A generous award from the Irvine Foundation, which is vital for nonprofits to support applications for teenagers in California. Open to a new round with $ 250,000
Yammilette Rodriguez (above right) of the Fresno Youth Leadership Institute met with the new Student Advocacy Council of Madera Community College in February. (Courtesy photo of the Youth Leadership Institute)
By Mark Hedin, Ethnic Media Services
For more than a decade, Yammilette “Yami” Rodriguez has been building the Fresno office of the Youth Leadership Institute, teaching students the speaking, organizing, and other advocacy skills that enable them to become part of social change.
“We’re creating spaces where young people can have a voice and lead,” said Rodriguez of YLI’s mission. “How do we unleash the strength that young people already have?”
Rodriguez’s work received a 2019 James Irvine Foundation Leadership Award of $ 250,000. The foundation has roots with Gold Rush immigrants and has been making its annual award since 2006 to recognize leaders and their organizations who contribute to a better California.
Fresno is one of seven YLI locations that employ hundreds of young residents in Fresno, Madera, and Merced counties. Recently, the town of Dinuba in Tulare County was added. YLI’s 14 programs range from “kNOw Youth Media”, which improves participants’ media communication skills, to youth commissions and student advocacy councils, to activities on issues such as participation in censuses and wide-ranging platforms for political action.
According to Rodriguez, the Leadership Award was invaluable as it allowed her to focus so much more than just managing the “programmatic work” and overseeing program functions. Instead, she can “think outside the box” to improve YLI’s youth development programs in the Central Valley, where a third of the population is under the age of 18.
Often, she said, school officials or publicly elected officials bring young people into their processes as tokens without recognizing their worth. YLI is changing that.
“Part of our job,” said Rodriguez, “is to train adults to be youth partners, to see youth as the leaders and resources they really are.”
The YLI youth commissions and student councils have helped to build collaboration with school administrators and locally elected government officials on issues that young people themselves see as critical: mental health, prevention of alcohol and alcohol consumption among minors, “food deserts”, restorative justice, Media literacy training programs and helping older children counsel younger children.
None of this happens overnight. In the city of Fresno, it took seven years of “advocacy, perseverance, and commitment” to pass a local youth-led ordinance on alcohol consumption, Rodriguez said.
As an added bonus, “We now have really good relationships with our schools, religious organizations and city councils,” she said. “Relationship building is critical in rural communities. When I knock on doors, I can create that relationship in a meaningful way. “
Without the support of the Irvine Prize, it would never have been able to achieve this rural reach. Rodriguez, a child of immigrants from Mexico, said as part of her work to give something back that she would make nominations for the upcoming Leadership Awards herself.
Previous winners of the Leadership Award since 2006 have included various leaders and organizations such as Miya Yoshitani and the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (2020), Keith Wattley from UnCommon Law (2020) and Dr. Dean Schillinger from SF General / UCSF Center for Vulnerable Populations (2016), Kim Carter from Time for Change Foundation (2018), Carolyn Laub from Gender & Sexualities Alliance Network (2012), Aida Cardenas from Building Skills Partnership (2013) and more than 80 more.
Recent winners include Wattley and Yoshitani Jennifer Gilmore from Kitchens for Good in San Diego, Margaret Libby from MyPathin San Francisco, Jacob Martinez from Digital NEST on the Central Coast, and Phoebe Seaton and Veronica Garibay from the Leadership Council for Justice and Accountability (Valleys San Joaquin, Coachella).
To be considered, nominees – individuals or teams of two – must be Californians. You can work in the non-profit, public or private sector and in any field such as education, healthcare, social housing, economic development or the environment.
The Leadership Awards program was suspended for 2021 by the COVID-19 pandemic, but is now seeking nominations (https://irvineawards.org/nominations/) for recognizing individuals and their organizations in 2022 who are innovative and demonstrate effective work. The nomination period ends on May 7th.