Leidy Robledo is a Youth Organizer at Puente Human Rights Movement in Phoenix, Arizona. Although she is an Arizona native, her path to becoming an organizer in her home community is due in large part to her experiences away from home.
I was raised here in Phoenix, but my family was displaced in 2008 and they had to migrate to Colorado. When I moved to Colorado, the school I attended was very different from the one I attended in Arizona. For one thing, the school I attended in Arizona was predominantly Latino, a lot of undocumented students, a lot of Mexican students.
In the classroom, we read a lot of literature classics, and I remember not having ever heard the name of a lot of these books. A lot of it had to do with culture, particularly in literature, but I saw differences in other classes, like biology, or nutrition class. I knew a lot of the things in there, but I knew them in Spanish. Even though I was at the top of my class in Arizona, when I came to this new school and took advanced classes, I was not prepared academically. I was not able to read at the pace I needed to, I wasn’t writing the way I was supposed to be. That was a very scary moment in my life, I had done everything I was supposed to, but I still wasn’t going to be ready for college. That made me wonder why, and I thought about the differences between my old school and my new school. We never actually read a book from beginning to end, they would give us a text book with short stories instead. Whereas, in the new school, you were expected to read a certain number of books – classics. I started to look at things in the new school that we never had access to at my old school. Part of it was lack of resources, but part of it was also that students at my old school were expected to do less. We had those short stories because they didn’t expect us to finish an entire book. The reason why we had outdated books was they didn’t expect us to care. It started raising a lot of questions for me around my education.
When I went to Colorado, I went to a school that was predominantly white middle class students. For me, making that switch was one of the things that really built my political consciousness. The first thing I noticed, was that this new school had a lot of AP programs, a lot of college credit even in a high school. For me it was exciting, I was always at the top of my class and on honor roll (in Phoenix). But when I started attending class, I realized I was the only Mexican girl in those classes. Slowly, I came to realize the difference of being the only person in those classes as we were reading different books.
Involvement in organizing helps young people develop a critical social analysis. Youth organizing groups did more than develop the competencies of young people. Through their involvement in organizing, young people began to understand the systemic nature of problems in their community and schools and the need for correspondingly systemic solutions. They also gained the organizing skills to address community problems through collective action. (OPS11)
In Denver, I met Padres y Jovenes Unidos. I had a very natural connection to their program. I would ask “Why is this happening?” “Am I expected to do less?” “If I was in a different program would I do better?” They provided answers to that, they explained that the system is set up to make sure there is always a class that is working, a class that is always set up (to achieve less), while there is always a class that has privilege. For me it seemed so natural, and at that moment, I needed those answers, those were the questions I was struggling with.
I started working with Padres as a youth, quickly they hired me as an intern for a year, and before the year was over, I was a part-time organizer. I soaked up their youth curriculum, I had really needed it. It made so much sense for me. I worked with an immigrant student’s rights campaign, and one big campaign I worked on was passing in-state tuition for undocumented students. I was also leading the campaign when the DREAM Act almost passed at the federal level. I wanted to bring back everything I was learning at Padres to Phoenix; that’s where I was raised, that was home for me. At that time, there were no real organizing efforts going on in Phoenix, and this was before SB1070. When I was growing up in Phoenix, there no organizations like Padres, and I thought what a difference it would have made for my community. Especially because at that point, there were a lot of raids and checkpoints. I realized this was something we needed in Phoenix to resist hate. When I graduated college, I decided to return to Phoenix.
Building alliances, turning corners
Shortly after her time at Padres y Jovenes Unidos, Leidy landed a position with the Alliance for Educational Justice (AEJ), which gave her the opportunity to organize in national spaces. Leidy’s leadership skills blossomed through her work with AEJ. Working at the national level, she realized the importance of connecting and aligning the work of multiple groups across a larger, unifying framework.
One of the biggest shifts we saw because of our work, was in the first year I was working with AEJ. We had a meeting with the National Teachers Union, around a campaign trying to prevent schools from being privatized and closed in a few cities. At the same time in some cities, we were working on the school-to-prison pipeline, and the Teachers Unions were our biggest opponents. So, we had a national meeting with them – if we were going to work together to prevent school closings, we were also going to need them to step forward to help end the school-to-prison pipeline. We were very clear that one of the biggest reasons the school-to-prison pipeline existed besides school discipline, was school closings.
I remember the first time we met with those teachers, they had a national conference and invited us to present at a panel. The youth were promised two hours to present discuss their issue on a panel. Slowly, as the conference got closer, the teachers started pushing the panel towards the end of the agenda, and slowly it got shorter and shorter until we only had one hour. And it was the last hour on the last day of the conference. I remember our young people being very upset, they felt the teachers were not taking them seriously. But when their jobs were on the line because of school closings, they expected us to mobilize, and that was the only time our youth felt like they were being taken seriously.
Involvement in organizing helps young people feel a sense of agency in their lives – the belief that they have control over their actions and can make a difference in the world around them. In a society that all too often marginalizes the experiences and voices of youth of color and renders them powerless, young people’s discovery of their own power helps to shift their sense of self, expectations for their futures, and their sense of possible roles they might play in the world. Upwards of 80% of students felt confident that they could research a problem in their community, create a plan to address the problem, and get other people to care about the problem. (OPS11)
In their presentation our youth asked teachers to write on sticky notes “What are stereotypes you think of when you think of youth?”. Our youth walked around to tables with transparent plastic frames and put the sticky notes up there. They took these clear frames full of sticky notes to the front, held them up, and told teachers that it was because of these stereotypes that teachers are unable to see the students, and the students stood on the other side of the clear frame. It was a very powerful moment because it was the first time the teachers acknowledged the students having had a genuine experience. And the students told them, “When we have good teachers, we don’t end up in the school-to-prison pipeline. That’s why we need your help and we need you to stand up.” And they shared some powerful stories of teachers who really made differences in their lives and prevented them from going into the criminal justice system. They also shared stories where teachers didn’t do anything, and pushed the students into the pipeline.
