A youth-led town hall held Thursday night identified several underlying issues and possible ways to address what organizers describe as a rise of youth violence throughout Santa Maria.

Organizers hope to present their results to the Santa Maria Mayor’s Task Force on Youth Safety for inclusion in their strategic plan.

“We want to make sure we’re not just numbers on the table,” said Joana Barrera, Santa Maria community organizer for the Central Coast Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE).

For the past several months, CAUSE, Future Leaders of America and Just Communities have pressured the task force to include youth voices in the decision-making process, citing a 2017 report issued by a Santa Barbara County grand jury. The report found that the task force failed to include youth and parent representatives at the policy-making level, something organizers said was apparent from the start.

While their efforts successfully secured spots for two youth representatives on the task force, Barrera alleges that they have been met with little buy-in from other members.

“When [the youth representatives] went to their first task force meeting, they were not presented or introduced to other members,” she said. According to Barrera, the youth representatives felt discouraged and unclear as to whether or not they would be allowed to speak at the meeting.

At Thursday night’s event, youth were grouped around tables in the auditorium of the Veterans' Memorial Community Center. Conceived as a means to give youth an outlet to voice their opinion on what’s needed and how they believe the task force should address the issue, adults were censured and prohibited from participating.

“Youth have great ideas and a lot to say,” Barrera said. “We want to get their opinion on what’s needed, present the results to the task force and ask them to take the collective opinions into consideration.”

Identifying problems

As adults wandered the room listening to their conversation, youth scribbled furiously on the sheets of paper draped on the walls and placed at their table. While the group touted the city’s sense of community, diversity and support as contributing to a positive environment, Thursday’s event reinforced the fact that numerous problems exist.

From the tangible and often destructive impact of violence, gangs and drugs, to the intangible ills of racism, oppression and lack of mental health services, several students mentioned that negative aspects of the community often seep their way into schools.

“There are no cliques or gangs, but at my school you do see groups you wouldn’t want to get involved with,” said one Pioneer Valley Student who asked to remain nameless. “I know it’s different for every school, but there have been people at my school who bring weapons and sometimes fight.”

Karen Perez, a Pioneer Valley junior, said issues like this exist on campus and largely manifest themselves under the radar of administrators. She said these problems could be addressed simply if administrators (and other adults) were open to listening and working with youth directly.

“They may know what’s going on in our school but may not know what’s going on in our mind,” said Karen. “When we’re young we’re told we have decision-making skills, but we don’t have opportunities to use them. We’re often told what we want by people who are older than us -- it’s like we don’t have a voice.”

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A perceived lack of agency and feelings of disenfranchisement were present among numerous youth who spoke up.

“Youth in general feel they don’t have a voice with people who are older than them,” another said. “We, as youth, do have a voice, and have many opportunities we would like to share with adults.”

For Janet Cruz-Reyes, even when adults have been willing to listen, she has found that they are often unwilling to take the next step.

“Adults don’t emphasize the services and resources we have in our community,” she said. “They’re often willing to say we have a certain service or resource, but when we approach them we often get pushed back and rejected.”

Barrera said the town hall was the first of what she hopes to become a recurring conversation among local youth. According to her, they would like to work collaboratively with the city and task force through a youth coalition they hope to establish.

“We just need to keep pushing for change,” she said. “It’s monumental for Santa Maria and we want to make sure youth are represented.”

Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga

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Santa Maria Times reporter Mathew Burciaga covers education for Lee Central Coast Newspapers.