It’s Time to Invest in Our Youth

August 12, 2016 /

By Dean Welliver

Ed Note: The following letter was read on June 30 during the kick-off of South Kern Sol’s Youth Summer Series, outside of the Mesa Verde Detention Center. South Kern Sol held three events throughout the summer aimed at shining a light at issues impacting youth throughout our Kern County.

First, I want to thank you all for coming out today to learn more about social issues in your community while enjoying time with your family and friends. Creating community relationships is such a special process because it brings people from diverse backgrounds together by sharing space, beliefs or ideals. One of the principle qualities of this process is unity, being able to form relationships with people who are different than you and respect those difference as something that makes us stronger.

I’ve been involved in various youth social justice movements since I was 16 years old and never have I seen such a unified youth movement in Kern County than is taking place right now. I couldn’t be more proud to be part of a youth movement that gets loud about issues affecting all populations and does it from diverse perspectives. This is amazing because all of the issues that we are dealing with, no matter how different they may seem, are connected. What affects one member of our community affects us all in a ripple effect.

Three big issues in Kern County are that families are being split up due to a lack of a pathway to citizenship for undocumented people, a lack of access to quality education, and the underinvestment in youth and overinvestment in prisons. It’s startling that for the amount of money Kern County spends a year on youth prisons, it could pay for the tuition for every single Bakersfield College student. It’s important to focus on these issues because they affect our LGBT youth, youth of color, low income youth, immigrant youth, foster-care youth, religious youth and our disabled youth.

In Kern County there is a lack of investment in our youth other than for prison detention centers, and we all know that our youth deserve a better future than a locked prison cell. Kern County spends more money putting youth in prison each year than recreation, cultural services and drug-and-alcohol abuse services combined. These are services that could have a huge impact on youth in our community’s lives and keep them on the path toward success, but Kern County would rather see us locked up and destitute.

When I see statistics and things that Kern County is recognized for it is not positive. We don’t want to be number one in Chlamydia and Gonorrhea infections, have high rates of illiteracy and have poisoned water. We don’t want to have a suicide rate of two youth per week, or push our African American and Latino youth out of schools and into prisons through discriminatory suspension and expulsion practices. We don’t want to have so much homophobia and transphobia in our culture where former School Board Member Ken Mettler can punch a gay protester in the face in 2008 and then later be a leading candidate for Mayor in 2016. We don’t want to have school board members who refuse to follow the law and policies that are for the best interests of students. We are better than these statistics.

The youth in Kern County are here to say that enough is enough. We won’t stand for the lack of investment in youth, in our education, in our mental health, in our futures. We are getting loud and getting out to vote. The people in positions of power aren’t listening to youth and are actively trying to suppress our agency and our opportunities for success.

In 2014, only 8% of Kern County voters ages 18-24 voted. I believe that this is a result of the lack of investment in our youth and the culture that demonizes young people as lazy and technology addicted. This year, we were at the ballots on June 7, and we will be at the ballots on Nov. 8. We won’t tolerate elected officials who don’t represent us.

So to all the youth and adult allies out there, #GetLoud about the issues that affect you and your community, and also #Vota in November for investment in our youth and schools–not prisons.

Dean Welliver is a youth journalist for South Kern Sol and an LGBT community organizer for the Dolores Huerta Foundation.