Hundreds of people – youth and adults – gathered at Bob Hart Square Wednesday evening, Feb. 28 to welcome the Youth Leadership Institute (YLI) to Merced and its new offices, shared with We’Ced Youth Media, at 470 W. Main Street Suite 15 (above Destino’s). The Open House and Ribbon Cutting marked the arrival of youth empowerment in Downtown Merced.
This event was a true celebration with entertainment inside and out, a show of community support, a delicious spread of food, and full participation. Inside the beautiful office with exposed brick walls and colorful decor, hometown Merced band Candace and the Passengers played music for all to enjoy. Guests toured the facilities and were given information about YLI and We’Ced programs.
Outside on Bob Hart Square, youth leaders spoke and thanked the many local sponsors for their support. Recognition certificates were presented by Josh Mason of U.S. Senator Jim Costa’s office and Louise Farley of California Senator Anthony Canella’s office. Manuel Alvarado of the Greater Merced Chamber of Commerce welcomed both organizations into Downtown Merced and conducted a ribbon cutting ceremony to officially open their new offices and recognize them as new chamber members.
The Morgan Hill based Aztec dance group, Kalpulli Izkalli filled the square with color, the rhythmic beat of a drum and the smoke of burning sage. Their colorful costumes and heritage dances inspired guests to join in a dance spiral winding in all directions while moving through the square.
“The synergy between YLI and We’Ced has the potential to be something innovative for our area. YLI gives our youth a forum to address issues that are impacting them directly and resources to start organizing positive changes to those issues. We’Ced gives young people a way to tell their stories and show how they are impacted by issues. The We’Ced youth are narrative changers,” explained Jesse Ornelas, YLI Program Coordinator. Claudia Gonzalez is also a YLI Program Coordination, both working from the Merced office.
YLI started in Marin County in 1991. It quickly expanded into San Francisco (its current headquarters), Fresno and San Mateo counties. The new Merced office is the organization’s first expansion in 15 years.
“We believe that youth in Merced have powerful voices. It is our hope that we can guide these youths to address policy issues they would like to see changed within their community,” said Katrina Ruiz, YLI’s Merced Program Manager. “Our values in action have been founded on inclusion, innovation, social justice and community.”
Young people participating in YLI have a high participation rate, with nearly 100 percent of the more than 1300 youth leaders meeting weekly with their peers in 70 clubs. Some interesting characteristics are that 90 percent are “youths of color”; 65 percent speak a language other than English at home; 65 percent qualify for free and reduced cost meals at school; and one third will be the first in their families to attend college according to YLI’s literature.
More than 90 percent of YLI youth feel they can influence change in their communities.
Among other activities, Ornelas leads a program called “Rise & Lift.” “It’s basically a ‘Boys and Men of Color’ group focusing on character and leadership development, and civic engagement. In this program we also have El Joven Noble/ Healing Circles,” he explained. “To participate with YLI is very simple. If you are a young male aged 12 to 24, show up at our office any Wednesday at 4:30 pm.”
Because YLI Merced is part of the Building Healthy Communities initiative, they are included in a statewide network that has regular events, trips and camps through the summer.
“I am currently looking for adult allies to work with our Boys and Men of Color group. A passion for youth is the main requirement,” Ornelas smiled. “We provide training that teaches adults to be outstanding allies with young people. Being a adult ally will bring out skills the adult did not know they had. It’s a great experience.”
Similar programs, Designed to empower, support, and nourish the leadership of young women, are offered as “Merced Girls and Womyn of Color” and led by Gonzalez. Adult women are invited to serve as allies.
For more information about YLI Merced programs and activities, visit their website at www.yli.org/merced/ or call (209) 872-8405.
A project of New America Media via the YouthWire collective, We’Ced provides Merced youth with training in journalism in order to uplift powerful stories through a hyper-local community health lens. They currently support 15 youth reporters and mentors, publish online articles year-round, and produce two publications per year. Alyssa Castro is their Program Manager.
For We’Ced, which has operated since 2011 from their G Street office, this move expands the experiences of their young journalists. They can plug into the information, community and programs in the next room at YLI.
“We are excited about the energy that can be created when young people have more services and programs available to them. It’s easier to afford greater spaces that our young people deserve,” said Tim Haydock, Executive Director of YouthWire. “Young people choose their own stories and we also support young people in making sure they’re covering important community health stories as we have capacity in Merced.”
For more information about the Greater Merced Chamber of Commerce call Manuel Alvarado, GMCC President and CEO at (209) 384-7092 or visit their office at 531 W. Main Street or their website at www.mercedchamber.com.