For the second summer, youth from North Long Beach, the Westside and the Washington neighborhood will have the opportunity to share their stories with the return of the storytelling program My Hood, My City.

All youth ages 14 to 24 who live in the aforementioned areas—all of which have experienced disproportionate amounts of violence, underinvestment, poverty and impacts from COVID-19— are invited to apply.

Over the course of the program, which will meet weekly from June 21 through August, around 10 young people from each neighborhood will develop photography, writing and interviewing skills, culminating with a media project that highlights both the beauty and the struggles of their neighborhoods.

And in August, youth will have the opportunity to educate Long Beach at large about their neighborhoods, by leading community tours as well.

“I just really liked sharing my little stories, to show that this place isn’t really scary, but it’s actually like, full of really good people and life,” said Gisselle Becerra Murillo, 18, who participated in the program last year.

“These neighborhoods, they have really bad reputations, and people only hear the bad stuff, and they don’t really see the good stuff or care about the good stuff,” said Becerra Murillo. “I think it’s important to bring on representation to let people know that these places exist.”

The program empowers youth to not only help shift the narrative that exists about their neighborhoods, but to connect more to their own communities, said Youth Leadership Institute senior program coordinator Carlos Omar.

“I think it’s like a cliche that people think like, ‘Oh, I want to get out of the hood,’ and I think that’s kind of tragic,” Omar said. “I think there’s something really beautiful in wanting to bring the magic that you’re seeing elsewhere to your area and make it a destination for people to want to come check out, and uplift the people who are already there, making it so vibrant.”

While people of color and queer folks are often underrepresented in storytelling, this program creates a space specifically for young people, who are also typically excluded, Omar said.

“We want to build youth power. We want them to understand that … their voice carries authority, not only just in their neighborhood, but in the city around them,” said Youth Leadership Institute Long Beach Program Manager Erron Harris. “We’re not waiting for them to become leaders—they are leaders.”

This year, youth will also have the opportunity to collaborate with the Chicago-based youth-led tour program, My Block, My Hood, My City, which inspired the Long Beach program.

“Just the excitement of having that cross-pollination is really fun, and that’s just the first step,” Harris said. “We’re hoping that in the future, there can be more intentional work, not just with sharing the stories and stopping there, but more advocacy and community collaboration on the maybe state or national level.”

While the Youth Leadership Institute already utilizes storytelling to advocate for better health outcomes, Harris said he hopes to see even more advocacy in the future.

“It’s already happening, but there’s more potential for more structural defining of what that looks like in the program,” Harris said.

Some other new additions to this year’s program will include some additional writing to accompany the photography projects, participation in neighborhood-specific activities, and the opportunity to develop interviewing skills, said Omar. Other activities are expected to include a community portrait day, where youth will be encouraged to photograph residents of their neighborhoods.

My Hood, My City, created in collaboration between the Youth Leadership Institute and with the city of Long Beach, is funded through the Long Beach Recovery Act, which funds economic and public health initiatives for Long Beach residents and those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The City’s Department of Health and Human Services Office of Youth Development has partnered with the Youth Leadership Institute to manage the program.

The program also aligns with two Youth and Emerging Adults Strategic Plan goals: to prioritize community care, which gives youth the opportunity to feel connected to their community and environment, and the Race and Reconciliation Initiative, which invests in community safety and violence prevention and intervention.

Participating youth who attend all program events will earn a stipend of at least $600, and all equipment will be provided. While young people with photography experience are encouraged to apply, no experience is necessary.

“Sometimes we just find that youth might be interested in these things, nobody’s just happened to ask them about it yet,” Omar said. “A big piece of the goal, is also just do that, and affirm for them that like, ‘Yeah, what you think and do matters.’

“Hopefully that’s what they walk away with,” Omar added, “knowing that this could just be the start of something really, really beautiful and impactful for them in the long term.”

Those interested in participating can sign up here. Applications to the program are accepted on a first-come, first-served basis, and the deadline to apply is June 19. Email [email protected] or [email protected] with questions, and for updates about upcoming tours, follow the Youth Leadership Institute on Instagram.