May 7 2018

The Portraits in Women’s Leadership project is a celebration and exploration of the leaders who contribute to and uplift Building Healthy Communities throughout California. The project profiles women in leadership positions in health equity campaigns across the 14 BHC sites. The unique lives of these women help broaden our understanding of leadership, the talents women bring to bear upon systems change, and stories that span generations in terms of experience, vision, and persistence. These portraits illustrate individually and collectively how women overcome adversity, celebrate their diversity, honor their history, extol families — however they are defined– and cherish their communities.

“. . . a lot of the things that organizing changes affect me and my community and minorities . . . my work is important to me because I want to make these communities a better place for these people who live in them.”

Shayla Austin

 Which living person do you most admire?

Multiple people, it’s like between my mom and Jacob Patterson [co-founder of Gender Talk], they both have high roles in my life.

What is your idea of happiness?

To me happiness is being able to live and be comfortable with who you are inside and your identity and being able to live despite adversity and hate and being able to live with someone that you love. 

What is your most treasured possession?

My elephant, my mom when I was young, I think around probably eight or nine, she got me a stuffed elephant. An elephant that she got when she went out of town and I still have my elephant and it’s something that I hold dear to my heart.

Shayla was born in Crescent City and has spent her entire childhood and young adulthood living in different parts of Del Norte County.  As the only child of recently divorced parents, her youth was as lonely as the unpopulated landscape of the towns she lived in.  But still, she is a product of the generations of strong women in her family, and her mother, as well as grandmother, have been a significant part of her life.  Deeply connected and committed to the well-being of those in her intimate yet isolated community, gender has been at the forefront of her activism.  Today, as a senior at Del Norte High School she remains active in many organizations and activities throughout Del Norte County and Tribal Lands (DNATL) Building Healthy Communities (BHC).

Shayla’s interest in gender began in her early teens when she began to openly identify as non-binary.  At age thirteen, through a connection forged by BHC, she became involved with the organization Gender Talk.  With this organization she advocated for gender neutral signage in all single stalled restrooms within public places.  She also attended the Oregon Queer Trans Youth Summit where she spearheaded the movement to apply for a grant of $250 to assist in a local gender neutral bathroom campaign.  She was so successful in this endeavor that she was awarded double the funding she initially requested.  As co-president and treasurer of the Gender and Sexualities Alliance (GSA) in her high school, Shayla has rallied for the creation of a queer prom – which would be unique within her county.

She has participated in numerous BHC youth-focused initiatives.  As part of DNATL BHC Shayla was able to “go out of town to Sacramento to rallies” that raised awareness about numerous issues affecting people in her community.  She has also participated in Sisterhood Rising Leadership Retreat and Free Our Dreams statewide gatherings.  These experiences, combined with her own community work, have “influenced who I am today” and have provided her with a strong sense of direction, purpose, and identity.

Shayla concedes that sometimes the close-minded nature of her community is frustrating and she hopes that will change.  In leading that change, she plans to start a petition this year to have a single stall bathroom in her school specifically designated as “gender neutral”.  Her life’s goal is a noble one – all part of Shayla’s plan to make sure that “when I leave my site, I would leave it better than how it was before.”

“You are my other me.  If I do harm to you, I do harm to myself.  If I love and respect you, I love and respect myself.”

Alexis Casas (In Lak’ech Mayan poem)

Which living person do you most admire?

I want to say, in the most selfless way possible, that the living person that I most admire is myself.  I have a lot of love for myself and I feel like I can’t help others if I am not spiritually aware of where I’m at in life.

What is your idea of happiness?

My idea of happiness is something within myself. It’s not necessarily anything materialistic or anything in the future because I try to live in the present as much as I can.  But, I feel like happiness to me has to start with me.

What is your most treasured possession?

I would say a possession that is very important to me that is the support of my family.  I hold that so dear to my heart because we’re blood, you know, and I’m so grateful that we’re so close and so open about our journeys.

Alexis is from Castroville, born and raised in East Salinas.  Growing up around agriculture, she was surrounded by “activism and The United Farmworkers” movement.  As part of this, community work was always “embedded” in her.  Her love of theater gave rise to her being a self-proclaimed teatrista, and Alexis also identifies as bisexual and Xicanx.  Her sexual orientation has been a source of struggle in her community and she notes that her “culture isn’t as open” to different identities.  She is active in many facets of East Salinas Building Healthy Communities (BHC), spanning story-telling, policy advocacy, and youth engagement.

In high school she started working with Motivating Individual Leadership for Public Advancement (MILPA), an organization active within BHC and supported by The California Endowment (TCE).  Through her experience with MILPA, she was introduced to Baktun 12, a community theatre group from East Salinas also integral to BHC.  The mission of the theatre group is to get the stories of Salinas “out there and heard”.  Stories which Alexis says reflect the gentrification and displacement of families and the school-to-prison pipeline she sees in her community.  The goals of the campaigns she works on with Baktun 12 and MILPA are movement building to resist displacement, making “sure that our community is aware of what’s going on”, and ensuring “that youth aren’t pressured into feeling unsafe at school”.

Alexis has served as a mentor at TCE’s Sisterhood Rising Leadership Retreat, a week-long camp for women youth throughout the fourteen BHC sites across the state.  As a passionate, life-long youth advocate, she was once a participant in the Youth Voice program, but today she is actively involved with the program in a leadership capacity.  In her own words, Youth Voice is “a youth uprising group in East Salinas that establishes convenings for youth to just elaborate on how powerful their voice is”.  Through her involvement with Youth Voice, Alexis has had the opportunity to work with, and learn from, “policy holders” and advocacy groups.

