photo via Merced Organizing Project
by Claudia Gonzalez
On April 7, a group of 13 Merced youth, ranging from ages 12 to 24, visited the State Capitol in a trip organized by the Merced Organizing Project (MOP). Their mission was to bring attention to issues plaguing their community such as education and health care accessibility and violence.
“Last week, I was coming out of school when a gunman began shooting,” testified Alejandra Meza, a seventh grader at Merced’s Tenaya Middle School, during the meeting with Assemblymember Adam Gray’s (D-Merced) office. A block away from her school, a man fired several shots after robbing a market and although no one was hurt, Meza said the incident occurred in broad daylight in front of dozens of children.
“I am terrified to go to school now,” added Meza. During her testimony, she spoke about her experience with violence in Merced, also citing a lack of investment in youth by her state representatives and local city council.
Tsia Xiong, 45, director of MOP, accompanied the group of young people to the Capitol.
“Our youth are not a priority for our city council or county supervisors,” he told the group while debriefing after the meeting with Gray’s office. “Less than 1% of our [city] budget goes towards youth.”
Young people met with the California Department of Education (CDE) to talk about the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) and Local Control Accountability (LCAP) programs, which were implemented a year ago. LCFF and LCAP were instituted to bring additional funds into school districts for English learners, foster youth, and low-income students. Seventy-eight percent of Merced Union High School District (MUHSD) students fall into at least one of these categories, according to the Merced County Office of Education.
“Our district received $86 million,” Xiong told the group as he prepared them for the meeting with the CDE. “We want to make sure that at least $15 million of that money is going towards creating new programs for our students. We have not seen a difference yet. Where is the money going?”
According to Xiong, the biggest issue has been a lack of transparency in the way LCFF and LCAP funds are used.
“Our community and parents are not being well-informed,” Xiong said. “Meetings regarding these policies are held in the middle of the day with information only posted online. Many families in the county do not have access to the internet; it makes accessing information impossible.”
Young people present at the meeting expressed the disconnect they feel with their government representatives.
“The State Department of Education needs to make sure that the community actually knows about LCFF and LCAP,” said Karina Hernandez, 20. “We are here to demand they help our community and address the transparency issue. They need to visit our schools and be more present in our community.”
Jeanette Partida, a 26 year-old organizer with MOP, planned the Sacramento trip and stressed the importance of youth feeling connected to decision makers.
“It is very important for youth to be in contact with the individuals that represent them,” Partida said. She intentionally chose students who had never traveled to Sacramento in order to make the visit more impactful. “Our youth have been basically abandoned in Merced. They lack resources, recreational activities, and our educational system is very poor.”
Partida also said one of the cohort’s goals was to put pressure on Adam Gray and Senator Anthony Cannella (R-Ceres) pay attention to younger residents’ needs. People under 25 make up around 45% of the Merced County population, according to the 2000 census.
“Our representatives need to be held accountable,” said Paul Vang, 22, a UC Merced student who took time off from school to make the trip. “We need to remind them that we exist. It’s not like we are just there, not caring about our community. We do care!”
Meza, 12, felt the trip impacted her relationship with her local and state government.
“I really had fun even though I was so nervous to speak to our representatives,” Meza said. “But I am glad we got to tell them how we feel. Now, I know it is important to speak up. I can’t wait to come back and do this again.”