City Heights Youth for Change

Civic Engagement Award

A project of the Global ARC, City Heights Youth for Change operates a Youth Leadership Academy for East African Youth. Understanding the role youth play in the community, this project provides support in playing that role by providing the participants with education and training on issues of importance to their community. They also receive training and support on how to share that knowledge and information with the rest of the community so they may be informed participants in the public dialogue.

Their Story

Imagine you are twelve years old and you live in a place called Nowhere, Kenya. You have lived here your whole life. Kakuma, Swahili for “nowhere,” is a refugee camp located in Kenya about a hundred miles south of its border with South Sudan and houses over 150,000 other refugees.  There is little to do there -  no school - and you are not allowed to leave. Your parents, escaping horrendous violence in Somalia, came to this camp as long as 15 to 20 years earlier. Because of the length of time in the camp and the conditions that brought your family to the camp, very few adults have ever attended school and are illiterate. 

EntranceGetting WaterOverviewMap

Now imagine you are that same twelve year old and your family has been resettled in the United States.  Within two weeks you go from sitting in Kakuma to sitting in a 7th grade classroom at Mann Middle School in San Diego. You are lost, confused, and frightened. No one around you speaks your language and, never having been in school, you have no idea what you are supposed to do or what is expected of you.

Most children in this situation would look to their parents to help them understand what is going on and what they should do. However, your parents don’t speak English either and, like you, have never been to school. They are also lost, confused and frightened. They have taken you out of harm’s way, but are at a loss as to how to help you navigate life in these new surroundings.

The greatest challenge facing the refugee community is communication. They speak languages/dialects that are new to the US institutions (e.g., healthcare, education, social services, etc.) and many have had little or no experience with these institutions. The success of the community is dependent upon its ability to close the communication gap by building a bridge that connects their previous life to their new life. Youth, those old enough to remember the journey and young enough to go through at least high school here, are the ones to build that bridge. They assimilate almost immediately, learning the language and how to maneuver the American System more quickly than their parents. This project focuses on these youth by investing in their development as Popular Educators who can close the communication gap by educating the parents and service providers as well as creating Knowledge/Action Networks that will educate and activate people on issues of health, nutrition, and education.

Youth Leadership Academy

The story of City Heights Youth for Change is a story of a group of Whole Groouprefugee youth (aged 14 to 26) who began by making a commitment to confront the huge gaps in educational outcomes between schools in low-income neighborhoods, such as their neighborhood, and those in wealthier neighborhoods.  City Heights Youth for Change was formed near the end of 2013 by six young Bantu women[1] who came together under a grant from the California Endowment as part of its Building Healthy Communities Initiative (BHC). As the group grew and matured, they also began to address issues related to food justice and access to healthcare – both major issues in their community. 

Small Group 
The Youth Leadership Academy was formed in order to provide these youth with the training and support they needed to address those issues. These young people took their responsibility as bridges seriously and the Leadership Academy was developed to support them in that role by training them as Popular Educators and providing ongoing support.

Role of the Global ARC

Because these youth must help their families navigate the word around them, the Global ARC prepares them to be Popular Educators, i.e., members of the community who are trained on the “American System” (e.g., the educational system, the political system, healthcare system, etc.), issues of concern to the community and on how to share knowledge in a way that leads to individual and collective action.  These youth meet twice monthly to reflect on their actions and to receive ongoing training and technical assistance.  In addition, share their knowledge with the broader community and brings them into the public dialogue.


City Heights Youth for Change have made great progress on their goal of finding and Classroomraising their community’s voice and inserting it into the public dialogue.  These youth have learned how the School District operates and by sharing that knowledge they have engaged their community in public dialogue.  

Over the past year, these youth have:

  • Gotten San Diego Unified School District to commit to providing interpretation and translation services to people speaking Karen, Kisagua, Somali or Swahili (most common languages spoken by refugees in the District).
  • Helped pass a School Board resolution to provide healthy, fresh, locally grown food that meets the diverse nutritional needs of the community.  In particular, the District has agreed to halal food choices to Muslim students.
  • Have been part of turning out hundreds of members of their community to rallies, public hearings, school board and city council meetings, etc. voicing the interests of the refugee community

[1] Bantu, often referred to as “Somali Bantu,” are an ethnic, linguistic group of people from East Africa.  While they are last from Somalia, they are not Somali and have a distinct culture and languages (Kizagua and Maay-Maay).  Most Bantu do not speak Somali and very few Somali speak Kizagua or Maay-Maay.  The Bantu arrived in San Diego in 2004 and there are approximately 600 to 800 Bantu presently living in San Diego.

What we do
Civic engagements
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