Alexis is finishing her third year at Hartnell College in Salinas and is poised to move on to a four-year college somewhere in Southern California since the “opportunity for the film and theatre industries is much more attainable there”.  She will continue to connect with other youth across BHC sites through sharing her own narrative, the stories of her ancestors, and the stories of Salinas.

 “You can’t pretend to be something you are not and you are the way you are, and that’s how I’ve been all my life.  My sole purpose is for people to learn.”

Delia Contreras

Which living person do you most admire?

I admire my husband a lot, I don’t know if love wins me over–but him accepting me with my two daughters, being so young–he welcomed me with my two daughters and he’s still with me, and telling me that he loves me.  I admire him a lot because he’s so hardworking, even if he’s sick.

What is your idea of happiness?

Happiness is not about just being happy.  Happiness is everything–being happy, being sick, being poor, being in abundance, having love, being sad because you lack love, being healthy.  All of that to me is happiness, no one can be happy to be happy, because that would just be boring.

What is your most treasured possession?

I have a picture of my dad and my mom and I when I was a child, that’s the only photo I have of us . . . I think if I had met her [mother] earlier when I was younger things would have been much different, I wouldn’t have suffered.  I don’t know, since I never had a mom I don’t know about her life.  I never let my daughters suffer, but I don’t know how things would have been.  So that’s my prized possession–my picture.

Delia is as resilient as she is remarkable.  She describes herself as “free-spirited, jolly, and adventurous” but she was not always this way.  While born in Mission, Texas, at only three months old Delia – along with her mother and father – moved to Mexico, her parents’ native country.  After being abandoned by her mother, neglected by her family throughout her childhood, enduring domestic violence at the hands of her first husband, and traveling without support to the United States – a foreign country known only through her citizenship – Delia takes great pride in her growth and her achievements.  City Heights has been her home for 33 years, and there are no signs that she will leave anytime soon, especially now that she serves as Vice President of the Latino Organizing Committee and collaborates with many organizations throughout City Heights Building Healthy Communities (BHC).

In her position with the Latino Organizing Committee, Delia is responsible for their public relations.  She has also closely collaborated with Mid City-Community Action Network’s (CAN) food justice momentum team and sits on transportation and restorative justice momentum teams.  The food justice team conducts outreach, mentoring youth and their families throughout City Heights to advocate for local, healthier, organic food, and halal protein.  After a four-year fight, the food justice momentum team successfully organized to change the school menu in City Heights so that high schools would serve two or three halal meals per week, now Crawford High School serves halal meals every day of the week.  The work on momentum teams is meaningful because it reminds her of the importance of collaboration, which Delia describes saying, “it’s a beautiful thing to be able to work together”.

Everything that Delia does – her work, volunteering, educating, and parenting – is focused on the end goal of creating an informed community.  She wants people to understand that “if we don’t take care of ourselves, we can’t heal”.  Family is also important to Delia.  She wants City Heights to be home to her grandchildren and her great-grandchild, providing them with a sense of stability and opportunity that she never experienced growing up.  In the truest meaning of the word, she wants her family to have a community.  As for Delia herself, she will press on and continue to lead.  A sign of her leadership, she offers her assessment that “I still have a lot to learn”.  She has learned so much, yet still – after all of her accomplishments – hesitates to call herself a leader.  After overcoming so much in her life, Delia will be there to make sure that others in her community will confront the challenges they face as well.  In fact, she’ll lead them there.

 “I don’t see a very fortunate or wealthy person as any less or more than someone who is on the street.  I value every single human equally, the same.”

Susana Coracero

Which living person do you most admire?

I cannot single one person out.  I’ve had different people had different key moments in my life that have taught me different things.  I think having the right people at the key times is really important.

What is your idea of happiness?

Being free.  Being free of strains on your economic condition, being free of pesticides and trauma, being free of glass-ceilings and social exclusions.  Being in your full potential would make anybody happy.

What is your most treasured possession?

Health is my greatest possession. 

Susana is a South LA native, a daughter, a sister, and a fierce advocate for her own community and other communities like hers.  After attending Jordan High School in Watts and then the University of California, Santa Barbara as an undergraduate, Susana lived and worked throughout California – Sacramento, Richmond, and East LA – bringing the lessons she learned along the way back to her South Los Angeles community.  Today she is a Senior Program Manager at CDTech and remains active throughout the many organizations thriving within South LA Building Healthy Communities (BHC).

After college Susana was set on pursuing a teaching certificate, but soon realized that she “wanted to have a bigger impact than the 20 students that I had in a classroom”.  This realization soon led her to policy and advocacy work.  Attracted to such efforts, she made her way to Sacramento and was soon engaged in advocacy work related to healthcare for immigrants and communities of color.  She concentrated on policy work for several years with multiple organizations, when the allure of graduate education became too strong.  Susana decided to pursue a Master’s degree in Education at Claremont Graduate University, believing that this would allow her to advance in a field which would also provide her with the most freedom.  Between her formal, institutional learning and her community-driven education, Susana now understands the complexities of systemic power, as well as the barriers that lack of power can create.  Perhaps even more importantly, she acknowledges that it is organizing and the community that will dismantle this unequal access to power.

