Benjamin Thomas, 18, once felt like most other Del Norte County youth: He wanted to exit the scenic but economically depressed county right after he graduated.
“The teenage dream is to get out of here as fast as possible,” the high school senior said.
But like Makenzy Williams, whose story is described here, Benjamin joined a youth project organized and funded by the California Endowment as part of a countywide initiative. And that completely changed his outlook.
The Los Angeles nonprofit in 2010 invited Del Norte County in Northern California to join a 10-year social experiment in community transformation, one that’s committed to leaving residents healthier and far more hopeful about the community’s future.
Del Norte was once an economically robust area, when the logging and fishing industry were strong. But those jobs have disappeared, and many now live at or near poverty and suffer more health problems than the average Californian.
The transformation initiative – called Building Healthy Communities – works on multiple fronts to forge lasting changes. And one of those fronts is community organizing – that is, getting citizens together to identify issues that need fixing, and then training them to professionally research and present a solution. Armed with those skills, the community organizers then invite those with the power to change the situation to a public meeting, where they present their research and their demand. And a yes or no answer to the demand is expected at the meeting.
In February 2012, Benjamin joined the Sunset Student Organizing Committee, which was guided by a community organizer working for the Building Healthy Communities initiative. Sunset High is an alternative school, with about 100 students. They then chose their top issue, and one that could be quickly remedied: The lousy lunches served at school.
The big day came on May 15, 2012. School district officials, including the superintendent, arrived at Sunset to hear the organizing committee. “I was extremely nervous,” said Benjamin, who as leader had to open the presentation.
But the jitters didn’t last long. He began to feel the conviction of his words.
“There was a really powerful sentence and I looked out at the crowd and they were looking at me,” Benjamin recalled. “And I was like, “They’re listening to me. They’re not here to listen to some principal. They’re here listening to me! Yeah.”
Other students described the school’s regular offerings of frozen processed burritos, corn dogs, pizza, hamburgers, and chicken nuggets. They only had a salad bar one day a week, and it often ran out and had just a few toppings. In comparison, the youth told the officials, at the larger high school, Del Norte, students every day had a fresh salad bar with many toppings, and multiple freshly-made hot entrees.
And 84 percent of the Sunset students qualify for free or reduced–priced lunches, as they come from low-income homes. For some, students said, the school lunch may be the most nutritious meal they get all day.
At the end of the hour-long presentation – which starts and ends on time in respect for others’ schedules – the school officials said yes. Within a week Sunset lunches vastly improved.
After experience, Benjamin became more respectful toward authorities, and with his new skills talked to a school official directly about another issue and got a positive resolution. That wouldn’t have happened before, he said – he just would have vented and gotten frustrated. Benjamin also now has a zeal for improving Del Norte and Crescent City, the seat of the county. Because he knows he has the power to do so.
After college, he wants to return to Crescent City and become a community organizer, or take some other civic leadership role.
“Every time someone asked where I was born, I always wanted to say it was somewhere else,” Benjamin said. “And now I say ‘Here. I was born here.’”
“And now I see that I want to change Crescent City and make it a place that everyone can be proud of to be part of.“