered to ask: “Do you want to change your community?”

“Yes, but I don’t know how.” She told me I needed to actively participate in school and community decisions, and I quickly became involved.

I joined UnitedStudents’ campaign to pass the Quality Education Investment Act (QEIA), requiring the state of California to update school materials, hire more counselors, and reduce student-teacher ratios. The InnerCity Struggle staff showed me how to conduct classroom presentations, comment at outreach events, and develop methods to relate our campaign to the outcomes we envisioned.

I surveyed my classmates and helped demand that the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education prioritize the long-ignored needs of Eastside high schools. By embracing collaboration, we won the QEIA campaign and the law was passed in 2006.

I would not enjoy the benefits of QEIA because I was about to graduate. But I realized that I was developing into a leader who enjoyed working with my peers.

Elevated Awareness in College

I graduated from the University of California, San Diego with a bachelor’s degree in ethnic studies and a minor in education studies. During college, I served as a Joy De La Cruz Art and Activism intern at the university’s Cross-Cultural Center. It was there that I learned how important “space” can be in supporting the needs of a community.

My university and work experience gave me the tools to return to East LA and join with students fighting to hold their educational institutions accountable. Our message: that all community members need safe and affirming spaces to be healthy individuals.

Going Back to the Community

Upon my return, I was chosen as a Healthy Communities Fellow with the youth leadership network Funder’s Collaborative on Youth Organizing (FCYO), a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grantee. My focus is student wellness—I work with youth to organize school communities to provide holistic care. In 2011, United Students and the parent component, Families Unidas, led the Food Justice Campaign to connect health concerns with the academic success of students. We recognized there was limited availability to healthy food near homes and schools. A year later, InnerCity Struggle produced a report—“Food Justice for Eastside Schools”—to highlight the health crisis faced by too many students in East LA, where one in three children is considered obese and asthma, type 2 diabetes, cardiac disease, and sleep apnea are common.

United Students surveyed 350 high school students across five campuses in East LA and found that 56% did not eat lunch. Reasons varied from not enough time because of long lines in the cafeteria to the poor quality of the meals offered. InnerCity Struggle also found that 62% of the 650,000 school meals distributed daily were high fat main dishes. This led to the demand for the establishment of Wellness Centers.

Last year, the LAUSD passed the Wellness Centers Now! resolution, with $50 million in funding attached, to support more of these facilities especially in neighborhoods with working families. The “Food Justice for Eastside Schools” effort informed InnerCity Struggle’s next actions to create a place to prevent high health disparities involving youth in East Los Angeles. “Health Justice for Eastside Students,” in 2013, was a study in collaboration with the Praxis Project, a research organization that looked at the already-established Wellness Center at Esteban Torres High School.

The Wellness Center partnered with health providers and the school to offer physical, mental and reproductive services at no cost to more than 2,300 students. This hub allowed families better access to health resources in one central location: the schools.

This report led to students and parents voicing a solution to the health crisis in East LA. Their voices led to the unanimous vote at the school board in favor of the Wellness Centers Now! resolution. This resolution channels Measure Q funds—California voter-approved money—to build or improve existing Wellness Centers.

Presently, InnerCity Struggle works with board members, health service providers, foundations, principals, students and parents to help implement this health-related resolution. We, as a group, are developing safe and healthy communities. At my job, my goal is to help young people demand a seat at the table where school policy decisions are made and to help build the growing movement for youth health and wellness in schools.

As I work with students at Wilson High School, I share with them that wellness remains the key to supporting young people and families. Wellness needs to be holistic. And I believe that if there had been a Wellness Center at Wilson High School when I was a student there, Cindy—my childhood friend—might have had the much-needed support to resist gang life.

Looking back, it feels like I’ve come full circle.

Jennifer Maldonado is a Healthy Communities Fellow with the Funders’ Collaborative on Youth Organizing, a grantee of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. She works at InnerCity Struggle, a Los Angeles organization that promotes safe, peaceful and healthy communities particularly in Boyle Heights, unincorporated East Los Angeles, El Sereno and Lincoln Heights. In college, she was active in the Moviemiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (M.E.Ch.A).