Because of these experiences and her understanding, Susana has dedicated her life and work to collaborating with organizers, students, and community members to create a pathway into higher education.  With CDTech, Susana is part a team of organizers and educators who connect students to Los Angeles Trade Tech, where they can earn a Community Economic Development Certificate.  This Certificate will allow them to pursue careers in a field of work which they love – community activism.  Creating this pipeline for students into higher education, and then continuing on to careers in activism that allow them to work in their communities, ensures the sustainability of their collective work.  Susana is a living model and mentor for this process, as she lives only one mile away from her family home in Watts, where she continues to learn from “some of the most real and smartest people.”

“Community leaders have an open mind and open heart.  To be a leader you have to be willing to take on that responsibility.”

Crissy Gallardo

Which living person do you most admire?

My mom, mi madre.

What is your idea of happiness?

Doing what you love, when your purpose—when you’re blessed enough to have your purpose align with doing what you love. 

What is your most treasured possession?

My most treasured possession would have to be pictures of my sister.

Crissy is a self-proclaimed “daughter of immigrants”.  Born in Los Angeles to undocumented parents – her mother from Oaxaca and her father from Guanajuato – she grew up in a family that made the deliberate decision to leave the violence in South LA for the Central Valley, a place where “there’s trees and orchards, a lot of jobs and no violence”.  The respite from violence after the move to Merced was short-lived and both of Crissy’s two older siblings soon were jumped into gangs.  As a young woman, only sixteen years-old, Crissy’s life was forever changed when her sister was murdered.  Her sister’s death motivated Crissy to work hard to support her parents.  Instead of succumbing to her grief, she channeled it and excelled in high school.  She ultimately graduated from University of California, Berkeley.  Her education fueled her work and today, she still resides in Merced and is a community organizer working with youth and community residents.

Her journey to becoming an organizer and health advocate was difficult, but direct.  Witnessing first-hand the stigma and struggles her father faced as a formerly incarcerated immigrant instilled within Crissy the importance of organizing and activism.  She was further inspired in college when she participated with organizations off-campus that taught her “how pain can become power” and introduced her to organizing people for change.  Crissy is passionate about organizing, advocating for health care as a universal right, and uplifting – as well as empowering – the undocumented within her community.  Today she continues to educate on the importance of health for all, which includes health coverage for undocumented adults in Merced.  Along with health care, Crissy’s second passion involves organizing and working with young people, something she was able to engage in as a mentor at the Sisterhood Rising Leadership Retreat and is now supporting activism among young people in Merced.  Her long-term vision is to “see a cultural community center open up in Merced” and “organizing young people and getting them to demand those safe spaces”.

For Crissy, it’s about people, not policy and she concedes: “I like those [policy] wins, but for me ultimately the most rewarding part is seeing the transformation of people.”  When not tirelessly working for change throughout Merced, Crissy is auntie to a seven year-old nephew.  She wants to make sure that her nephew does not become another “statistic” like his father and grandfather who were both “locked up”.  To do this, she will continue to live by, and instill in others, the words of Assata Shakur: “Dreams and reality are opposites.  Action synthesizes them.”

“We can’t afford not to care . . . Everything is connected.  All of the issues that we are going through, all of the challenges that we’re going through, you can’t talk about one without talking about the other.”

Valerie Gorospe

Which living person do you most admire?

Right now, I will say my daughter.  My daughter at 13 is so much more aware of social and environmental justice issues than I was at that age.  She calls out sexism at school and empathizes with her peers and adults in situations that society tends to judge.

What is your idea of happiness?

My mind, right away, went to being free.

What is your most treasured possession?

Right now, because I’m still grieving, is anything from my mom, Teresa De Anda.  I will sometimes wear one of her scarves. When I know that I’m going to Sacramento or meeting with a Commissioner, or meeting with a decision maker or big meetings and public comments, I’ll wear one of her scarves.

Valerie is a community organizer working on the frontlines of environmental justice in one of the most challenging agricultural regions in California: Kern County, the nation’s top crop-producing county in 2017.  The economics, politics, and demographics of Kern County converge to form a climate that frequently favors large agriculture corporations at the expense of the farmworkers and families who live in the Central Valley.  Valerie’s organizing work, which her late mother introduced her to when she worked as an organizer with Californians for Pesticide Reform, focuses on protecting the health and rights of farmworkers, their families, and the Kern County community as a whole.  As an organizer for the Center on Race, Poverty, & the Environment (CRPE), Valerie is active throughout many neighborhoods within South Kern through South Kern Building Healthy Communities (BHC).

Drawing upon the efforts of the highly effective farmworker and environmental justice movements, she is able to strategize for campaign wins and overcome failures, as well as support and mentor the next generation of organizers.  Valerie and the network of organizers throughout the Central Valley – which includes her own 7th grade daughter – are more determined than ever to eliminate impacts from harmful pesticides affecting every family throughout South Kern.  In fact, it was Valerie’s mother who was instrumental in organizing for the first buffer zone that prohibited the spraying of restricted pesticides during school hours.  Today Valerie carries on her mother’s legacy and continues to establish newer and wider buffer zones throughout South Kern, as well as enforce notification requirements for farmers about when they will be spraying pesticides.  Three generations of activists have come full circle – Valerie’s mother, Valerie herself, and now her daughter – with each one influencing the next.

