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Young Organizers Connect in CA Central Valley

Young Organizers Connect in CA Central Valley

Published: August 24, 2011
José Chavez at rally

José Chávez and his younger brother Jesús Castañeda Chávez during a public gathering in support of an immigration reform in downtown Madera, California.

Photo: Eduardo Stanley

José Chavez, Minerva Mendoza, and Juan Santiago are all energetic young leaders, dedicated to working for immigration justice and widening horizons for their families and neighbors. When they were chosen to inaugurate a new, year-long apprenticeship program developed by AFSC's Pan Valley Institute (PVI) in Fresno, CA, they already had the experience and contacts that are an organizer's basic tools. It was exactly this experience that prepared them to learn and grow in the program, and to directly apply what they were learning in their own communities.

PVI grew out of the need of diverse groups of immigrants to reach out to each other from their sometimes isolated cultural communities. California's migrant agricultural labor force is no longer mainly Mexican; for over a decade now, groups of Southeast Asians and Africans have established communities in the Central Valley, and among the Mexicans themselves are many distinct groups, including indigenous peoples like the Zapotec and the Mixtec.

The generation represented by José, Minerva, and Juan, who migrated to the US when they were very young, has embraced its responsibility to help build bridges among people with so much to offer each other. Each of them saw in the apprenticeship program of 2009-10 and 2010-11 an opportunity to gain more of the skills they needed to take their activism to the next level. But the PVI apprenticeship goes deeper, they found.

Working with staff mentors, apprentices follow a curriculum developed specifically for this program, which includes Quaker history and values, AFSC history and organizational structure, popular education theory, and the methods of participatory research.

The three apprentices have chosen hands-on projects closely related to the cultural organizing practiced by PVI, contributing their own insights along the way. 

José and Juan took the lead on organizing the annual Day of the Dead celebration in Fresno, a well-loved and festive tradition. José and Juan worked together on the event, adding a new layer by dedicating it to the memories of international leaders who gave their lives to nonviolent struggles for human and civil rights. These leaders included Mohandas Gandhi, Bert Corona, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Emma Tenayuca, and Susan B. Anthony. They also built into the event an opportunity for immigrants to publicly share their own stories, aware of the importance of such first-person testimonies in the struggle to overcome anti-immigrant propaganda.

Essential to AFSC’s organizing approach is recognizing that making space for cultural expression is necessary to do productive work within immigrant communities. This approach assumes that no-one comes empty-handed, and that real learning always takes place in more than one direction.

This has been essential in building trust among the Central Valley's  farmworker population, which includes some groups -- like Juan Santiago's Zapotec community in Madera, CA -- whose members nearly all emigrated from the same small area in their home country. Juan knew from personal experience of his community’s strong tradition of group organizing for important community celebrations. They divide up responsibilities among all the families and treat each planning meeting as an opportunity in its own right for connection and cultural expression. In 2010, Juan volunteered to serve as the president of the organizing committee for the Fiesta del Pueblo, and used components of his PVI training to reach out to many other communities and include them too.

"These young people already have leadership skills, but their connection with PVI gives them access to community organizations they didn't know about, and also teaches them skills that are useful in navigating the college application process," said Estela Galvan, AFSC program associate.

Both Minerva and Juan are headed to college this fall, while José is still in high school.

All three are involved in forming a new cross-cultural youth organization in the area. Inspired by an interfaith youth event at which she represented PVI and learned about the First Amendment, Minerva is working to organize follow-up opportunities for youth to continue gathering and learning together. Finally, the apprentices credit PVI with enhancing the professionalism and communication skills that are helping them succeed in college and the workplace.

Even after the program is over, the apprentices have remained in close contact with their PVI mentors -- a great benefit for them and for AFSC.