Building Resilience: Q&A With Dr. Tony Iton

August 1, 2014 /

photo: Michael Macor

Ed. Note: In early June, The California Endowment’s Senior Vice President, Dr. Tony Iton, paid a visit to Merced to meet with youth and community groups. The California Endowment’s Building Healthy Communities funds community and policy work in Merced and 13 other places in California, including programs like We’Ced. 

During a meeting with Dr. Iton, We’Ced’s youth had a chance to conduct a group Q&A with the Canadian-born health advocate. We wanted to find out why TCE and BHC has focused on youth, what were some of its visions for the long term impacts of its investments and what are some of Dr. Iton’s personal feelings towards the work his foundation invests in. 

What challenges did you face as a youth?

I was an African-American kid in a very white neighborhood. My parents were immigrants from the Caribbean. They were educated immigrants but immigrants nonetheless. I think acculturation was a big issue. Thankfully I was in a very forgiving environment, I would say unlike Merced. There was social support for different populations, there was alot of social support for youth. There was policy in the country in general that took care of people and invested in people. I felt like I was a resource growing up.

For us, we were an immigrant family in a strange culture and we had to acculturate in a fairly short time. That was my biggest challenge.

Where there any individuals or organizations that helped you get to where you are?

Yeah, mostly schools and teachers that said things to me that made me think that I could do stuff. Like saying, “I see  leadership in you.” They saw stuff that I didn’t see in me. Hearing that message and having them take an interest in me made a big difference for me. I can point to at least four or five different teachers that said things to me that made me think, “…me?” That’s the kind of stuff you remember your whole life.

Why does The California Endowment invest in youth?

There is not a revolution in the history of the world that I am aware of that has been led by old people. We are not that far from you, believe it or not. We want to see change too. While we’re more established and more boring in our lives, we recognize that real change happens when there is disruption and when things are shaken up. Young people shake things up. They’ll stare at you until you give them the right answer. They’ll sit-in in a room and they’ll sit-in for days whereas us elderly will have to go to the bathroom or take a nap. Young people and their energy fuels change. Our job is to harness that energy and help guide it towards the targets that are the most important targets that are creating the problems for youth.

TCE has made serious investment into work around young men of color, including an awesome summer camp. are you seeing the results you envisioned?

Abso-freakin-lutely. To my mind this is one of the most significant and fastest levels of progress I’ve ever seen in this kind of change. The ability of the Boys and Men of Color work to come together and see similarly situated people across the state find this sense of solidarity amongst their new friends but also to participate in the State Assembly Select Committee process on the status of young men of color, the ability to testify and meet with legislators and have those legislators come to the capital in force and speak one after the next about how they were moved by this particular experience–that never happens, they never do that. Then to have them put on the hoodies and stand out in front of the Capitol and take a great big picture as a Trayvon Martin tribute, that is inconcievable except through the impact of the boys and men of color. We haven’t even begun to see the impact of that effort. We see it in the Local Control Funding Formula and the efforts that are happening at the school district levels. We see it in the curbing of suspensions and expulsion in the implementation of restorative justice and the school climate work. We see it in the youth development infrastructure work that you all are doing in Merced. Your youth and boys and men of color signature is all over that work. I don’t think a week goes by where somebody who is external to Building Healthy Communities doesn’t say, “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

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