By Andrea Valadez
It can be hard to speak up when it feels like you are never going to be taken seriously. La Escuelita de Involucramiento Cívico (The Little School for Civic Engagement) in Salinas is dedicated to changing a common belief among monolingual Spanish speakers that their opinions don’t matter when it comes to local government.
La Escuelita was founded by Building Healthy Communities (BHC), a 10-year initiative created by the California Endowment. BHC aims to foster community growth and support, as well as advancing policy.
“We are empowering the voices of our residents to be part of the decision-making in the city council … to have a more equitable budget where the voices of our community are heard,” said Nidia Soto, economic justice organizer at La Escuelita.
The organizers of the program have seen a lot of growth in the students of La Escuelita in that they are not afraid to speak their minds with the members of the city council.
“(Their confidence) was evident in the second round of direct communication with our city council members. We met with every member of the city council at least once,” said La Escuelita co-organizer Luis “xago” Juárez.
During their meetings with the council, members of La Escuelita were able to point out any confusion they had with the budget. They were empowered to ask questions and ultimately received answers that made sense to them.
“I never got up to speak at city council meetings. I was a little scared, really. I mean, I’m outgoing and all that, but I felt like it was too much for me,” said Olga Reyna, a long-time activist with the United Farm Workers and a member of La Escuelita.
“But (La Escuelita) taught me how to stand up, introduce myself and be direct … and say what I have to say and cut it down to two minutes. So I feel very confident with what I have learned here with La Escuelita, and I am willing to go out and do much more,” she said.
La Escuelita was founded in September 2022, so it’s still relatively young and small with around 20 members. However, “everyone is willing to learn and willing to work, so it’s a really strong group,” Reyna said.
Some of the functions of La Escuelita’s workshops are “informative sessions on how to make public comments in council (meetings), how to know the local laws of our city, state laws, and how (the city budget) is managed,” explained Soto. All of these things are imperative to getting involved in the community.
Organizers of La Escuelita are extremely proud of the changes in city council meetings that they have made possible thus far.
“In all the years since our city of Salinas was founded, like 150 years ago, there had been no agenda translation from English to Spanish. And our agendas are now translated at the council. Our budgets are also translated in the council now. That is very important so our community can understand exactly what each department is, what it is being used for, and what is being bought with that money,” Soto said.
One of the main objectives of La Escuelita is “that (the members) know that they have a space within the decision-making process so that they feel integrated, not excluded. Because a lot of our people come and go in a circle just from work to home and they’re not acknowledging themselves that they’re part of this community,” she said.
“It was great to see that they’re organizing neighbors and knocking on doors to get people involved and aware of what’s going on in the city,” said Salinas Councilmember Andrew Sandoval, the representative for District 5.
“We need more organizations like (La Escuelita) with boots on the ground that knock on doors. They’re able to inform residents about what’s going on and listen to their concerns, and then teach them … how to turn their concerns into actionable goals and get things done for the community.”
“When they participated in the public comments, they clearly communicated that the translation needed to be improved, that Zoom needed to be brought back, and that the agendas needed to be translated,” said Juárez. In the end, they were able to bring all of these changes to fruition and make council meetings more accessible.
It is very important to the members of La Escuelita “that the community knows that their voice counts and that they have the opportunity to be heard. And it’s not that we need it, it’s that we deserve it. Why? Because we pay taxes, because we are here,” said Juanita Aguilar, member of La Escuelita and community leader.
“What made me want to get involved was the love for the community … it has moved me to be able to get involved, to be able to help, to be able to give people a hug when they need it and tell people, ‘You can do it, knock on a door and someone will let you in.’”
Through making city council meetings more accessible for Spanish speakers, members of La Escuelita feel more empowered to continue fighting for what their communities want.
“Every time we achieve something, it really opens up the expectation that I have to try for a bit more. And little by little, we can do what people think cannot be done, what feels impossible … if we are here, we can make it possible,” said Aguilar. “Well, here we are, fighting that fight.”
If you have any questions or would like to participate in La Escuelita, feel free to contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have something to say about this story? Send us a letter.