Valerie deeply respects the fundamental vision of BHC and the goal to “make our communities healthy”.  Given her belief that “everything is connected” she appreciates the scope of the initiative – its emphasis on “every single piece of the community” including education, parks and recreation, food systems, and environment, such as water and air quality – and is proud to be a part of the change.  When asked what she will do in the face of the many challenges which have emerged over the past year – locally, statewide, and nationally – Valerie simply responds: “We keep going”.  And honoring the legacy of her mother, that’s just what she will do.

“Because this work wants to divide us.  The system is set up to divide us.  And we can’t do what we need to do if we are divided.  We just can’t.”

Chrystal Helton

Which living person do you most admire?

Winona LaDuke from the White Earth reservation.  She’s a woman who has many degrees and fights for the land—our connection to it, and our responsibility to it.  She empowers people and is slowly turning the White Earth reservation into a self-sustaining reservation.  I really admire her.

What is your idea of happiness?

Being present.  Anybody can be happy at any time if they’re just present and allow themselves to be.  That’s when I’m happiest, is when I’m in the moment. Without thinking about what I have to do, or what I didn’t do.

What is your most treasured possession?

I have these two bracelets that were given to me by one of my best friends who passed away from brain cancer last year.  She was 38 years-old.  And she had two babies.  And fought a really hard battle.  She was one of the people who taught me what love really means and she taught me how to love somebody unconditionally.

Chrystal is affectionately called Chegemem – the Yurok word for hummingbird – by those who work with her throughout Del Norte County.  She is “always fluttering around, working on something”, usually the causes that directly impact families throughout the region.  Del Norte is her adopted home and has been for nearly twelve years.  Being of Native descent, she was drawn to Del Norte and the Yurok culture.  Along with these connections, Chrystal has also always been passionate about education, with a master’s degree from Humboldt State University in teaching writing and composition and as an organizer with True North – she has been able to provide support for her community in powerful ways.  This devotion has surfaced most recently in her role as Family Services Coordinator with Head Start in Klamath and work throughout Building Healthy Communities (BHC).

Education is a right, not a privilege, according to Chrystal.  The majority of her work, even before becoming an organizer, has focused on the intersection between education and community engagement.  Chrystal has served an organizer with Klamath Local Organizing Community and True North for nearly two years, and during that time she has been involved with many initiatives and the few organizations operating throughout the BHC collaborative.  She has worked with First 5 and the Family Resource Center of the Redwoods on family and school readiness programs and was also a teacher at a local charter school.  Along with this, at the College of the Redwoods Chrystal taught introductory courses to adult learners, most of whom were first-generation college students.  Now, at the Yurok Tribal  Head Start she is the Family Services Coordinator for the program, but also serves as the entire site coordinator and employee advocate.

She is passionate about “starting early with families” and she has made it her mission to “teach them their rights” and also “what it means to be an involved or engaged parent”.  To Chrystal, it’s all about people and relationships; building relationships, nurturing them, and having “meaningful connections”.  Her future, and the future of her three young sons, is also deeply connected to Del Norte.  Together they will all continue to embrace and live by the Yurok values of “giving back to the community.”

“I’m proud to be working with Long Beach BHC.  I get to share the community’s needs and give ideas about what we need to do—that’s something that I’ve always loved.”

Martha Herrera

Which living person do you most admire?

I admire my mother because she is a person who teaches me a lot.  After my father was murdered my mother became a widow with five kids.  She worked a lot to raise us alone with many limitations. 

What is your idea of happiness?

My idea of happiness is serving because that is what gives you happiness.  Always serving.  Because when you serve, you have to always have a dream to do something. . . Especially, not only when you give a dollar to the homeless, but also when you give help to a person that needs a resource.

What is your most treasured possession? 

My family.  My family, my kids, and my grandchildren.

Martha is a Long Beach resident and long-time health equity advocate and activist.  Her community work is driven by her own experiences as a woman, a Mexican immigrant, a mother, a grandmother, and a survivor of depression.  Martha values education as the ultimate tool for empowerment and actively encourages the many people with whom she works to continue to pursue their education, connecting them to community resources in the process, which has served as the foundation for her work with Long Beach Building Healthy Communities (BHC).

To Martha, education opens minds and opportunities.  For these reasons, pursuing an education – in the classroom, in the home, and organizing on the streets – guides almost all of Martha’s community work, which includes: working as a Parent Coach for new and expectant parents at St. Mary’s Medical center, serving on the board of the Children’s Clinic, participating at her children’s school in the Hamilton United Parents in Action, and organizing for health equity and environmental justice.

Her personal experiences have also informed her organizing and many issues she takes on are near and dear to her heart.  While battling Crohn’s Disease she became clinically depressed after experiencing complications from a surgery that ultimately harmed more than helped in treating the disease.  The lack of mental health services available in her community made it difficult for her to identify and deal with the feelings she experienced.  Seeing this unmet need, she began to advocate for the integration and implementation of mental health services into physical health programs in schools and neighborhoods throughout both Compton and Long Beach, and even established mental health support groups.

Martha’s evolving conception of health also led her to environmental justice, housing justice, and immigration justice work that connected her with Long Beach BHC.  She was part of a group that effectively halted the expansion of the 710 freeway, which would have dramatically increased the already heavily polluted air in South Long Beach.  She has also worked with Long Beach Alliance for Children with Asthma since 2011, a cause that is particularly important to her once she learned that her grandson was born premature and diagnosed with asthma.

