My name is Randy Villegas. I am from Bakersfield, California.
We are the most illiterate city and county in the nation. We are also the most polluted city in the nation. More than a fifth of our county residents (21.9%) live in poverty, and we have a staggering 9.4% unemployment rate that is more than double the national rate. Our libraries are only open two to three days a week, and offer very limited hours. Bakersfield was also ranked as the worst city in the nation for Latinos seeking a bachelor’s degree by several major publications, including The Atlantic. In a town with a 49% Latino population, only 5% have a bachelor’s degree or equivalent.
Randy at his college graduation.
I say this not to cast negativity on my home, but rather to illustrate why I am pursuing a doctorate and have plans to return to my community to inspire los jovenes like myself, and to create change.
In a place often recognized for its terrible statistics, I’m proud to be one less statistic on that list. I want my community to flourish and reverse those statistics we are known for. I am determined to be a part of that change.
My journey started two years ago when I was asked to join South Kern Sol, a youth-led media program. I was curious but didn’t know what I would write about.
The next week I had my answer.
“They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” The infamous words that kicked off a presidential campaign. I knew I had to say something. So I wrote an Op-Ed piece in response.
South Kern Sol gave me a platform to speak truth to power and report on stories that traditional media wasn’t reporting on. I used that platform to change the narrative of the communities in Kern County.
I’ve called out the Majority Leader of the House for locking his doors on constituents, and rejected inappropriate comments from our local district attorney on shutting down our local libraries. When our two leading mayoral candidates refused to acknowledge whether or not they would support our LGBTQ community by participating in a Pride Parade, I encouraged Bakersfield residents to “Queer the Vote” and stand alongside our LGBTQ community.
In a piece on how the DACA program saved a young woman’s life in Bakersfield, I asked why these stories weren’t being told. Why was the media reporting on Trump bashing immigrants, but not telling the stories of the very people he was insulting? When our local School District was trying to improperly distribute Local Control Funding Formula Funds intended for high needs students, why was nobody calling them out besides the Kern Education Justice Collaborative and myself?
The local television stations and local papers weren’t there, but I and the rest of the youth reporters were. South Kern Sol gave me the opportunity to elevate youth concerns, and youth voices in Kern, through my writing.
Randy at the State Capitol advocating for immigrant rights.
Since then I’ve had the opportunity to travel places I would never have been able to go to otherwise. In 2015, I had the opportunity to travel to Sacramento for the first time in my life. I participated in the annual Free Our Dreams Day of Advocacy where I spoke to state legislators to discuss solutions that promoted the health, safety and success for young people of color. I found myself not only writing about my experiences, but becoming actively engaged. Although I never thought of myself as an “activist,” I soon found myself on the front lines of social justice in Kern.
I attended the Republican National Convention in Cleveland and watched as activists locked arms to build a “human wall” around the entrance to the convention in order to give Trump his wall. Together they sang “The walls that they build to keep us apart will never be as strong as the walls in our hearts.” Together they chanted ““Undocumented and Unafraid! No Papers, No Fear!”
In the summer of 2016 I helped organize and lead the 2016 Social Justice Summer series where South Kern Sol held three events, including a youth panel discussion, in order to encourage community members to embrace the power of their voices through civic engagement and voting.
It is through listening to other youth leaders that I learned just how important it is to be intersectional. We need to speak up on all the issues, even when you feel it has no direct relation to you.
I don’t have to be black in order to understand that black lives matter.
I don’t have to be gay in order to stand up for LGBTQ rights.
I don’t have to be undocumented to realize that a nine digit social security number doesn’t make someone more or less of a human being than someone else.
All you need is compassion, empathy, and a belief in social justice and equality for all. That is how we all #RiseUpAsOne for #Unity in our communities. It means #StayingLoud for social justice so that no person should fear walking down the street in public because of the clothing the wear, the religion they practice, their gender identity or the person they love.
Regardless of religion, color, gender, citizenship status, or sexual orientation, we need to rise up as one. When there is hate or intolerance in our community, we must stop it in its tracks. When there are inequalities that exist within our own institutions we must not be afraid to speak out against them. That is exactly what I have tried to do.
Randy at the State Capitol.
Some days I wear a suit and tie and speak my mind through pen and paper. Other days I wear jeans and a t-shirt with a megaphone in one hand and a sign in the other. Last May, I helped organize the 2017 Kern County May Day March. With the help of some amazing people and organizations, we put on one of the largest marches that Kern has ever seen. The intersectional march not only included labor and immigrant rights, but also included demands for LGBTQ rights, health care access, and more.
Aside from my work as an activist and a journalist, I have been honored to work as a mentor at Sons and Brothers Camp and with younger youth reporters at South Kern Sol. I am so grateful to watch as these youth reporters write powerful stories, give speeches, and created their own PSA’s that aired on local radio stations.
Throughout my experience with South Kern Sol and Building Healthy Communities South Kern, I’ve had the opportunity to meet some amazing people. I’ve built connections with friends, mentors, and other young people all across the state. South Kern Sol gave me a platform to speak up and have a voice. It gave me the courage and support I needed to stand up and stay loud for those in my community. Journalism gave me an outlet to talk about the issues that the mainstream media would sometimes fail to talk about, or even mention.
As I reflect on my experience I think one of the most important things I was able to do in my community, was to change the narrative surrounding many issues. Where many were afraid to speak up or speak out, I tried my best to be a voice for the voiceless. Once I started calling out elected officials and my pieces were getting published in the Bakersfield Californian my mom worried. “Ten cuidado mijo, hay gente mala…” she said. “Be careful son, there are bad people out there”.
While I admit that I got my fair share of nasty comments and messages from people who disagreed with my viewpoint, the messages of support were what kept me going. I remember receiving messages from complete strangers who had read my articles and thanked me for speaking out. For that, I will always be grateful.
So, what’s next for me? I’ve been accepted into the PhD program in Politics at UC Santa Cruz. Although it’s quite the drive from Kern, I continue to try and stay informed on what’s going on back home. After earning my PhD I hope to return to the Central Valley and teach as a professor at a local university or community college. I have had some amazing mentors throughout my life, and would like to fulfill that same role for others.
Randy Villegas standing next to a display featuring him in the Unity Center at Sacramento’s California Museum.
A few weeks ago I was once again able to travel to our capitol where to visit the new Unity Center, the newest exhibit in the California State Capitol Museum. I felt extremely humbled and honored to be featured in this exhibit for my work as an activist and a journalist in Kern County. The Unity Exhibit will inspire countless visitors to stand up for social justice, and to stand up for others regardless of their religion, race, documentation, their gender or gender identity. The Golden State has given my family and I the opportunity to chase after our own little American Dream here in the United States. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to write, organize, and speak truth to power in Kern County. I plan to be back someday. See you soon, Kern County.
Randy Villegas is an incoming PhD student in the Politics Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz. A graduate of Bakersfield College and CSU Bakersfield, Villegas hopes to return to the Central Valley in order to make a difference in his community.