Makenzy Williams, 17, felt like many youth in scenic but economically depressed Del Norte County.
“I wanted to get out and stay out,” she said of the Northern California county, which includes Crescent City.
The Triplicate, the local paper, even recently mentioned the common sentiment. “. . . Del Norte youth carry a common motif of not liking Crescent City and wanting to move away — ASAP,” a July 30, 2012 article stated, quoting a camp counselor at a new youth leadership academy aimed at turning around that mindset.
Del Norte, which borders Oregon, is stunning country. Pristine rivers crisscross the land, lakes abound, and its western edge faces the Pacific Ocean. It’s filled with towering redwood and fir forests, many of them now state and federal parks. The area draws many sports fishers as well as kayakers, campers, hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts.
But job opportunities are now few — although several decades ago the once-thriving logging and fishing industries promised good-paying, lifetime work for able-bodied workers. Currently, a job at the unionized Safeway is among the better positions around, one local said.
“It is sad how much it lacks in opportunity for those who live here,” Makenzy wrote in a recent email. “There are a lot of extremely talented young people here, but they have no way to express it.”
Del Norte had been heading on a downward trend since the sharp decline in timber and fishing industry jobs — with youth fleeing and the economy struggling and along with its schools. Substance abuse is a major issue, and many disease rates are higher than average for California, as is depression. Unemployment is also above average.
The county leaders for years have worked hard to reverse the tide. So they were thrilled when they learned that the California Endowment, a Los Angeles nonprofit, decided to invite them to join an ambitious, 10-year, $1 billion initiative to transform ailing communities into ones headed toward a far better, healthier future. (The initiative is described in here.)
Cultivating youth leadership is essential to its success, as they’re the ones with the energy, enthusiasm and long-term stakes to push for lasting change. So the Endowment largely funded a two-week Y.O.U.T.H. Academy in Del Norte last summer, with contributions from several other organizations as well. And the Endowment fully funded the subsequent 8-week Youth News Network program, which taught youth news-production skills such as interviewing, videotaping and editing. Participants also earned an $800 stipend.
Teaching communication skills was a key goal of the news production training, in addition to instructing them in practical skills that could expand job options while creating also important stories about the community.
“If you can’t communicate effectively, you’re not part of the decision-making process,” said Ron Gastineau, a newly-elected city councilman in Crescent City who oversaw the youth leadership and news production programs. “That’s what happened to a lot of them. It opened up their eyes and increased their confidence.”
It changed Makenzy’s life, and did develop her confidence in taking a leadership role. “By the end of the summer, I found myself directing my group, making decisions, and seeing them come to me for guidance,” she said. “That is something I had never thought I’d be capable of doing, but I loved it.
“I also learned that nothing is impossible,” Makenzy said. “With work, and sometimes it can be a lot of work, anything can be accomplished.
Last summer, when I first met her while she was in the program, she also said, “It’s good to meet people who are serious about what they’re doing, people who want to make a difference in their community. I thought they just didn’t care.”
She’s not the only one inspired by the changes the initiative is bringing. Other youth expressed similar sentiments.
Makenzy has decided to pursue a military career, and in June hopes to leave for the United States Air Force Academy. Part of her would like to stay, though, and help develop a youth center, something modeled after the acclaimed Youth Uprising center in Oakland which she visited during the summer program.
“I love Crescent City, I really do,” Makenzy said. “But I also think leaving and coming back is the best thing to do for myself, and perhaps I can bring back my new experiences and ideas to the community.”
TAKEWAY: In economically distressed areas, quality youth leadership training is key to creating a new future.