Fast forward three years, the AEJ has an alliance with the three national teacher’s unions, and it all came out of that powerful conversation where students stood up and said “I do have a story, I matter. And the way you treat me in the classroom affects how I will be treated in the system.” It opened the teachers to have a real reflection around their role in the school-to-prison pipeline. We met again a year later, where they recognized there was a problem and were willing to work on it. And then a year after that, we got together to rewrite No Child Left Behind to include funding for restorative justice practices for schools who chose to do alternative programs. That was a big shift, and locally, it made an enormous difference not having teacher’s unions as a big enemy in local battles. Nationally, it shifted the narrative. At the end of the day, both school closings and the school-to-prison pipeline are state violence – so how do we connect everyone’s work? Through a bigger framework: There is a war against young people, and you’re either with them or not, you can’t just pick and choose. When you see state violence against young people, you need to help them. That how we connected our campaigns and moved our targets.
Things reached a turning point for Leidy and her colleagues. When they realized the urgency in their work, they found a new source of drive and motivation to organize.
One of the biggest turning points in my work was the moment Trayvon Martin was shot. I was working with AEJ at the time. We sent around 200 youth in waves to Florida, they took the state capitol, demanding justice for Trayvon Martin. Politically that was a defining moment, the campaigns we were fighting were no longer the same. We realized what was at stake, we weren’t just changing policy or changing the law – people’s lives were on the line. The reason why Trayvon was where he was that night, was because he had been suspended from school. Had he not been suspended from school, things could have turned out very different. That goes back to understanding how discipline is state violence, how these attacks in the communities at the end of the day, are state violence. And there are real lives in danger with these conditions we live in. When Zimmerman was released, we happened to be all together at a convening. I remember a youth from New Orleans, George Carter, saying, “Imagine if, instead of being suspended, he had an alternative? Maybe a community garden for reflection or something like that? He would still be alive if that would have happened.” George Carter was one of the youngest people to be involved in the alliance, he was a middle school student when he got involved. One morning a few months later in New Orleans, he went to school, but now since there are not really any community schools left in New Orleans, they are all charters, most students travel a long distance to get to school. That morning George Carter didn’t make it to school, they found him shot later that day.
For me, that was a big turning point. When we talk about state violence, we’re not just talking about something theoretical, we’re talking about real young peoples’ lives. The fact that his [George’s] school was not a community school made a difference, the fact that he had to travel so far each morning made a difference. That was also a turning point in the alliance [AEJ], people’s will power changed and people’s political stances changed. That happened around the beginning of the wave of black people getting killed by police more frequently. We changed when we saw that this work was not just about winning a policy, it was about making sure that our young people live another day, that our young people are able to live better lives back in their homes.
Self-determination and self-governance
By now, a seasoned pro, Leidy knew she wanted to organize in her hometown of Phoenix. Leidy joined the team at Puente Human Rights Movement as their Youth Organizer to pay forward everything she learned and all the skills she developed from her national work.
When I was in Padres, we defined liberation as the ability to practice self-determination and self-governance. Self-determination is when people can be what they want to be. Self-governance is when they get to decide what happens in their surroundings, in their community. A lot of communities haven’t been able to practice that for hundreds of years. So, to be able to take young people through a process where they’re practicing that, is big. For young people, to get them to a place where they can practice those things, we take them through trainings that help them explore who they are – their identity and their history. In turn, what that process produces is a person who is completely able to be creative, it allows them to think beyond what people expect them to be. For examples, when you teach a student how to express themselves through art or taking a picture, or acting out a skit -those are all things we use as tactics in organizing, and those are all skills they can take to solve other problems in their lives and decide who they want to be. It’s taking them from that place of isolation and darkness to a place that gives them light, it gives them a voice to be who they want to be. What’s powerful and unique about youth organizing, is that they [youth] then have the responsibility to come back to the community and bring that to other people. That’s part of the self-governance, being able to bring those resources, all those skills they’ve learned back to youth, to newer generations.
Coming back to Phoenix, one of my biggest goals is to bring back everything I learned as a youth organizer in Colorado and nationally in different cities. I want to bring the practice of youth organizing, and I think we’re starting to see the results of that here in Phoenix. I’ve only been here for three months and already we have a full-on campaign to remove police officers from campuses. The school-to-prison pipeline is such a new topic in Phoenix, that when we talked about it with politicians who were about to pass a state law relating to it, they had no idea about how having police officers in schools can impact students of color.
When we’re going to the schools and allowing students to talk about these issues, the energy has been amazing. Young people have seen the connections already, we’ve been going to presentations where we have close to 200 students signed up in just one day. That’s how eager they are to have people ask them about their conditions in schools. That’s how ready they are to speak about what they feel is needed, what is going to make them feel safe. That’s why it’s so important for organizations to exist who not only facilitate that situation, but help them achieve their vision, they know what they want schools to be. Our role is getting them to talk about those conditions because nobody has gotten them to talk about it before. It’s an exciting moment, even though conditions we’re facing in the country are bad, but we see that young people are going to be the ones who make the difference and bring the energy that’s really needed right now in our movement. Students are ready for it.