Sonoma County Leadership Program for Black Teens, Children a “Scaffolding for Our Youth”
Layla Zekarias has lived in Windsor her whole life, although it didn’t always feel out of place.
A black teenage girl who attends St. Rose Catholic School in Santa Rosa, Zekarias saw students touching her tight, curly hair without her permission, she said.
When Zekarias and his classmates learn about slavery in school, some students speculate on the impact of this period in American history on his family, despite his parents being immigrants from Eritrea and the The Caribbean island of St. Croix, Zekarias said.
And while a science teacher on campus has tried to make sure students are familiar with the foods of Zekarias culture, there are still classmates, she said, who sometimes throw them up. eyebrows at the leftovers Zekarias brings for a meal.
âI don’t feel that different when the teachers know about my dinner,â said Zekarias, who is 13.
In Sonoma County, black residents make up 1.5% of the population, or just over 7,100 people, according to data from the 2020 U.S. Census.
The small size of the local black community can seem alienating, making it difficult for young people who want to connect with peers outside the home who share their social and cultural experiences, parents and community organizers said.
Finding examples of successful black models in the community can be just as difficult, they added.
To address these issues, the group Petaluma Blacks for Community Development – founded in 1978 by black families seeking to share their history and culture with the community, as well as support each other – launched a program to connect children. Sonoma County blacks and adolescents among themselves and with local black leaders.
A pilot of the project began in January with a dozen young people aged 10 to 13, said Kristy Boblitt, who is one of the coordinators of the leadership program.
The second phase of the program, which has 16 members of a wider age range, some of whom participated in the pilot project, was launched at the end of last month.
On Saturday, the new group gathered at the Santa Rosa Pumpkin Patch for their first in-person social gathering in the community.
“The idea is to have this as a scaffolding for our youth,” said Boblitt, whose daughter was among those in attendance at Saturday’s outing. âOur long-term goal is to make these children feel like strong and empowered people in our community. “
This year’s program trial included virtual conversations with six local leaders who spoke about the skills that helped them succeed.
Presentations ranged from the power of creativity and out-of-the-box thinking, moderated by a graphic designer from Salesforce, to how to fill out applications and the college experience, which was presented by Marco Lindsey, Associate Director of the diversity, equity and inclusion at UC Berkeley. at the Haas School of Business, said Boblitt.
The young group members also completed a wrap-up project, vision board, and created a series of family-themed poems and slideshows as part of the Petaluma Blacks Black History Month virtual program. for Community Development.
âThey were on top, they were really involved in what was going on,â said Faith Ross, co-founder of Petaluma Blacks for Community Development.
The format used in the program’s trial was adopted for its second phase, which incorporates discussions of college preparation and the recognition and treatment of anxiety.
With the easing of COVID-19 restrictions, program organizers hope they can expand the community service element of the initiative by involving participants in something service-oriented, such as a park clean-up effort. or food distribution, Boblitt said.
âI think there is a real opportunity not only to help these students become leaders, but also to develop this self-awareness and build their own confidence,â said Jaylena Lomenech, one of the program coordinators. Grapevine Youth Leadership.
Nina Boblitt, Boblitt’s daughter, said the program had helped her cope with feelings of not being “black enough”.
Because she was adopted by white parents, she felt like she didn’t fit in with other black teens because she wasn’t raised with the same customs and cultural references that she was. , she said.
Connecting with other black youth in Sonoma County, especially since she is one of the few black teenage girls in her school, has been her favorite part of the program, she said.
âThere is no right or wrong way to be black,â said Nina Boblitt.
Alicia Prime, Zekarias’ mother, said she was interested in the leadership group because she wanted to instill a strong cultural sense in her children.
She said she saw how difficult it was for her husband’s daughter, who is white and black, to deal with issues of racial identity as a child.
Prime, who added that she also had two sons who joined the group, said she saw a particular change in her daughter, who was more willing to stand up for herself and not afraid to wear her natural hair. .
Growing up, her children had few opportunities to participate in programs that reflected them, she said. Having that kind of space can be powerful, she added.
“Young black people need to understand and feel comfortable knowing if they are having difficulty, if they are having difficulty, that they can come and unload themselves without any judgment,” Prime said. “They have someone to talk to who knows exactly what they’ve been through.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: The teens in the Grapevine Youth Leadership program have created a series of poems and slideshows for the virtual Black History Month program at Petaluma Blacks for Community Development. A previous version of this story misidentified the group hosting the program.