San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood has one of the highest concentrations of people ages 17 or younger in the city of San Francisco. Juana Teresa Tello is working to train these young people to be activists in their community.
Tello leads the Youth in Power program at the social justice organization, People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER) – a radical, grassroots organization serving working class African Americans and Latinos in San Francisco.
Tello herself was exposed to community organizing at a young age. Both her parents are lifelong community activists. She remembers “being five or six years old, going out with them to give out food and seeing families with kids [her] age living in cars.” Tello says that gave her “a different side of understanding and awareness of where [her] community was at.”
When Tello was 10, her family moved to Bayview from the Mission/Potrero area.
“When my family first moved into the neighborhood, we were part of the first wave of Latino families that was coming into the neighborhood,” says Tello.
There were 12 people living in her house.
“I grew up being exposed to a lot of poverty, myself, knowing that my situation was really bad, but also, never really having to complain about food,” Tello remembers.
Despite their own circumstances, Juana says her parents continued to fight for a better life for the people around them. One day, in 2005, a canvasser knocked on their door, and Juana’s dad joined the group on the spot. It wasn’t long before POWER’s leaders recruited his daughter, too. Tello was 18 years old.
“When I started there was no youth program, so I was one of the youngest members. Just because of my parents, I think I was always the youth in meetings with adults,” Tello recalls.
Tello says the adults were excited to see a young person getting involved. They asked her to help design a program that would attract even more young people. After a yearlong process of research and community feedback, Youth in Power, launched in 2008. And Tello sits at the helm. One of the first issues they tackled was making public transportation more affordable for young people.
After about two-and-a-half years of campaigning by Youth in Power and other groups, the city agreed to launch an 18-month pilot program called Free Muni for Youth, which offers free rides to low-income young people ages five to 17. So far, 30,000 kids have signed up.
Youth in Power has had other lasting effects, including on the individuals involved in the group.
“I’ve learned how to be able to speak my mind freely without any hesitation,” says fifteen-year-old participant Alejandra Mendez-Ruiz. “I’m learning all these facilitation skills and how to build a community with my friends.”
Tello hopes to show that teenagers are more engaged in their communities than people think.
“I think, often, young people are seen as apathetic. Seen as people who really don’t care, who are rowdy, who are obnoxious. You know, we’re all young people at one point. I don’t think I would be where I am if I didn’t have support of adult mentors when I was young,” says Tello.
This story was produced as a part of the Sights and Sounds of Bayview project – a collaboration between the San Francisco Arts Commissionand KALW to tell stories of people who live, work, and make change in the Bayview. Hear more stories like this one by clicking on the links below. And check back for multimedia versions of these stories, featuring original photography.