Long Beach youth shared stories and expressed their concerns at the first ever Young People’s Budget Hearing on Aug. 6., with the goal of increasing a youth fund in the proposed 2019 municipal budget from $200,000 to $500,000.
Cosponsored by Long Beach District 9 Councilmember Rex Richardson, the event was part of a campaign by Invest in Youth, a local advocacy organization led by nonprofit group Khmer Girls in Action (KGA) and Building Healthy Communities: Long Beach, a collaborative initiative focused on central and west Long Beach.
About 100 young people, mostly teens wearing “Invest in Youth” T-shirts, gathered at the District 9 field office in north Long Beach to participate in the rousing event, which included youths performing “theater of the oppressed” skits coordinated by education activists HOMEplace, plus art and writing activities designed for participants to express their views to local leaders.
The hearing comes as the City reviews its recently unveiled 2019 proposed budget in anticipation of approving it in September.
The budget proposal currently includes a $200,000 “strategic one-time investment” to fund “programs or activities supporting youth well-being through a participatory budgeting process,” according to its executive summary.
“That only came because [Invest in Youth] advocated for it,” Richardson said of the fund.
However, Emily, one of the two 15-year-old youth leaders who emceed the event, said the community needed even more money to create a permanent fund.
“We are calling on our mayor and city council to increase this seed money to at least $500,000,” Emily said. “Six out of nine districts in Long Beach hold 90 percent of the youth population that live in poverty. […] To establish a Long Beach children-and-youth fund, we ask that our city invest more.”
She stressed that the funds would be distributed through a participatory process in which community members vote, which Richardson commended in his comments.
“I support participatory budgeting,” he said. “What we’re doing with the budget this year is a great first step in the right direction. […] If you look at cities of our size, they are […] establishing youth development departments and those are things the City of Long Beach should be doing and you all are leading that conversation.”
In addition to the new one-time youth fund, the budget proposal includes library and health funds that assist youth, as well as a community recreation fund of $17.7 million within the Parks, Recreation and Marine Department budget. The fund’s programs are designed to “reduce youth violence, […] provide for a positive alternative to gang involvement and develop higher self-esteem,” according to the budget document.
Those existing programs include youth sports, aquatics, day camps, after-school centers at parks and schools, supervised summer programs, winter- and spring-break supervised programs, a summer lunch program and teen-center programs.
But those funds are not allocated in a way that reflects the underserved community’s needs, according to Invest in Youth.
“Not all youth and teens have access to positive youth development programs and resources to reach their full potential,” the organization states on its website. “A closer look at how our city spends down public dollars shows that only $204 is spent on positive development programs per youth but an overwhelming $10,500 is spent on suppression for each youth arrest.”
Invest in Youth further states that, according to its recent survey of 750 residents, seven out of 10 support increasing public funds for youth programs and 80 percent favor making communities safer by investing in community-based youth development programs compared to 18 percent who support increasing police presence.
Invest in Youth thus calls for a children-and-youth fund supported by the City’s general fund and 50 percent of marijuana sales-tax revenue.
It further cites U.S. Census data that one-third of Long Beach youth, who comprise 27 percent of the city’s population, live below the state poverty level.
“Even with the input of the City’s Budget Oversight Committee (Suzie Price, D-3, Stacy Mungo, D-5 and Al Austin, D-8), the proposal may not equitably represent the city,” Invest in Youth stated in an Aug. 1 press release.
Lakhiyia Hicks, founder of HOMEplace, said she worked for a month with the young people who performed skits at the event in order to highlight some of those concerns affecting underserved youth.
The skits dramatized issues such as accessing health care without insurance and being penalized by school authorities and police for little apparent reason.
“How many people recognize what you saw here in your everyday lives?” Hicks asked participants after the dramatizations, eliciting many raised hands. “These themes were all from our personal and lived experiences.”
Hicks also invited participants to re-enact some scenes with new negotiation strategies created by understanding both sides.
“We can cultivate our individual power and build our collective power,” she told participants.
One participant was still skeptical after a skit in which youth tried to negotiate for more city money, which was being heavily allocated to police.
“If the […] youth step up and actually took the money away by organizing, by telling their stories, by just mobilizing like that, I think it would have been a more effective strategy than just talking with these systems that have long ignored us,” he said.
Joy Yanga, KGA’s communications director, told the Signal Tribune after the event that its purpose was to help increase youth representation in city budgeting decisions.
“Young people are not as represented in poorer districts,” Yanga said. “We want to make sure they also have a say, and also have a way to tell their stories where they’re not criminalized, where they’re seen for who they are and what they can bring to the table.”
To aid with that, she said that the letters and stories students wrote at the event would be sent to city council members.
Yanga also said that the new budget funds are earmarked based on the Invest in Youth survey results.
“The majority of respondents wanted increased public funds to go to positive youth development,” Yanga said. “They’ve listed opportunities in the areas of work-and-job training, supplemental academic support, youth leadership development, and mental health services.”
As an example of constructive development, Yanga said that during her seven years with KGA, she finds it refreshing to see young people graduate the program and go on to help and invest in other youth.
“That’s positive youth development right there,” she said. “I’m just really excited to share that model with Long Beach leaders.”
Yanga also said underrepresented young people, who sometimes serve as translators for their parents, can enlist the adults in their families as well.
“The next step is to engage residents in their districts to show up to the budget meetings so that they can also give input,” she said. “The other active thing that youth can do is to encourage [members of] their families who are old enough to vote to actually vote.”
Despite these steps, Richardson told the Signal Tribune after the event that real progress would require deeper changes to the city’s government beyond just the city council.
“It’s not us you have to convince, honestly. You need City staff on board,” he said. “Big cities have youth development budgets, they have youth development departments. Most of the council would be okay with it. City staff has been operating the city the same way for a long time.”
Richardson further noted that though demographics have shifted over the last 25 years, increasing the number of young people and people of color, the city remains entrenched.
“At some point, you have to [ask],” he said, “Being a 21st-century city, does it just mean having a nice logo and a nice website, or does it mean actually changing the structure of the city?”