When it comes to poverty in California, it boils down to some pretty startling numbers: Last year, six million people in the state were officially living below the poverty line, two million of them children. And more than half of the state’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. This data comes from Kidsdata.org, a program of the Lucile Packard Foundation for children’s health.
Recently, Kidsdata co-hosted a community forum with New America Media. It was called “Growing Up Poor in the Bay Area,” and it featured video and photography by young people about what it’s like to grow up poor. KALW’s Sara Bernard attended the forum to hear what they had to say.
SARA BERNARD: Everyone knows that statistics can never tell the whole story behind an issue like poverty. When people try to fill in the blanks, usually experts and professionals are the first to speak up. As more voices join in, they may be diverse in many ways, but usually they are all adults. New America Media decided it was time to hear from young people when it comes to poverty in California.
JOSUE ROJAS: My name is Josue Rojas. I do mainly video production. I’m here at the poverty forum in San Francisco because I did a video about a young woman whose family was deported.
WOMAN (from New America Media video): When my dad and my brother got deported, I would see my mom and she wouldn’t know what to do. She was like, “What’s next? How are we going to pay rent?” She was stressed about the things that didn’t matter...
ROJAS: Of the five people in her family, the two males, which are her brother and her father, were deported. So her mother is the sole provider for the family.
Rojas is one of eight reporters who brought true stories like these to the forum. In the audience there are dozens of community members and journalists of all ages and from all over the Bay Area. The idea is to unite behind the power of storytelling. Here’s New America Media’s executive director, Sandy Close.
SANDY CLOSE: When people are invisible and don’t have a platform and don’t feel their stories matter, that isn’t just poverty there – it’s despair. It deepens the despair. But it also makes us blind – all of us – to what is happening in the society and the tenor of civic life around us.
During the presentations, youth reporters Karina Guadalupe and Nancy Yberra share a photo essay from their hometown, Central Richmond.
KARINA GUADALUPE: This picture is of a park that I’m actually working at. That was just a random day; some of the neighbors decided to use the dumpster as their personal garbage can. They kind of use Richmond, as a whole, as their own dumpster. You see garbage everywhere so it’s nothing new.
Richmond’s unemployment rate hovers around 16 or 17%. That’s nearly twice the national average, which is already high. And in neighborhoods like the Iron Triangle, where these girls live, the streets often feel neglected, even abandoned.
NANCY YBERRA: You can see, there are two liquor stores on each corner, which means you can pretty much just choose whichever liquor store you would like to go to, but there’s no access to healthy food.
GUADALUPE: That’s a petroleum pipeline warning. They’re everywhere. Yeah, you see at least seven or eight in one block. You don’t see that in every city, so it kinda sucks that it has to be in ours.
YBERRA: So that’s a house, I don’t know if you guys can see the bullet hole through the house … So I mean, pretty much, drive by shootings, you know, the usual things that happen.
While crime rates have been dropping over the past couple of years, Richmond is often listed as one of the most dangerous cities in California. Recent statistics from the FBI still rank it third in the Bay Area for violent crime. It’s no secret that violence is linked to poverty.
In Richmond, Yberra says, some people are desperate.
YBERRA: I would like you guys to just embrace these pictures. Because these pictures, they’re not a joke. They’re not for your notes. This is reality. It’s real. These are the things that really go on. And I need you guys to just really embrace them.
At this point, many reporters put their pens down. You can feel a shift in the room.
YBERRA: So, this lady, her name is Helen. She has been homeless for 11 years. She used to work at the post office. That’s sad, you feel me? If you guys can just look at that. That’s crazy. It shouldn’t be a part of life, but it is.
These girls witness crazy parts of life every day. And what’s sobering about this kind of event is here they are, telling the world about it, in their own words.
GUADALUPE: I think one of the things that we wanted – well, me personally – to get across was just that it’s not okay, especially for kids, to be growing up with that mentality thinking that it’s normal when it’s not for any other county.
Why does it have to be so different? What’s so different about them and us? Are we just ... You know, do people not care about us as much as they care about them? Or why is it so different? Why do people have to live like that?
YBERRA: I don’t want them to feel sorry for us. I want them to kind of feel what we’re coming from.
GUADALUPE: A lot of people just judge, especially, young people. Like they’re not doing anything themselves. They’re not taking the opportunities. But a lot of young people aren’t aware of them. Someone doesn’t take the time to sit down and tell them you can do this of yourself. You can become this. There’s more to life than just living in Richmond.
There are programs in Richmond trying to get that message out to residents, like RichmondBUILD, a green jobs training initiative, or the Richmond Youth Corps, designed to provide part-time jobs for youth aged 17 to 24. But Guadalupe and Yberra say more needs to be done.
YBERRA: Especially for the homeless people. I feel like they should do something with the abandoned homes. They should fix them up. It’s kind of like they don’t care, and the people that are out on the streets – it seems like they are waiting to die.
GUADALUPE: Maybe somebody who got out of Richmond, made something of themselves, know the struggle that you have to go through, was put in charge of it … People who work in Richmond come from Antioch, come from different areas that are not Richmond. And the Richmond residents who need jobs aren’t getting them. Which I think, it’s ridiculous.
Given their energy and flow of ideas, it’s almost like this is the first time Guadalupe and Yberra are getting a chance to talk about this, but they’ve probably been discussing it for years, just not with us.
GUADALUPE: Yeah. I’m just happy that people were listening to what we were saying.
For New America Media, KidsData.org, and young people in Richmond, in Hunters Point, in the Mission, this is a place to start – with storytellers and listeners.
In San Francisco, I’m Sara Bernard for Crosscurrents.
Find more information about “Growing Up Poor in the Bay Area” here.