Maria Gonzalez considered herself an introvert. She was withdrawn and reluctant to take the lead or speak her mind openly about any topic. Then she met Omar Cardenas, a youth organizer with Children’s Defense Fund – California who came to her high school every week and spoke with students about ways to improve their educational experience.
Those Tuesday meetings were a part of CDF-CA’s Youth Organizing Long Beach program and became Maria’s catalyst for change. The meetings provided a safe space for students to talk about what was going on in school and in their community. Topics ranged from community events to unfair suspensions and expulsions – otherwise known as school pushout.
She enjoyed it so much, she later joined CDF-CA’s Action Scholars Leadership Program which provides members with the knowledge, experiences and strategies to develop and sustain long-term, youth-led advocacy campaigns.
In these meetings, Maria felt like someone else.
“They taught me I had a voice and I could speak about how I felt,” said the 17-year-old Jordon High School student. “I wanted to be involved.”
When the opportunity came up last year, Maria ran for a student seat on Jordan High Schools School’s Site Council, the high school Maria attends. Part of that process involved delivering a speech to the student body. So she did and won. She was selected out of 10 other candidates.
Maria cannot put into words what Children’s Defense Fund – California has done for her life.
She said she is still discovering who she is but thanks to CDF-CA she knows what she wants to do: advocate for incarcerated youth.
“In the beginning, I didn’t have the mindset of getting involved but now I’m a part of something that makes me stand out and I’m making a difference,” Maria said. “I can’t explain what that feels like but it is great.”