Long Beach youth move closer to gaining a stronger voice with release of new strategic plan

Youth and adult leaders from organizations across the city spent seven months last year collecting data and engaging youth in the form of surveys, focus groups, interviews, forums and town halls.

The end result was a 62-page strategic plan presented to the City Council Tuesday that moves the city closer to giving young people a stronger voice in local governance, along with more resources to help them succeed.

“The timing is amazing,” said Jennefer Heng, lead organizer at Khmer Girls in Action, an organization involved with the plan.

Heng was referring to the COVID-19 pandemic that led to a damaged economy and social isolation among youth. Now more than ever, young people need resources to help them “bounce back.”

Those resources could include mental health and wellness services, more career pathways, affordable housing, affordable transportation and more safe spaces, both virtual and physical.

The strategic plan came into fruition through years of community organizing and through the Invest in Youth Campaign, a coalition of local organizations. The council in 2019 set aside a one-time $200,000 allocation to finance the data collection, which was led in part by 18 “youth ambassadors” from all of the city’s council districts.

Briana Mendez-Padilla, 19, one of the youth ambassadors, said that when she helped facilitate focus groups, she learned that, like her, young people know what they want.

“We asked them these questions, and they didn’t have to think about it,” she said.

Some of the resources youth wanted include therapy, more parks, job opportunities and a free or cheaper bus fare.

Long Beach has about 130,000 residents between ages 5-24 years old, the report found, and 24% of those under 18 live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level.

Additionally, the majority of youth between ages 5-17 live in Central, West, and North Long Beach, which are areas with the highest rates of low income households, according to the report.

At Long Beach Poly High School, Mendez-Padilla said her biggest obstacle was access to technology, such as having a laptop for schoolwork. Now, as a college student at Cal State Long Beach, her newest challenge is financial security—even though she receives financial aid.

“Just trying to afford college,” she said about the cost of tuition and books.

The plan aims to serve young people ages 8-24 because youth want resources for all the stages of their lives, from elementary school to transitioning to adulthood, according to Eli Romero, an independent consultant with the city and a newly appointed commissioner on the Youth and Families Commission for Los Angeles County.

Romero, who helped with the plan, said because young people under 18 don’t have voting power, “they might not feel as represented.”

The plan can help them “to implement the change that they want and sustain what they like,” he said.

As part of this year’s 2021 budget, the council set aside $1.5 million to support the Racial Equity and Reconciliation Initiative, and more than $332,000 of those funds will be used to establish a new Office of Youth Development, which will be responsible for the implementation of the strategic plan. The office will be housed under the city’s health department and will be staffed by a manager and coordinator, who, when hired, Romero said, will be tasked to find more funding sources, collaborate with other departments and “elevate” youth voice.

The job postings for the two positions become available on the city’s job website within the next two months, Ana Lopez, the community impact division officer for the city’s health department, said via email.

According to the plan, other funding sources include $170,000 from the federal CARES Act funds, which will be leveraged to support virtual activities for youth connectedness and family needs, and establishing direct funding for youth through Measure US funds.

Mac Harris, 22, a youth ambassador, said during virtual public comment that this plan is a way for the city to listen, fund, and also be accountable to the needs of young people.

“We deserve a voice at the table,” Harris said.

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Crystal Niebla is the West Long Beach reporter through the Report for America program. Philanthropic organizations pledged to cover the local donor portion of her grant-funded position with the Post. If you want to support Crystal's work, you can donate to her Report For America position at lbpost.com/support.
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