Following in her footsteps, Martha’s two daughters are now actively involved with community-based organizations – both fighting for change.  In five years, Martha sees herself sitting at a table with women “knitting, making jewelry, and talking” and still involved with BHC working with and educating families throughout Long Beach.  Martha’s personal and familial commitment to her community will ensure that this table is as full as it is fruitful.

“So, that’s another reason why I appreciate the hard work of women, because they really do hold you up.”

Erica Jackson

Which living person do you most admire?

My dad.  Seriously, we’ve been through so much and my dad can still keep a straight head on his shoulders and . . . even though I struggle, I do it all for him.

What is your idea of happiness?

My idea of happiness is being able to be comfortable with who you are, comfortable with what you’re doing; being able to walk in a society where everyone is so against you, but you still have a prideful head on your shoulders.

What is your most treasured possession?

. . . seriously, my phone . . . I connect with people on my phone; if I need a mental break, I go through my phone everywhere.

Erica is a nineteen year-old East Oakland native, born and raised.  In her mind, “youth are the heart of the change movement” and she lives out this belief in her work.  Moreover, she understands that whatever affects adults affects youth as well.  Out of this knowledge, she remains fiercely dedicated to youth inclusion in policy, advocacy, and community building.  The community work she engages in throughout East Oakland Building Healthy Communities (BHC), past and present, has served as an outlet when family was not there.  For example, she started gardening in elementary school “not because I wanted to, but you know, nobody wanted me home”.  A personal tragedy at only twelve years-old strengthened her dedication to youth inclusion as she witnessed first-hand the inequity in the criminal justice system with the murder of her close cousin.

Erica’s work with her BHC extends across many schools and different community-based organizations (CBOs).  As one of two youth on the School’s Team, she is the Youth Chair on the board that governs East Oakland BHC and provides the “youth voice” that helps inform decisions.  In her capacity as Youth Chair she attended the Free Our Dreams statewide convening, which focused on initiating actions within schools to end expulsions, as well as promoting peaceful, willful defiance and restorative justice practices.  Currently she works as a Youth Leader at the Hope Collaborative – a CBO focusing on health for Oakland’s people and environment, promoting health and social justice equity.  Through her work at the Hope Collaborative she also been involved with many other CBOs that are active within her BHC, such as the Urban Peace Movement, Bay Peace, and Oakland Kids First.

Deeply committed to her East Oakland community, she has also been personally affected by the displacement caused by gentrification.  Along with her father and brother, they were evicted and on the verge of homelessness.  She describes a “period with no lights, no water, and barely any food in the house”.  Throughout all the obstacles she has confronted, Erica is currently attending community college in neighboring Berkeley.  She is focused and hopes to transfer to Sacramento State University within the next year.  There she will major in Political Science, pursue an internship at the state’s capitol, and further her dream of becoming a politician and enacting policy that positively impacts all of East Oakland.

“’I’m interested in health equity work, because you know, we can’t have equalitywithout equity.”

Tylo James

Which living person do you most admire?

I don’t have a particular role model per se. There are a lot of people I admire and respect a great deal, some being my mentors, and the Black and Brown womyn who have and continue to influence my leadership, and my family who sustains me.

What is your idea of happiness?

To me, happiness means feeling valued and appreciated in the spaces that I show up in and knowing that I am making positive impacts.  Happiness looks like laughter, and joy, and deep gratitude.

What is your most treasured possession?

My most valuable position is my necklace with a heart pendant my mom gave me off her neck, when I graduated high school.    It means a lot to me now, because my mom and I had a really difficult relationship throughout my upbringing.  However, as my understanding of her plight deepens through my own experiences as a Black womyn, my appreciation and respect for my mother has grown. The necklace symbolizes my mother’s heart, my heart, and our love that is enduring.

Tylo is an activist and leader, a teacher and healer, and self-proclaimed “spiritual, black queer womyn”.  Growing up in South Los Angeles she questioned everything: “Why are things the way they are?”, “white people and police”, social structures, structural oppression, and power relations.  Her outlook and actions have both been reflective of her history, the daughter of a mother who struggled with drug addiction, a father who has been impacted by the prison industrial complex, a brother who served as source of support and influence even while revolving in and out of juvenile hall, and a close friend who lost her life in high school.  Despite all of this – or perhaps because of it – today she readily embraces the privilege and responsibility that comes with serving as a “femtor”.  Her stated purpose is to plant seeds in youth to empower and mobilize community movements, which she readily does throughout South LA Building Healthy Communities (BHC).

Tylo’s direct action and activism started when she was attending Dorsey High School in South LA.  There she was part of Dorsey Youth Empowered Through Action, a student organizing committee of Community Coalition’s South Central Youth Empowered Through Action.  Both of these groups are extensions of Community Coalition in South Los Angeles – also known as CoCo – focused on developing grassroots leadership in order to influence and impact systems level change.  While engaged in these programs, Tylo evolved and developed a deeper “political analysis” and a better understanding of how systems oppress and exploit people of color.

Over the years Tylo has remained committed to improving the conditions of her South LA community through her relationship with CoCo.  After graduating from UCLA, Tylo joined the staff of CoCo as a youth organizer and has worked hard to inform the community on critical health issues and concerns.  This summer, she returned to serve as a mentor at The California Endowment’s Sisterhood Rising Leadership Retreat for a second year.

Tylo wants to continue to uplift the youth organizing work within her BHC and in the near future she hopes to obtain a Master’s of Social Work.  Armed with an MSW she will help youth heal from trauma and build the next generation of leaders who have strong values and racial – “black and brown” – unity.

