How we expanded our youth programming during a pandemic

by Fernando Vallejo

In March of 2020 I had just joined CURYJ to lead the Homies 4 Justice (H4J) program, a paid internship for 14–18 year olds to learn grassroots organizing skills to stop the criminalization of Black and Brown youth. I was excited to be working with Cristina Flores, a former H4J participant, who was just brought on full time to help run the program.

We had just launched with a brand new cohort of 20 new interns, and we were all excited to see what they could accomplish. Then the pandemic hit. We had to figure out how to build authentic relationships over digital tools.

Me and Cristina Flores in our community Garden where we have been hosting socially distant sessions | photo by Brooke Anderson

We recruit youth who are the most impacted by criminalization and the foster care, immigration, and criminal injustice systems. We invest in these young leaders because we believe in them. We also know that we need to provide extra support and wrap around services so that they can succeed.

Cristina started to check in with individuals over text and calls. We quickly figured out that reaching out personally is going to be critical to our program retention during COVID. “This is where we really build our relationship with young people. They talk about school, relationships, and family. They talk about their problems and ask us questions. This is their space to talk to someone, to get things off their chest.” We instituted weekly wellness checks, dedicated one on one phone calls with participants, which last from 15–40 minutes.

Garden work day with H4J

“This work can be emotionally draining, it can be hard,” said Cristina. “We ask a lot from them when they participate in sessions about police brutality and criminalization — it reopens wounds. Those check-ins are the space for them to process that.” When asked in an exit survey half of the youth named the wellness checks as the most useful or valuable part of the program.

The wellness checks are a full day of work split between Cristina and I. We had to develop a tracking system to adequately support each young person. There is so much going on and the one-on-one allows us to pause and figure out where we need real interventions to support young people. Our relationships blossom in the wellness checks so that they are comfortable to tell me what is going on. That way I am able to take actionable steps and then reach out to my boss for services in the community.

“Monday Wellness Calls were the most useful to me. I was able to speak to an adult that I could trust about anything without fear of judgement.” —H4J participant

We both rely on our boss Linda Sanchez who connects us to other CURYJ programs like Life Coaching, which provides one-on-one mentorship. Linda also helps young people to navigate community services available to them and their families. Linda has connected young people to housing, therapy, academic support, legal services, GED programs, intimate partner violence support, and kickboxing classes. At the beginning of the pandemic when participants began sharing that their parents were losing employment, Linda launched a program at CURYJ to give out groceries and hot meals every Wednesday to participants. When asked 80% rated the level of support they and their family received during Covid-19 as excellent.

Linda Sanchez smudging our young people as well celebrate Dia de los Muertos in the traditional way

In that first cohort we saw the retention rate soar to 100% and the attendance rate stabilize at 80% every session. After the intervention of the wellness checks, it felt organic. At first they seemed quiet in session, so we started asking them to use the chat. Then we started passing the mic and calling on them. Now they pass the mic to each other.

H4J is a 20 week program and we launched their second cohort in June of 2020. We increased the cohort size to 25 and made being on camera a requirement. The first session we were pretty lenient about them using their camera. At first they were adapting to the technology of being virtual, so we didn’t make them. As time went on we thought, if we’re not meeting them in person we need to at least see their faces to know if they’re engaged. It is a paid internship so we need them to honor that.

H4J graduation and holiday gifts in December of 2020 including Omar, Cristina, Edith, Paula, myself and Kevin

We started using tools like million dollar questions with gift certificates as pop quizzes. On most sessions youth participate without being prompted. The chat has a constant banter of jokes, encouragement, or perspectives. In their exit survey, most of the youth reported that the relationships or people were their favorite aspect of H4J.

Cristina and I are able to make sure our young folks develop a healthy relationship with an adult, which they may not have at home or in school. We use the word homie because when you think of a homie, there is a positive connotation there. When you come from the streets and you say someone is a homie, it means there is love there.

A lot of the success of H4J is due to the cultural relevance of our curriculum. I come from the streets so that I understand the streets in a way that our youngsters understand the streets. We’re able to use examples in our curriculum like music. We use Nipsey Hu$$le as an example in the growth mindset, a session we call The Marathon. We are applying both academic and street concepts.

H4J interns, Brisa, Alejandra, Sofia, and Edith, after recording the short videos they produced in our community garden.

Cristina thinks that my background and vibe help our youth to feel more comfortable. “He has a very down to Earth vibe that gets youngsters comfortable to ask him questions or to confide in him,” she said. “He brings in that male figure that a lot of our young folks don’t have. They see that Fernando went through the same struggles and is at UC Berkeley now. It shows our young folks that you can go through it and still make it out.”

When we talk to our youth about our curriculum before they have entered the program we explain they will be learning: professional skills, financial literacy, and community organizing. We tell them that we are teaching the skills that you aren’t learning on the streets and that they don’t teach in your school. In academic terms, we are teaching them ‘hidden curriculum.’ They are the things that white upper class families transmit to their children.

When I think about Cristina’s lived experience it is absolutely her connection to her neighborhood. Her neighborhood is CURYJ. She stays down the street. Cristina went through our program herself and she relates to the things that we are talking about: incarceration, gun violence, criminalization.

Frame making to honor our ancestors

“I’m from the town. I see what they see on a daily basis,” said Cristina. “Another example of hidden curriculum is: why is it that at a young age, town babies are able to tell the difference between a gunshot and a firework? When I hear a gunshot, it doesn’t trigger me anymore. I can tell where the gunshot is coming from. So we want to do something they can relate to, build off of, critically examine. All of this information is there, it’s just not given to them. We want to teach them everything: Social justice, financial literacy, life skills, and care for them as people.”

Cristina shared that her favorite session she led was a poetry session. “At the beginning I asked them if they ever write what they are feeling. They almost all said no,” recounted Cristina. “Their pieces were so dope. To hear them say that they don’t write two hours earlier was surprising. To write is an emotional experience. Poetry is vulnerable af. They opened up their wounds and they felt safe to share them back. They talked about their traumas, about the things that they went through. They are going through so much, yet they’re up in session trying to achieve. Then the other participants are listening and learning about who they are. That is what builds relationships.

Cristina and I with the H4J OG’s Alejandra and Rome

Last week we just finished our first cohort of 2021, again with 100% retention. This group was different because we brought on two alumni, Alejandra and Rome, to be our H4J OG’s. They add another layer of care and relevance to the youth we serve. It feels good to know that our youth finish the program and want to stay connected.

My goal is to strengthen relationships with community services. One of our young leaders came to us to learn community organizing but we needed to tap him into Life Coaching, and to a program to get his high school diploma. Housing is always an issue. If we aren’t able to support these young people in every area of their life, then that’s when the program falls into pieces.

Cristina brings the perspective of building authentic grassroots relationships to build community power. “We always talk about community work, but our youngins don’t know their community if we are being upfront,” said Cristina “You and him are from the same hood and you don’t even know each other, you know? I wanna build that community relationship. That’s the Oakland vibe. Really recognizing where we are from and building from there. When we talk about numbers, when we have folks connecting with other young folks, that’s more of us to dismantle these oppressive systems.”

CURYJ unlocks the leadership of young people to dream beyond bars.