Publication Date: Wednesday Jul 27, 1994

Learning to act locally

A summer government camp for disadvantaged teens instills a sense of self-worth
by Jason L. Ables

Change, as a buzzword for the '90s, has been bandied about by the politicians to the point of meaninglessness, but at Stanford University last week it had meaning. It was real and visible. The instrument looked like Dakarri Alafia. Alafia was one of 19 counselors, mostly volunteer, who put on the eighth annual Summer City Government Camp, which teaches high school students about the concepts of community and self-worth through lessons in the workings of government and the creation of a mock city.

More than 55 high school students from around the Bay Area attended the four-day session, held July 14-17. It was sponsored by the Leadership Training Academy, part of the Community Development Institute of East Palo Alto. Each year the academy invites students, most from disadvantaged ethnic neighborhoods, to participate in the program to learn not only the mechanics of government but the value that each possesses as a part of society.

"The thinking (behind the program) was that if you can teach students how access the system, or how to effect change, then you would see immediate results in the community," said Halili Knox, a program associate. That thinking seemed to be working. Many of the SCGC's alumna have gone on to work directly in their communities or to join their school governments.

A graduate student in architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, Alafia was returning to the program as a counselor for the third time. He explained the kinds of results past camps had some of the students.

"The biggest change has been seeing some of the kids who have been involved with the drug trade actually getting out of it and using that energy in a more positive sense even though there is not a lot of opportunity for them out there," Alafia said.

"They come here and see the whole picture of how deadly it might be, how they can destroy their city if they are actually getting involved in the drug trade. They can see the whole picture because not only do we talk about city government, but the importance of their part in the community."

A big part of the program is teaching the students how communities operate. Local politicians and business professionals were brought in to lead workshops dealing with real world issues and scenarios. The students were divided up into commissions and boards according to their preferences. Five were elected to a mock city council and one was elected mayor.

Then they worked through problems presented by their real-world counterparts. They were asked to come up with solutions, all within the framework of their their mock government and their mock budgets. Then those solutions went up for approval before the mock city council meeting held in East Palo Alto's City Hall on the last night of the camp.

East Palo Alto City Council member Myrtle Walker explained to program participants how the city's government operates and urged all the students to become involved, regardless of their age or whether they like a certain candidate or not. Just being willing to get involved is positive for one's community, she said.

Sayeeda Carter, a teacher from Oakland who brought three of her students with her, said she liked the mock city as a format for learning. "I think it is great," she said. "As a high school educator I feel I see a lot of students being somewhat apolitical, and not as knowledgeable as I would like to see them.

"I think this is an excellent opportunity for them to go beyond the classroom," said Carter. "Even I, as a teacher, have to admit that regular classroom instruction can only go so far."

Once the students understand how a community operates, the program tries to instill in them a sense of how important it was that they participate in community life.

Knox, an East Palo Alto native, said one of the most significant lessons the students can pick up from the program is realizing that everybody has some kind of knowledge that can be valuable to the community, and that once they realize this, they can begin to contribute.

A lot of the students were already thinking that way, including first-time participant Mia Robinson, 17, a Chabot College student from East Oakland. "I want to be a social worker or counselor in juvenile hall, something like that, with problem kids," Robinson said. "I think I understand them." Robinson's boss at the Social Security office gave her time off with pay so she could attend the program.

Many of the students keep coming back to to the Summer City Government Camp year after year. Asked why, Awodele Ankoanda-King, who was the 1993-94 student body president at Menlo-Atherton High School, said, "At first the LTA teaches us how to be a leader. But now, it is like family."

The feeling of family seems to have left many of the students with a new sense of self-worth that carries into their daily lives.

"They push me to do the right things instead of falling into the same statistical trap that a lot of young people fall in today," said Erika Simpson, who along with Ankoanda-King was co-president of the Menlo-Atherton Black Student Union. "I wish more students could have been involved, because maybe things would have been a little different now."

"They come here and see the whole picture of how deadly it might be, how they can destroy their city if they are actually getting involved in the drug trade."