Making change: Youth civic participation is about more than just voting

Making Change

Especially in a presidential election year, the importance of youth civic participation cannot be overstated. Whether they are voting in local elections, encouraging their families to participate in the census or taking on leadership roles in their schools and communities, youth have immense potential and power to influence our nation. SVCF grantee Californians for Justice (CFJ) is an organization that knows the power of youth engagement and fights to improve the lives of communities of color, immigrant, low-income, LGBTQ and other marginalized groups, while creating young leaders in the process.

Making ChangeSVCF has funded their work in San Jose through our civic participation grantmaking strategy since 2018, with grants totaling $300,000.

“Californians for Justice has considered how youth of color can build power and use their voice in every stage of our democracy. Their leadership in the Local Control Funding Formula process has helped school districts across the state engage students and families in allocating resources for education. In every recent election, they’ve built data-driven campaigns to reach young voters of color,” said SVCF Civic Participation Program Officer Jack Mahoney.

Reginald Linsao grew up in San Jose and participated in a CFJ program when he was a student at James Lick High School. He credits the organization with shaping much of his career path. “Initially I saw it just as an opportunity to learn more and volunteer, but it provided me with so much more on that,” he said.

Linsao was introduced to CFJ through their Summer Youth Leadership Academy, where he spent 7 weeks canvassing, planning events and fundraisers, learning about organizers and talking to policymakers about equitable school funding. When he began his senior year of high school that fall, he worked as a CFJ student intern and became the president of his high school chapter. “We had about ten members and met weekly to perform skits and discuss issues around race and inequality at our school. It was very grassroots,” he said.

Making ChangeLinsao’s experiences through CFJ validated his observations of the “glaring inequities faced by students.” This inspired him to pursue teaching as a career, and after graduating from UCLA, he completed his teaching credential at San Jose State University in 2018. “We need teachers who are informed about social issues. I want to be an effective educator for diverse students and fight for equity with everything I do.” he said.

CFJ Organizing Director Rosa De León, also grew up in San Jose and discovered her passion for civic engagement as a high school student at Overfelt High School. She first got involved with the organization through a campaign to get rid of the high school exit exam. “As an English learner, I felt very connected to the issues CFJ was working on,” she said. “The exam felt like a barrier, there was no real support, and as a young person this was the first time I experienced community power.”

Making ChangeShe participated in other local campaigns, and was hired by CFJ as an organizer right out of high school. Today, she has worked with the organization for more than a decade. “We hire a lot of folks from our base,” she said. “We’re committed to their growth.”

“We work to include the youth voice in decision making. Right now one of our key campaigns focuses on building relationship-centered schools,” she explained. The goal is to transform schools in our community into spaces that value and honor student voice, create spaces for relationship building and support school staff so they can better support students.

In her position, De León leads the San Jose region organizing team and contributes to CFJ’s statewide strategy. “My favorite part of my new role as Organizing Director is that I get to support our staff to do their best work. I also find a lot of enjoyment in alliance building.”

“I would recommend that any student join CFJ,” said Linsao. “The social-cultural issues they deal with go beyond the classroom. Getting involved early sets you up to be more involved in your community later in life, and more ready to vote. It’s important that students know that their vote counts, and that not only the presidency is important. There are important local and state issues.”

SVCF continues to invest in CFJ’s work because “They are building a future where every voice matters,” said Mahoney. Californians for Justice's commitment to developing the leadership of young people like Linsao in San Jose and across the state becomes a vehicle for youth to also move their peers, families and neighbors into civic leadership.

Learn more about SVCF’s local grantmaking here: