Michelle Xiong: Positive outcomes from youth forum with candidates

November 1, 2013 

With Nov. 5 hastily approaching, young people held the first youth-led candidate forum focused on issues important to them. The forum made one thing clear: No matter who gets elected, they’ll be working hard to make Merced a better place for young people.

More than 100 people attended the forum at Tenaya Middle School where youths presented candidates with three topics to get to know them personally, and specifically, to ask about their ideas for how to make youth life more prosperous. Youths were pleased that every candidate said they’d like to see more activities for youths outside of school hours. Ideas ranged from increasing sports to expanding art programs to providing better transportation to these activities.

Youths also asked candidates about job creation and preparation for youths to enter the workforce. In a survey conducted for the forum, nearly 500 youths responded, with over 71 percent saying that finding a job was their first priority. Every candidate responded that they will focus on reinforcing the economic sector to make it more conducive for providing job opportunities, and that they’d support youths for entry-level jobs to strengthen their skills and experience.

Second, with more than 90 percent of youths in the same survey saying that the city needs to do more to hear from them, the candidates said they would support the youth council recently adopted for the current budget through robust dialogue and regular exchanges of communication. Also all candidates support a community of tolerance and nondiscrimination to encourage youths to speak up.

Other concerns touched on growth, such as how to help south Merced as the city expands north. When asked how they connect with youths, every candidate referred to their past involvement with youths and organizations like the Boys and Girls Club. They also mentioned their relationships with their own children, grandchildren and students.

Some of the highlights from the forum: Mayor Stan Thurston’s comment that he never wants to hear “Merdead” again, and that there should be more support for gang prevention. Mayoral candidate Noah Lor emphasized the importance of providing support and counseling for youths and more youth development programs.

Council candidates agreed. Michael Belloumini said the arts, drama, dance and music are important to youth development. Peter Padilla said that youth activities need to come back and, as a former Parks and Recreation Commission member, he was disheartened to see them cut. Josh Pedrozo asserted his commitment to partnering with local school districts to increase youth opportunities. Alex Gallardo indicated that there need to be equal opportunity for activities for youths living in south Merced as there are for those living in more affluent areas. Kevin Blake underscored the value of keeping young people out of the judicial system and acknowledged that south Merced had higher numbers of violent crime and drug activity.

Although Chris Ramirez was unable to attend the forum, he responded by saying that he’d include youths and youth organizations in decision-making processes that are relevant to their interests and he’d strengthen collaboration between existing youth organizations. Monica Villa emphasized the need to take care of each other and ensure that jobs are available for youths, so that they’re prepared for careers. Jana Mowrer said we need to build the connection between the current leadership and the future leadership of Merced.

Overall, the forum showcased the candidates’ commitment to youths. As a result, youths are excited about playing a larger role in civic engagement and creating solutions to these issues. Youths who led the forum have become empowered, such as Lisa Vasquez, who has been appointed to the youth task force. There was an undeniable need and desire on everyone’s part to have open dialogue and establish a new way of working together.

Youths and adults alike will continue working with the elected leaders to move beyond the rhetoric so that we can all have a shared standard of life.

Xiong is youth coordinator for Building Healthy Communities, serving southwest Merced and eastern Merced County.

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