By Julianna Swilley (She/Her)
By Julianna Swilley (She/Her)
An often neglected group in the Central Valley is the Black youth population. Making up approximately 4.7% of the San Joaquin Valley population, Black & African-American individuals are among a growing population constantly facing racial and societal stressors with little access to resources and support from their communities. The deep rooted history of racism and anti-blackness in the Central Valley, oftentimes resulting in traumatizing racialized experiences, has created a hostile environment for Black youth. With the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, the Black youth experience has become even more polarized. The subtle microaggressions and overt racism have become a common occurrence in the lives of Black youth across the Central Valley. The added pressure of refuting generalized stereotypes along with economic, political, and societal factors of everyday life can have a significant effect on the emotion and physical well-being of these students.
As a black student myself, I was one of the less than ten black students in my entire high school. As a bi-racial individual, I grew up with a distant, basically non-existent, relationship with my African-American heritage. I longed to learn more about myself, however I did not have access to real life representation of Black culture in my life. As I entered college, I realized that my experience was not unique. Black history, especially Black excellence, often falls subject to erasure in traditional curricula. Students are limited to tokenized histories of trauma told from the White perspective, such as slavery and the civil rights movement. Without proper education of counter narratives, Black students are more likely to develop internalized racism.
Community leaders have made strides in providing resources for Black youth with organizations such as the Breakbox Thought Collective and 99Rootz. These organizations provide resources and opportunities for Black youth to mobilize and support personal development. However, the lack of proximity makes it difficult for students to participate in and create a support system. Because of this, students can often feel secluded or alone in their local communities. Having immersive opportunities to build same-race relationships, discover role models, and learn about African-American heritage is crucial in the development of racial identity (according to Beverly Tatum’s Family Life and School Experience: Factors in the Racial Identity Development of Black Youth in White Communities). However, in the Central Valley, these opportunities are lacking. It begs the question, where do Central Valley Black students go for support?
In an effort to learn more about this population, I first turned to prior research. In my search, I discovered a striking lack of research on the Black youth population in the Central Valley specifically. With a focus on the Northern and Southern regions of California, published research overlooks the unique experiences of Black Central Valley youth. In an attempt to learn more about the experiences, interests, and needs of Black youth in this community, I developed an online survey to research this unique population.
A sample of six students from different high schools in the Central Valley voluntarily participated in this study. The participants identified as Black or African-American and resided in a San Joaquin Valley (Figure 1.01). Since participants were high-school students, their ages were assumed to range from 15-18. As a result of completing the survey, participants were entered into a random drawing with a monetary award of $50.
Figure 1.01.The San Joaquin Valley
Data was collected using an online survey via Qualtrics software. The survey consisted of 19 questions regarding information on demographics, race-related experiences, mental health, and interest in potential programs. The demographic information collected included ethnic background, gender identity, socioeconomic status, grade, and high-school they currently attend. The majority of the survey consisted of questions discussing race-related experiences and mental health including the following:
In general, how often do you have conversations about race?
In general, how comfortable do you feel about having conversations about race?
Please answer the following statements. I feel like I have been discriminated against based on the following factors:
If you feel comfortable, please describe an experience referenced in the previous questions:
In general, how comfortable do you feel about having conversations about mental health?
The survey concluded with questions polling interest in specific program topics including, Advising/Networking, Exploring Black Identity, Activism & Community Service, Mental Health & Wellness, and College Readiness.
While the survey generated a limited number of six participants, the small sample did provide an insight on students’ desires and needs. When asked, “In general, how often do you engage in conversations about race?” the majority of participants answered somewhat often to very often as seen in Figure 1. However, when asked, “In general, how comfortable do you feel about having conversations about race?” the majority of participants felt neutral to very uncomfortable as displayed in Figure 2.
Figure 1. Question: In general, how often do you engage in conversations about race?
Figure 2. Question:In general, how comfortable do you feel about having conversations about race?
The survey results also reflected students’ experiences of discrimination and racism. Over half of participants reported experiences of discrimination based on their race. One student shared the following:
A white lady would not scan my items in a grocery store after serving
a white man. Then she angrily asked if I could read.
In terms of mental health and wellbeing, students reported mixed data on their comfortability of having conversations about mental health. As displayed in Figure 3, there was a split majority between being somewhat comfortable and very uncomfortable.
Figure 3. Question: In general, how comfortable do you feel having conversations about mental health?
In order to identify the specific resources students were seeking, participants were asked to rate their interest in five potential program topics: Advising/Networking, Exploring Black Identity, Activism & Community Service, Mental Health & Wellness, and College Readiness. Students expressed great interest in topics of Activism & Community Service, Exploring Black Identity, and College Readiness with a majority of participants being “very interested” as displayed in Figure 4. However, all potential program topics were rated with great interest by at least two or more participants.
Figure 4. Question: How interested would you be in the following program topics?
While no concrete conclusions can be made from this survey, the results present some interesting observations about Black youth in the Central Valley. While many students are engaging in conversations about race, many felt uncomfortable during these interactions. Although these conversations can be uncomfortable, they are necessary in developing and understanding one’s racial identity. Contrastingly, more students felt comfortable engaging in conversations about mental health and wellness, a topic more commonly discussed in schools with the advancement of Social Emotional Learning strategies. The qualitative narratives provide insight on the daily struggles of Black individuals and highlights the continuation of racism in the Central Valley. Even simple tasks, such as going to the grocery store, can result in traumatic racialized experiences. However, despite these challenges, Black youth expressed strong interest in well rounded programs supporting personal and communal advancement
In hopes of supporting the needs and interests of Black youth expressed in this survey, the Central Valley Scholars have partnered with ExpresArte Cultural Wellness Collective to develop the Black Youth Empowerment Program for Black youth in the Central Valley to learn about their identities, histories, and wellness, as well as build a network of Black community leaders. The responses to this survey helped shape the program curricula and provided a better understanding of the interests and needs of Black students.The program's key goals are to:
Hold space for Black Central Valley youth to learn about their identities, histories and wellness, as well as to celebrate themselves and their own excellence.
Create a network of young Black Leadership rooted in the Central Valley to serve as themtors for future cohorts.
Students can use arts and culture to express and self-reflect on their personal journeys.
The Black Youth Empowerment Program is intended to be a starting point for creating a network of Black leadership across the Central Valley, and advancing the wellness, education and empowerment of the Diaspora. Applications for this program are currently open until June 16th. For more information, please click here.
About The Author
Julianna Swilley (She/Her)
Julianna is proudly from Dinuba, California and a recent graduate of UCLA. She earned her B.A. in Psychology with minors in Education and Visual and Performing Arts Education and is currently working as a teaching assistant at an LA-based elementary school and as an educator at the Hammer Museum. Julianna has a passion for education and is committed to increasing equity and access of higher education for underrepresented communities. As part of the Central Valley Scholars team, Julianna hopes to empower students by seeking out resources and opportunities for communities all across the Central Valley.
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