An upstart summer program for West Contra Costa teens is earning strong praise from student participants for its local focus on community engagement and civic leadership.
In its third year, the Community Leadership Institute (CLI) this summer welcomed high school students from across Richmond to spend two weeks meeting community leaders, mapping local assets, and recognizing the power within themselves and in their own neighborhoods.
“Power within is where it starts,” said CLI co-founder Maddie Orenstein during the program’s August session. “We really saw the need for young people to discover their power and have access to each other.”
“We want to give students that type of exposure from early on so they can start building themselves, and, hopefully, be the future leaders of Richmond,” Orenstein said.
CLI instructor Ta Nyka Avington (center) leads students on an asset-mapping exercise in downtown Richmond.
Orenstein, an education consultant and former teacher, teamed up with Isis Espinosa to launch the pilot program in 2017. Espinosa, who grew up in Richmond, graduated from Leadership Public Schools (LPS), Richmond, in 2009, and worked at the school as an Academic Counselor for the past three years.
This summer, the program expanded to include 37 high school students representing Kennedy High, Richmond High, LPS, Salesian, and some students enrolled in the Contra Costa College bridge program. The CLI instructors are teachers from various Richmond high schools.
“Power within is where it starts.” — Maddie Orenstein, Co-founder, Community Leadership Institute
“Students from different schools don’t often get the chance to mix and experience something deep together,” Orenstein said, noting that the CLI is a “district and charter collaboration” designed to let students discover their collective power and identify shared goals.
For participants like Fatima Rivera, a rising junior at LPS, connecting to both local leaders and peers from across the city has proven rewarding.
“A lot of schools from Richmond come together, and you meet new people, you get to know more about their backgrounds, and you get to go out in the world and explore,” Rivera explained.
“It’s been an amazing program,” Rivera said.
Fatima Rivera discusses the importance of local leadership in Richmond.
The partnerships that support the CLI extend well beyond school boundaries. In all, more than two dozen community organizations participate in various ways to show the students the diversity of opportunities that exist for them in Richmond. Leaders at these organizations and participating civic leaders demonstrate various types and styles of leadership, broadening the participants’ understanding of what community leadership can look like, according to Rivera.
Through the two week program, Rivera said, “You meet organizations that you probably never heard of, and from there, you see within yourself if this is something you want to do later on in the future, if you want to come back to Richmond, if you want to start an organization, or if in general you just want to help out.”
My power, my voice
Kennedy High School junior Christian Membreno wasn’t sure what to expect from the CLI when he enrolled.
“At first I was really nervous to come to this program,” said Membreno. His apprehension transformed into excitement as he began to make connections with community leaders, and recognize the power he holds as a Richmond student.
“I guess for me, where I think my power comes from would be my voice,” Membreno said. The CLI, he said, “has made me more aware of how [speaking] can make me more a leader in this community.”
Of the many local leaders Membreno met, he said Edith Pastrano, of Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, left a lasting impression.
“She had gone through certain things that I had gone through as well,” Membreno said.
Christian Membreno prepares to explore local businesses and community organizations in downtown Richmond as part of the CLI’s asset-mapping exercise.
Pastrano, who grew up in Richmond and returned after college, recognized the benefits of the CLI for both the students and for organizations like hers.
“I wish it were something I had when I was in high school,” Pastrano said of the program. “The CLI Students are experiencing real-life issues and how to mobilize around those issues.”
As community organizer at ACCE since 2012, Pastrano works to mobilize community members to address issues like criminal justice reform, access to career training, and rent control. Pastrano’s presentation to the CLI students offered a streamlined demonstration of how community organizing works.
“They’re really trying to make a difference in the world,” Membreno said of Pastrano and the other community leaders who presented to CLI students.
The CLI started as an experimental pilot program at LPS in 2017. After a successful launch supported by the Chamberlin Family Foundation, the CLI secured additional funding from the Stupski Foundation to expand the program to include a “Year 2” experience for returning students.
Espinosa, who manages the “Y2” cohort, explained that the returning students wanted to deepen their connections beyond what their prior experience had offered.
“We added this program because our pioneers of CLI asked for it. With the skills they developed, they advocated for more and deeper exposure to societal issues,” Espinosa said.
The “Y2” cohort this summer shadowed Richmond leaders to learn more directly about their specific areas of expertise and gain perspective on the daily work of managing community and civic engagement at the local level. Unlike their first-year counterparts, the Y2 participants are eligible for a stipend upon completion of the program.
“The Year 2 fellows dive deeper into one or two social justice issues they feel more passionate about, and become more confident in discussing them with others and with their peers,” Espinosa said.
Beyond offering connections to local leaders, the CLI staff engages participants locally in a summer experience that they describe as helping prevent “learning loss” that is known to exacerbate the achievement gap between low-income students and more affluent peers elsewhere in the district. All of this year’s CLI student participants qualify for free or reduced lunch, according to Orenstein.
CLI instructor Ta Nyka Avington high-fives a member of her asset-mapping group during this summer’s CLI workshops.
In addition, Orenstein said, the “identity development” that CLI students experience is strongly linked to college and career readiness, according to a 2012 study examining the role of self-stereotyping on students’ post-graduation success.
For Orenstein and the CLI staff, the most important takeaway for participating students comes from their examination of their own power and potential. Community empowerment and local leadership, she explained, begins from each individual beginning to recognize their own “power within.”
“Accessing your own identity, and your community, and your connection to the local environment,” Orenstein explained, “That’s how you really make change from the ground up.”
“In learning about their own identities and sharing with each other,” Orenstein said, “they really realize they have so much more power than they think.”
For more info about the Community Leadership Institute, email firstname.lastname@example.org.