Setting workable goals
Written by Jan Resseger
August - September 2006
September 1, 2006

Pastor inspires youth-organizing tradition for California students

When pastor and community organizer Don Stahlhut retired on July 15, he left a legacy for public school students in Contra Costa County, Calif., and for the schools themselves.

At Contra Costa Interfaith Community Supporting Community Organization (CCISCO), Stahlhut leaves in place a best-practice community organizing program that trains, pays and provides weekly support for adolescent community organizers. Through Stahlhut's efforts, youth organizers have made it possible for the problems of adolescents and their schools to attract far more attention in Contra Costa County than in most other places.

Stahlhut, who became CCISCO's executive director in 1996 after spending eight years as director of the San Francisco Organizing Project, launched the successful youth program in 1999.

He has continued active UCC ministry through a covenant with his local church, First Congregational UCC in Berkeley, Calif. His Christian vocation has been distinctive: empowering adolescents to force their school districts to address racial, ethnic and educational injustice.

By youth, for youth

Thanks to Stahlhut's influence, German Medina, who recently completed his junior year at Concord (Calif.) High School, has been organizing for three years with students of his own Bay Point community, about 15 miles from his high school and an equal distance from Mt. Diablo, the other high school where students from Bay Point are bused.

As evidence of the project's influence, Medina and his organizing committee secured an after-school homework center for youth bused to Mt. Diablo and Concord high schools. And because the bus for Bay Point leaves at the end of the classroom day and before after-school activities begin, Medina's group created their own after-school services and recreational opportunities - right in their own community - for those students shut out of these experiences at school.

A wall-sized mural decorates the exterior of the homework center that houses a teacher-staffed tutoring program, a computer lab and recreation facilities including a soccer league. The school district now pays a professional coordinator with whom Medina dreams of establishing a pilot summer program where students could "shadow" adult mentors whose jobs might interest them. Medina's committee also successfully won a $500,000 investment by the Bay Point school district to rebuild the playing field at Riverside Middle School. The students' long range goal is to make Riverside the site of a new Bay Point High School, one that will serve the community's youth.

Another priority, says Medina, is to help English-language learners.

At Mt. Diablo High School, Medina's committee has asked the school to develop paths back to the academic-track for students who have mastered English but continue to be trapped in language-learning classes that count neither towards full graduation nor the requirements for admission to state colleges.

In contrast, at Concord - a high school that has not yet developed a comprehensive English Language Development program - Medina recently organized a group of 40 Latino, Filipino and Middle Eastern students along with teachers concerned about the need for a program to meet students' linguistic needs.

Mentored by an adult organizer each week, and trained by Stahlhut and others, Medina has deliberately and strategically used the CCISCO organizing method to push for reforms that he and his peers have identified.

Medina and other youth organizers develop their contacts into ongoing local organizing committees, where at least every two weeks they train their peers to research local issues and become effective student leaders. Stahlhut adds that these students also learn how to involve their parents and sympathetic teachers and administrators as their allies.

Each summer CCISCO expects Medina to engage his peers in structured one-to-one listening sessions, ten per week during each of the ten weeks of summer - a total of a hundred interviews per summer - to gather data about the concerns of the students at the high school.

'Challenging their peers'

Maria Reyes, one of Stahlhut's two original youth organizers in 1999, now supervises youth organizers for CCISCO. She meets - at Starbucks, a church or McDonalds - with three youth organizers each week They often need help with the discipline of scheduling and recording their one-to-one interviews and establishing and supporting local organizing committees, Reyes says.

The key challenges for youth organizers, Reyes believes, are staying focused, setting deadlines and realistically evaluating their accomplishments.

"I try to help them approach things on a weekly basis," she says, pointing to how Stahlhut also guides and supports her work. "Don and I meet on a regular basis, so I'm not completely alone."

There are special challenges in youth organizing, Stahlhut acknowledges. Turnover is high, especially as students struggle to balance school, activities and other jobs.

But adolescents need support as they develop new skills and greater confidence, he says. The payoff is seeing his student organizers grow up and successfully move on to college or other jobs.

"One of our paramount themes is that no organizer can use his/her work time with CCISCO as an excuse for getting low grades in school," Stahlhut says. "This means that the time they put in with CCISCO throughout the year is directly related to their own academic demands."

Stahlhut believes that organizing adolescents is worth the special effort.

"Youth organizers can tap into their own networks, effectively challenge their peers and engender more trust than older organizers," he says.

A lasting legacy

During one recent training session, Stahlhut provided popcorn and Chinese takeout for seven adolescents who came to learn how a local organizing committee can help ensure that their schools are in compliance with a recently settled school equity court case, Williams v. California - a decision that guarantees quality textbooks and instructional materials, well-maintained school facilities and qualified teachers.

Barbara Berman, enforcement coordinator for the Contra Costa County Office of Education, distributed a 57-page booklet from the American Civil Liberties Union, which she used to explain the "uniform complaint process" under state court's decree.

The student organizers questioned Berman about the details of how one files a complaint. Then they strategized about how they and their committees could monitor school services and file complaints when there are violations.

Through the students' newfound passion, one can't help but spy Stahlhut's justice-doing fingerprints. Perhaps unwittingly, these young advocates are continuing the legwork of his ministry - a people-powered campaign for equitable public schools and better government services for California's young people.

Jan Resseger is the UCC's minister for public education and witness. 

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