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August 16, 2016
Maria Gonzalez considered herself an introvert. She was withdrawn and reluctant to take the lead or speak her mind openly about any topic. Then she met Omar Cardenas, a youth organizer with Children’s Defense Fund – California who came to her high school every week and spoke with students about ways to improve their educational experience.
Those Tuesday meetings were a part of CDF-CA’s Youth Organizing Long Beach program and became Maria’s catalyst for change. The meetings provided a safe space for students to talk about what was going on in school and in their community. Topics ranged from community events to unfair suspensions and expulsions – otherwise known as school pushout.
She enjoyed it so much, she later joined CDF-CA’s Action Scholars Leadership Program which provides members with the knowledge, experiences and strategies to develop and sustain long-term, youth-led advocacy campaigns.
In these meetings, Maria felt like someone else.
“They taught me I had a voice and I could speak about how I felt,” said the 17-year-old Jordon High School student. “I wanted to be involved.”
When the opportunity came up last year, Maria ran for a student seat on Jordan High Schools School’s Site Council, the high school Maria attends. Part of that process involved delivering a speech to the student body. So she did and won. She was selected out of 10 other candidates.
Maria cannot put into words what Children’s Defense Fund – California has done for her life.
She said she is still discovering who she is but thanks to CDF-CA she knows what she wants to do: advocate for incarcerated youth.
“In the beginning, I didn’t have the mindset of getting involved but now I’m a part of something that makes me stand out and I’m making a difference,” Maria said. “I can’t explain what that feels like but it is great.”