Change Through a Chromebook Screen How a local youth group advocates for students in Salinas during the pandemic

Members of La Cosecha in Salinas | Photo provided by La Cosecha

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This is one of a series of stories in Voices of Monterey Bay’s Youth Civic Engagement Project, a look at how high school students are staying involved during the COVID-19 pandemic. More on the series here.

By Karen Dorantes and Daniela Gomez

Teenagers have always yearned to have their voices heard by adults, and now more youth-led organizations are popping up around Monterey County. Some of these, like La Cosecha in Salinas, focus on change within their city.

The group advocates towards invoking ways of incorporating students in decision making, which is typically done mostly by administrators, parents, and adults.

La Cosecha, or “The Harvest” in English, is a Salinas youth-led group that operates under Building Healthy Communities, a 10-year initiative funded by The California Endowment that strives to improve neighborhoods in 14 communities that are dealing with inequities. La Cosecha is advised by Gabriela Manzo, BHC youth equity organizer.

She said the organization focuses primarily on advocating for student voices and representation within school districts.

“It’s a group …of 50 youth from all five (Salinas) high schools, focusing on student needs and representation in their district to do advocacy on the school system they wish to see,” Manzo said.

Among the participants is Erick Rocha, a senior at Everett Alvarez High School who has been actively advocating for student representation. Rocha described the mission of La Cosecha as a way to “cement student representation within school districts, so that district and school budgets … better reflect student needs such as better internet hotspots and technology for students with remote learning.” The group is also working toward a broader goal of ending the “school to prison pipeline,” creating equitable resources, and working towards creating a better learning environment for under-resourced youth.

Rocha has been attending school board meetings and telling school trustees about the raw reality that students face in the system, especially in an all-virtual setting during the pandemic.  It can be hard for educators to understand how students are struggling emotionally and socially, especially with remote schooling.

Rocha’s testimony opposed information presented by the Salinas Union High School District superintendent, Dan Burn, during a Sept 22 meeting of the board of trustees. “When I rebutted the superintendent and demonstrated why the current school processes were problematic, I knew I had a passion for this work,” Rocha said.

Rocha testified that students’ needs were more severe than the district believed them to be, pushing the district to reevaluate its support for students. Students lack resources to support their social and emotional needs in a virtual setting, he said.

La Cosecha presented a student-led survey showing the issues students were facing during distance learning to the board. The group advocated for better WiFi and new Chromebooks, access to virtual wellness centers, school resource centers with school supplies and toiletries and virtual career workshops.

Member Angelo Raya said while presenting survey results, “I can speak on a personal level that distance learning has been a completely different mental experience.”

Rocha added that students should not only be included in identifying what’s needed, but they should also be involved in implementing them — something he thinks isn’t currently happening in the district.

Another issue La Cosecha has been able to shed light on is mental health and its effects on students, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Before the pandemic, La Cosecha had already encouraged the building of wellness centers around the schools of the Salinas Union High School District.

At Everett Alvarez High School, one of these wellness centers was built but hasn’t been used sufficiently, due to the pandemic shutdown. However, the wellness center — known to students of Everett Alvarez High School as the “NEST” — have offered virtual resources where youth can meet online with trained counselors and social workers regarding issues pertaining to their mental well-being.

Manzo, the group’s advisor, said a majority of the student body wasn’t aware of its existence and felt it “popped up out of nowhere.”

Students didn’t feel 100 percent comfortable with the new building, Manzo said. She said the district didn’t ask students what healing really looks like from their point of view.

Recently La Cosecha asked for students’ opinions about how they believe the district’s COVID relief funds should be spent and also how they believe classes should be run, to include more spaces for students to talk. They were able to get a lot of student input. According to organization members, the district has not completely disclosed information on the funds or how they were spent. La Cosecha surveyed students to gain input on how students of the SUHSD believed advisory — or their homeroom class — should be run, is La Cosecha’s main priority today as they work towards presenting it to district trustees in the near future.

Representatives from the Salinas school district did not respond to repeated efforts for comments about La Cosecha’s impact on the district.

According to Rocha, La Cosecha’s advocacy has influenced other districts to implement more student representation, such as in South Monterey County, where youth councils have begun to include student voices. Rocha believes La Cosecha will bring attention to the necessary resources students need, like mental health centers and updated technology.

Rocha said he believes the work La Cosecha does, along with speaking up, is “extremely important” because more students need to be able to voice their opinions on decisions that adults — who most of the time may not understand how students will be affected — make on their behalf.

In light of the pandemic, Rocha said that it has become a bit easier to speak up and reach out to decision makers and more people can attend events, but there are limits to the effectiveness of virtual testimony through a computer screen.

Rocha goes back to the example of when La Cosecha presented to the Salinas Union High School District. Technical issues, such as a faulty microphone, make it more difficult to be able to fully express ideas and opinions. Rocha explains that although advocating virtually is still important, it “makes the presentation not as powerful.”

Members say the youth-oriented group continues to push for better resources for its district’s students, and will continue to advocate for the voices of students.

Manzo said La Cosecha “is just about giving (youth) the space and opportunity to lead us in what our community needs and should look like. It’s important that those being directly affected by the issues are the one to come up with the solutions.”

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About Young Voices

Young Voices Media Project teaches Monterey Bay area teens multimedia skills to report the news from their communities. This project was generously supported in 2019 by the Clare Giannini Fund.