 “Seeing them [her daughters] take that responsibility for their actions makes me feel good and as a woman, I think they need to be strong, very strong–I do think the woman is the intellectual leader of a household.  I believe that!”

Alma Loredo

Which living person do you most admire?

My mom. My mom is a woman with a lot of strength.  She was the one who gave us an education.  She is a strong woman.  She still lives in Mexico.  It’s been about 13 years since I last saw her.  I can’t visit her either.  I need to keep fighting so one day I will be able to go see them or they can come here.

What is your idea of happiness?

Do what you most love with all your heart.  I think that’s what would make humanity happier.

What is your most treasured possession?

My children.  My husband.  My family.  Yes, they are everything to me.  It’s because of them that I try to succeed.  It’s because of them that I need to be a better person every day.  They are my greatest treasure.

Alma is a community leader, organizer, activist, and mother living in Salinas, California.  After immigrating to Salinas from Mexico by way of Chicago, Alma enrolled her son in preschool. He had energy beyond the teachers’ capacity to engage and was punished in school as a result.  Watching her young son endure negative experiences in preschool – when he had no behavioral issues at home – convinced Alma that she needed to learn how to navigate the educational system.  What first began as her involvement in an individual classroom, soon became a district-wide endeavor throughout East Salinas Building Healthy Communities (BHC).

Early in her efforts, Alma had the good fortune to cross paths with BHC organizer, Ms. Alma Cervantes, who is the lead for the Education Equity Action Team for BHC East Salinas.  With Ms. Cervantes’ support and the help of two other women, the four formed the Committee of United Parents, which has grown to 20 parents with children in Salinas public schools.  The Committee successfully prevented the introduction of police officers into Salinas’ elementary schools, rallied 75 parents to attend and speak at a school board meeting, and conducted one-on-one research meetings with individual school board members.  The committee – lead by the two Almas – is dedicated to changing the existing educational system so that it supports all students, from all backgrounds.

Alma’s fight for high quality education for all students is as personal as it is all-encompassing.  She works with Bright Beginnings, an initiative for high quality preschool education, with BHC’s Leadership Academy, where she helps train parents in organizing skills and lead campaigns; and with Hartnell Community College, where she is a Parent Organizer, connecting parents and the institution.  She is a fierce advocate with and for parents and children alike, making her organizing work effective beyond specific campaigns.

For Alma, learning within and beyond the classroom is a lifelong journey, which presents endless challenges and opportunities.  She hopes to continue her own education, eventually earning a degree in Human Services in order to work with and for her community with greater power and strength.  Alma’s dedication to empowerment through education knows no bounds.

“Young women need to be able to be heard and be able to express themselves to be part of something.”

Margarita “Margie” Madera

Which living person do you most admire?

I most admire my mother because she has helped me throughout my journeys and growing up.  I also admire my sister because she’s been my support system.  They are women who have helped empower me to have a more positive future and strive for more.

What is your idea of happiness?

My idea of happiness is being surrounded by people who support you and allow you to support them and then just to enjoy life.  Just to be part of something.  Of course my family would be with me–part of my happiness–my friends, and then also the community.

What is your most treasured possession?

For a long time, I used to carry a necklace that I had, and every time I got stressed I would grab the necklace and want to hold it.  And it became something that I carried with me everywhere.

Passionate is the word that best describes Margarita, known to her friends as “Margie”.  Growing up on an isolated ranch in “the country” within Kern County, she did not readily have opportunities to involve herself in community service.  Once in high school, she was exposed to a student club with an environmental focus that engaged in street clean up and recycling throughout the town.  This experience – combined with the encouraging words of a teacher and mentor – all deeply resonated with her.  Her community service in high school solidified in her mind what she “wanted to be” and she saw her potential as a teacher’s aide, volunteer, and mentor.  However, her personal experiences continue to transform her and today, Margie says it’s the community service work throughout South Kern Building Healthy Communities (BHC) that has “fired me up”.

As a teacher, volunteer, mentor, and trainer, Margie has worked with or around youth for more than twenty-two years.  She wears “many, many hats” and has been responsible for activities ranging from conducting developmental assessments to data collection efforts for the school district.  After several years of service she left the school district to work at the Boys and Girls Club of Kern County, which is supported and funded by The California Endowment.  She reveals that she “feels more fulfilled at this job”.  For the past few years she has also been involved with the BHC’s ten-year plan, advocating for three towns within South Kern, and engaging youth of color to step up and speak up.

Margie understands the big picture and strives to support the holistic needs of youth in her community, from affordable housing to access to clean water, and infrastructure to support exercise and healthy lifestyle to restorative justice practices in schools.  She has also been instrumental in the Agua for All campaign in the town of Arvin.  Throughout her years of service Margie has worked with numerous organizations, including Comite Progreso de Lamont, Greenfield Walking Group, and Parks and Recreation of Bakersfield.

The first in her family to graduate from college, Margie is truly passionate about her community.  To her, South Kern is more than just an agricultural hub, it’s a heartland that should be respected.  She hopes that one day all youth are proud to be residents of South Kern County and dreams of coming back in twenty years and seeing youth “organizing and motivating others.

“I’ve grown so much because of organizing, I am thankful I allowed myself that opportunity to be part of my community, to serve my community, and to just love my community.”

Claudia Perez

Which living person do you most admire?

I admire my mom for being such a hard working person and for always being there for me and my siblings.  She has been my biggest motivator in life and always encourages me to be the best version of myself.

