Above: Members of the Joven Noble youth group during a recent trip to University of California, Merced. The group was founded to help teach Merced youth to embrace and celebrate their cultural heritage. (Photo by Crystal Rivera)
By Hannah Esqueda
Author’s note: Three years ago We’Ced youth reporter Alyssa Castro dissected the issue of youth funding in the Merced community. At the time, the county had the dual distinction of possessing both the state’s highest rate of disconnected youth (those 16-18 who are not in school or working), 13.7 percent, as well as the highest rate of child poverty, 40 percent. All of this in a county where youth 18 and younger represent 30 percent of the overall population.
In her story, Alyssa urged the community to re-invest in youth and do better for Merced’s next generation.
Since then, there have been several key changes to the way youth investment and resources are handled in the community. We hope to lay a foundation for that investment here, before following up throughout the fall with personal stories directly from youth.
Still not all right
MERCED, Calif. — If young people are the future, what does it mean for a community when they disengage?
That’s a question Merced residents may want to address soon, as the county continues to have a disconnected youth rate– percentage of teens 16 to 18 who are not in school and not working– floating in the double digits.
According to the 2016 Merced County Health Assessment, the community has the state’s third highest rate of disconnected youth, 11.8 percent. That figure may not seem like much on its own, but keep in mind that the county is among the youngest leaning populations in the state, so 11.8 percent of older teens represents nearly 10,000 residents.
Such a broad youth base should indicate a bright future for the Central Valley community, yet the most common narrative for Merced youth hints at a darker reality.
The social impact of being left out
The youth are typically viewed as trouble, with a reputation of dropping out of school and joining gangs, said Jesse Ornelas, facilitator for Merced’s Joven Noble youth group.
“[Youth] have been villainized and made out to be the problem in Merced, and officials use that to justify their requests for more funding for law enforcement programs,” he said. “Those programs never have anything to do with prevention, it’s all about suppression.”
Ornelas made an unsuccessful bid for Merced City Council last fall, running for the newly created District 2 seat that encompasses part of South Merced. Since then, Ornelas has remained active in the community and recently began a youth program aimed at helping young adults and teens reconnect with the community they call home.
Launched earlier this summer, the Joven Noble youth group seeks to instill a sense of pride within Merced’s young men and women of color, teaching them about their cultural heritage while also showing them a better path forward, he said.
“The black and brown and Hmong folk here in Merced–we have our own culture and our own way of life,” Ornelas said.
Joven Noble seeks to celebrate that culture by incorporating mentors and curriculum that reflect the community’s diverse cultural roots. This approach has helped reach youth who may otherwise disengage from school or other institutions that they may not identify with, he said.
“As a community, we’re more inclined to put young people [who struggle] in the [prison] system than spend time and figure out how to teach these young people another way,” Ornelas said.
The program’s youth are taught to embrace their culture and community and make connections with local leaders who demonstrate the value of such ideals.
These types of culturally-competent programs are a rarity in Merced County however, and Ornelas said the community still struggles with youth investment.
Disconnected from the local economy
Securing investment is especially difficult for non-health based programs targeting older teens and transitional age youth, young adults ages 18 to 24.
Assisting older youth looking for a way back to school or work is a priority within the EMPOWER program at Merced County Office of Education (MCOE). Funded annually through a contract with the Merced County Workforce Board (WIB), the program has been in place for nearly two decades.
At EMPOWER youth work with MCOE staff to identify and train vocational skills and job strengths before connecting with local businesses for placement.
“The biggest chunk of youth we see in our program are homeless, and when I say that I mean they are couch surfing or living off the graces of others. They don’t have a place that’s steady,” said Daphne Post, program coordinator at MCOE.
Youth also frequently come to the program from continuation schools like Valley and Yosemite high schools, or the office will get referrals from county probation, she said.
Those institutions aren’t a catchall for disconnected youth however, and Post said EMPOWER staff frequently rely on word of mouth and personal connections throughout the community to reach this vulnerable population.
Getting youth in the door and enrolled is only the first step however, from there it’s up to EMPOWER staff to work with youth to identify an educational program or career path they agree to work towards.
Youth clients are in the program for a year, at the end of which time it’s our goal that they’ve found a steady job or have enrolled in a program of study, said Rebecca Rodriguez Lincoln, career educator with MCOE’s Educational Services.
“In that year we work with them on anything they might need, from interviewing skills and childcare resources to workability training and apprenticeships,” she said. “If they need extra support like bus fare or clothes for an interview, we work with them. We basically just try to do everything we can to see them succeed.”
While the program makes a big impact with the youth it serves, resources are limited by funding.
EMPOWER is contracted to receive just under $740,000 for fiscal year 2017-2018. That’s a slight increase from last year, but means the program expects to serve no more than 200 youth clients this year.
While the Merced WIB has over $1.4 million budgeted for youth services this year, MCOE’s EMPOWER is the board’s only contract for youth programming.
“Right away, 10 percent of that $1.4 million goes towards administrative costs. That comes right off the top,” said Shermaene Roemhildt, deputy director of Merced WIB.
Factor in the cost for the EMPOWER contract and Merced WIB has just over $600,000 in funding earmarked for youth services.
Yet, Roemhildt said this remainder is used internally to cover the costs of assessment tests and wages of WIB staff who work with clients before referring them to EMPOWER or adult services, since many clients who come in are 18 and older.
“They have a choice of whether or not to go to EMPOWER or proceed through some of our adult services,” she said. “[The money] goes to all the screenings and orientations for clients who walk into our office.”
While Roemhildt said Merced WIB is looking to increase its investment in youth funding next year, recent changes have cut back the amount of cohesion within county-connected youth programs.
Until recently, WIB managed the multi-agency Youth Council which met quarterly to investigate and address youth investment.
“The requirements for Workforce Investment Board’s changed,” Roemhildt said. “Our policies changed and we’re no longer required to have a Youth Council. It probably hasn’t been active for more than 1 year now.”
Youth service providers like Lincoln and Post say the council did a good job of keeping various programs throughout the county focused and connected on youth issues. Each woman said the fallout from disbanding the youth council has been acutely felt in Merced, with many programs siloed from the work of others.
“It’s so hard to tell now who’s doing what or how we can connect,” Lincoln said.
Post agreed and said the Youth Council used to publish an annual directory of all youth-related services in the county. That fell by the wayside along with the council, but lately she’s been looking to bring it back and update with new programs that have come on the scene in the last few years.
“We’ve got to get this updated because it’s a great resource,” Post said.
Among the new additions she hopes to include is a website development program organized by a former EMPOWER youth.
Break the Code is based off a Bay-Area youth service, but was brought to Merced by one of our former clients,” Post said. “Participants learn about web design as well as how to maintain healthy relationships at work and home.”
“They learn a lot about themselves and the industry, it’s great,” she continued.
Preparing youth to give back to their community and take pride in their home is essential to changing the narrative around Merced, Ornelas said.
“It’s hard work and you really got to meet them where they’re at and see who they are as a person,” he said.
“Young people here are the largest demographic in Merced, and we want them healed. We want them invested in so when they’re 18 they want to stay, they don’t want to leave,” he continued.