The City of Riverside’s Youth Opportunity Center (YOC) is a space dedicated to the empowerment and advancement of Riverside youth through the promotion of social and personal development. The center commits itself to providing essential tools that give the youth a possibility to gain employment, complete a high school degree, and enroll in college. The YOC is located in the neighborhood known as the “Eastside.” While situated less than a mile from the University of California Riverside the area has a long history of gang violence, poverty, and (im)migration. The youth that utilize the center’s services are mostly first generation students from low-income families. Through visual art, creative writing, and music the YOC has given its youth an opportunity to develop and express their voice and in a way has empowered them by allowing them to see the strength in their own stories.
As the creative writing instructor at the YOC I created a space that focused on the youth’s voices and experiences. For the three years that I taught there I began each class by having the youth write the “up and downs” of their week in whatever creative form they felt most comfortable (i.e. list, narrative, poem, etc.) and then asked for volunteers to share with the group. I found that starting with this kind of exercise reminded the youth that they were in a safe space and that the class was about them. We would then read and discuss texts relating to that quarter’s theme. The last issue of “R’side of the Story” that I edited focused on peace—understanding it, sharing it, and achieving it. I chose Malala Yousafzai’s I am Malala: The Girl Who Stood for Education and was Shot by the Taliban as our primary text for that quarter because I wanted the youth to connect their experiences in Riverside to larger global issues. Youth empowerment, gender, access to education, injustice, and peace were a few of the topics that fueled our discussions. I asked the youth to take turns reading aloud as a way to develop their vocabulary, public speaking skills, and their self-esteem. After reading and discussing the excerpt youth engaged either in a collective or individual writing exercise that they would later revise and submit to the anthology.
Because attending the class was on a volunteer basis, the class size, reading levels, and writing skills varied from week to week. I designed the class to make youth feel comfortable attending the class on any given week. It was important to the center’s mission and to my own pedagogy that students felt welcomed participating and engaging regardless of their skills and abilities.