What is your idea of happiness?

My idea of happiness would be a place where everybody uplifts one another and genuinely cares about one another in a loving way that creates a safe space.

What is your most treasured possession?

My most treasured possession is my graduation present which is a bracelet.  It’s really special to me because it comes from a heartwarming place, Mexico.  I haven’t been there for years and so this bracelet is a piece of my roots.  It has three hearts with a loving intention from my father which was the person that gifted it to me.  The three hearts symbolize the love my siblings and I have for one another.

Claudia has long studied and been inspired by historical social movements; she is firmly dedicated to promoting and nurturing transformative practices.  The first in her family to attend college, she is a recent graduate of University of California, Irvine, where she majored in Sociology and minored in Chicano/Latino Studies.  Being surrounded by friends and family who are undocumented, as well as experiencing the deportation of her father just months before her high school graduation, all fomented her early devotion to activism and organizing, which continues to this day.  Claudia is deeply passionate about youth led and youth driven movements.  As the new Executive Director of Resilience Orange County she works directly with the many families and organizations that make up Santa Ana Building Healthy Communities (BHC).

Claudia was involved with many clubs and organizations during high school, but one in particular created a transformative experience, helping start Claudia’s career in organizing.  In her own words, working with the Orange County Dream Team (OCDT) was like “coming home” or finding herself.  It was a place where she felt comfortable and was able to relate to other folks with “similar stories and struggles”.  With youth she met through OCDT, Claudia and a small group of high school students and community residents all worked together to create a collective community mural in Santa Ana.  This experience spurred Claudia to co-found a grassroots organization called Resistencia, Autonomia, Igualdad, lideraZgo (RAIZ), which was created as an intentional space where undocumented individuals and their allies could come together and take collective action against local deportation practices and police-ICE collaborations.

RAIZ has since merged with Santa Ana Boys and Men of Color and formalized into Resilience OC.  Within this organization, Claudia initially spearheaded youth related policy, advocacy, and organizing with a focus on intersectionality and creating holistic spaces for womxn of color.  She has gone from a youth, to a youth organizer in her community, to serving as Director of Youth Organizing, to being nominated by her peers as the new Executive Director of Resilience OC.  Claudia also sees herself in graduate school within the next five years, but is currently fully committed to ensuring that a youth leadership pipeline exists in Orange County to support system change efforts.  She envisions Santa Ana as a vital “hub for young organizers” and as a city in which “young folk can be supported in developing into transformative youth leaders.

“It’s good to see the victories that we’ve done, so it definitely inspires you to keep going…we can do it.  We can definitely do it.  It’s not impossible.  Things are changing.”

Dulce Saavedra

Which living person do you most admire?

My mother.  My mother has been such a rock for me.

What is your idea of happiness?

Happiness are our families, and our people having security in their home, income, and work.  Then emotional happiness can be achieved.  Happiness is also being able to love every piece of everything that you do.

What is your most treasured possession? 

The first thing that came to my mind was my bed.  In my family, we always come home and we always all end up congregating in someone’s bed and just checking in with each other after a long day.

Though only 24 years-old, Dulce already has eight years of organizing experience under her belt.  Dulce’s drive to organize is guided by a love for her Santa Ana community.  This love serves as the foundation of her organizing with community members and local youth, as she helps facilitate spaces that allow for different groups of individuals to come together and support each other, share stories, and envision futures for their community. Critical thinking about current power structures and systems of oppression are fundamental components of Dulce’s organizing philosophy.  She strives to help everyone see the beauty in their community, while also endeavoring to enact a future that is more equitable and just for residents throughout Santa Ana Building Healthy Communities (BHC).

As a teenager, Dulce would go to school, do her homework, and then – unlike most of her peers – attend community meetings at night, and civil disobedience actions on weekends.  In high school she met a transformative mentor and was introduced to the organization KidWorks.  There, side-by-side with other youth from organizations within BHC, she participated in listening sessions where she shared her story and became inspired by the group’s collective struggles and similar histories.  This gave her the confidence to apply for a position on the BHC Steering Committee as a youth member.  In this role, she participated in the discussions and decision-making processes for The California Endowment’s (TCE) prioritization of resources to fund programs and initiatives throughout Santa Ana.

After high school she began working with Boys and Men of Color and noticing the unexplained absence of a female-oriented equivalent, she helped establish a chapter of Girls and Women of Color in Santa Ana.  Having benefitted from the power of mentorship herself, Dulce gives back in the form of recruiting, training, supporting, and mentoring new organizers who participate in her organization, Resilience Orange County, where she serves as Youth Organizing Coordinator.

Dulce intends to see her efforts through, living and working in Santa Ana for the rest of her life.  She also plans to attend graduate school for a Master’s in Public Administration in order give her the foundation to garner more power for this work and create space for “new faces”.  True to the organizer ethos of “organizing herself out of a job”, Dulce plans on continuing to mentor the next generation of organizers who will hopefully, and ultimately, take her place.

“My whole thing is that I’m not giving up . . . but if we stand together, not just me, if we stand together as a whole community we can change some of this. . .”

Towanda Hiba Sherry

Which living person do you most admire?

Most of the time it’s my son, my youngest son.  He has a lot of drive and initiative.  He doesn’t live with me.  But he’s going to school.  He has a learning disability and he’s working full time and going to school taking a real estate course.  I was surprised that he’s on Facebook and he posts stuff about gentrification. . . . He talks a little bit about that and how to fix where we live and what’s happening.

What is your idea of happiness?

Oh boy!  Most of the time I guess being engaged with the community, for me that’s mine.  Most of the time people are trying to tell me, “Slow down, slow down!” so I’m trying to slow down.  But it’s part of what makes me happy.

What is your most treasured possession?

I guess my most treasured possessions are my grandchildren.  Yes, my grandchildren.  They’re not possessions, but they’re what’s most important to me.  Them and my sons, those are what’s most important to me.

Towanda – or Ms. Sherry as she is affectionately known to all – is a veteran organizer and long-time activist within East Oakland Building Healthy Communities (BHC).  In fact, she’s been there “since its inception, just about” and she is “probably one of the oldest members around”.  With age comes knowledge, which Ms. Sherry carries and shares in abundance.  She has witnessed myriad changes to her community first-hand – the displacement of African American and Latino families by the “tech” industry, the dramatic increase in the incarceration of youth of color, land misuse and its environmental consequences, and even the havoc and family trauma created by the recent opioid epidemic.  But Ms. Sherry has also seen the power of her community rising up together to face these challenges.

According to Ms. Sherry, policy changes are “the best hope for us”.  To achieve significant policy wins, she has partnered with countless organizations, residents, and activists – many of whom are directly connected with East Oakland BHC.  In one example of this collaboration, she works with the organization Causa Justa (Just Cause) on issues related to housing rights.  In turn, Oakland United is a powerful coalition of residents, faith leaders, youth, community organizations, and unions, and as part of the collective Ms. Sherry advocates for neighborhood-friendly redevelopment of the area around the Coliseum and Oakland airport.  She also partners with The Oakland Community Organization (OCO), which is a part of the PICO National Network, focusing on “issues of justice, housing, education, and a variety of human rights issues”.  With both the East Oakland Congress of Neighborhoods and Justice Reinvestment Coalition, Ms. Sherry is pushing new agendas for school policies that use a restorative justice framework, “stopping youth incarceration and the youth to prison pipeline”.  With Our Beloved Community Action she was an early advocate, “working around displacement, gentrification, and pushing for affordable housing options for people in the area”.  This effort is now spearheaded by The Dellums Institute, which according to Ms. Sherry is “doing fantastic work”.  She was also an early member of the East Oakland Black Culture Zone Collaborative and Hub. 

When asked how many organizations she works with, she can’t even list them all.  Ms. Sherry’s activism and organizing has been instrumental to East Oakland BHC.  Her passion, coupled with her compassion, inspires us all to become engaged, involved, and fired up.  In her own words: “Work harder, do more research, and unite people who have the same interests as you.”

“I’ve learned that the struggles that I have are the same to many of the others that are in my community, and that I can actually do something to help them.”

Rosena Chhith Rum

Which living person do you most admire?

It is hard to choose just one person because so many people have impacted my life.  My parents, mentors from Khmer Girls in Action…but if I had to say one of them, it would be Ashley Uyeda [former associate director of Khmer Girls in Action and mentor at Sisterhood Rising Leadership Retreat].

What is your idea of happiness?

To me I think real happiness is kind of like knowing yourself as a person.  I think I wasn’t truly happy with myself until I knew who I was, I knew my color, and I knew how I am and what I like.

What is your most treasured possession?

A small vibrant pink notebook with gold imprinted elephants on it that my mentor had bought while traveling because it reminded her of me.  This item meant a lot to me because it represented how much she knew me and how invested she was in me.  She knew I loved to write and always told me I was a strong writer.  She had gifted me a notebook that I now use to hold letters that have words I cherish from others.

Rosena is an advocate.  She starts – without asking – by emphatically stating her pronouns: she, her, hers.  One of five daughters born to Cambodian immigrants, Rosena and her family have called Long Beach home for more than a decade.  Upon realizing that some of the struggles that her family experienced – such as racial profiling and poverty – were the shared struggles of many communities of color, she was fired up and driven to be a change agent.  She uses both her voice and strong dedication in her work with many organizations throughout Long Beach Building Healthy Communities (BHC).

As a freshman at Long Beach Poly High School, Rosena became active in the Khmer Girls in Action (KGA) group, a community-based organization led by young Southeast Asian women that strives for gender, racial, and economic justice.  With this group she went canvassing throughout her neighborhood to educate neighbors and community on current issues affecting their future.  Her experience with KGA was transformational, spurring her to become even more engaged in community-based issues.  For nearly three years, she was involved with Youth at the Core, a KGA campaign focused on health equity that provided resources to students who weren’t comfortable reaching out to their parents about sensitive topics like depression or birth control.  However, it was also through KGA that Rosena was able to attend Sisterhood Rising Leadership Retreat (SRLR) as a participant in her junior year of high school, then a second time as a youth mentor the following year.  One of her proudest accomplishments is the growth she has experienced from her participation at the powerful leadership retreat.

Accepted to University of California, Irvine, she will begin her studies in the fall of 2018.  With a degree in Psychology and Social Behavior she hopes to someday involve herself in others’ growth and health through self-care and restorative justice practices, just as she has experienced while participating at SRLR.  She aspires to be an author and wants to “write things I know I want to share with the world”, such as stories that would “celebrate or recognize my community”.  According to Rosena, Long Beach is in the process of a transformation that is hard fought by its residents.  But armed with education, activism, and the tools to lead, Rosena is ready for the fight.




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