September 2021

Bringing Youth to Where the Action Is

United Way Helps Teens Find Their Voice

By Suki Wessling

Once upon a time, Andrea Magdaleno was hesitant to get involved with youth groups. Now a student at Cabrillo, she’s a leader in Jóvenes SANOS, a youth group that promotes health and well-being in Watsonville.

Natalia Galdamez says she was a “troublemaker” when she joined Salud y Cariño, a girls’ empowerment organization, in the fifth grade. Now she’s a youth leader in three groups who advocates for her community.

Both young women are now on the Steering Committee for a new program sponsored by the United Way, the Youth Action Network (YAN).

Leading the formation of this program, which is a reimagined, youth voice-focused umbrella organization for programs around the county, is Amanda Gamban.

“Especially during these times, throughout Covid, the fires, all of the racial injustice that’s been going on and continues to go on, it’s so important to listen in and hear what youth have to say,” Amanda explains.

YAN started as a county-wide Youth Violence Prevention Network, and the new name isn’t just window dressing. Andrea explains that they are rebuilding the organization from the ground up, using new research on how best to involve youth in their communities. One concept that organizers use is Hart’s Ladder of Participation, which spells out the different ways that organizations involve youth in decision-making.

“At the bottom of the ladder is tokenization and manipulation, not creating those authentic relationships,” Amanda explains. “At the top you have youth leading the efforts, working in partnership with adults and creating change together.”
YAN strives for the top
Keisha Browder, CEO of United Way of Santa Cruz, and Rebecca London, Associate Professor of Sociology at UCSC, wrote a proposal for an institutional challenge grant which was approved this year.

“The idea behind it is to challenge universities and community organizations to work together to make change within their respective institutional contexts,” Rebecca London explains. “We’re working with youth in the community to do some Youth-Participatory Action Research down in Watsonville and Live Oak with middle and high school students.”

Youth-Participatory Action Research (YARP) is a model where young people are trained to do research in their own communities. The benefits are many, most specifically that the youth gain skills and make connections in their community, while also being more effective than researchers who come in from outside the community.

“They will be the drivers of the process, supported by UCSC faculty and undergraduates to enact their research program, conduct data collection, the analyses, and then be prepared to use their voice, to be leaders in the community,” Rebecca says.

Through Jóvenes SANOS, Andrea has already experienced firsthand how well the model works. Last spring she took part in UCSC student-led research, and found that she and her high school classmates were able to advise the college students.
“I would tell my mentor student, maybe we want to soften the formal questions,” Andrea remembers. “You want to start off with the funny story. You want to start off with, ‘What’s your favorite celebration in Mexico in your town?’ Build that connection of trust, because if not, you don’t get the same story.”

That’s a perfect example of what researchers have seen happen when they include young community members in their research, Rebecca London says.
“What we know is that the students who are bilingual, bicultural, whose experiences are as first-generation college students—when they go out in the community they are incredibly effective research team members.”

Why YAN?
When there are so many different organizations throughout the county serving the needs of youth in different capacities, what is the need for an umbrella organization? Amanda Gamban says that it’s all about communication and sharing the wealth of information.

“It’s an opportunity to share the work that’s been going on so that people can learn from one another. We want to provide workshops and trainings that could benefit everyone.”

Natalia Galdamez offers an example from her own experience with YAN. Recently YAN offered a training on personal asset mapping, a process where students make a map of their personal assets to build an understanding of what they have to offer to their community.

“When I went to the surf camp with Salud y Cariño I was able to bring that to the group and share it with the girls that hadn’t done that yet,” Natalia explains.
A focus on community around the county

YAN will include a Steering Committee of youth leaders throughout the county, General Members who are youth involved in organizations, and Adult Allies in the various jurisdictions.

Capitola Mayor Yvette Brooks, who is involved as a jurisdictional representative, points out that ‘youth voice’ isn’t just a talking point, but contains valuable information.

“When youth are given the opportunity to lead and offer their voice during their adolescent years, we are gifted with a perspective of the times,” she points out.
Other jurisdictional representatives include Council Member Donna Lind for City of Scotts Valley, Director of Child and Family Services Robin Lucket for the County Board of Supervisors, and representatives still to be named from the cities of Watsonville and Santa Cruz.

“I volunteered because of my background including having started the City of Scotts Valley’s first Juvenile Program decades ago,” explains Donna Lind. “I served as Juvenile Officer for several years and developed various programs with local schools and in the community. I believe my experience as a police officer and with the Criminal Justice Council can be of value.”

Just listen…then do it
Focusing on Youth Voice doesn’t mean abdicating responsibility. When asked why it is so important for adults to listen to youth, Natalia Galdamez responds passionately.

“Amanda and Theresa, my leaders for YAN and Salud y Cariño, are there to guide us if we need help,” Natalia explains. “But when we are leading, they’ll give us our space, take a step back.”

And to hesitant teens out there, both Andrea Magdaleno and Natalia encourage them to find their voices.

“For any youth out there, I know it’s tough,” Andrea says. “But look at what you have been able to do: get through school, get through Covid. You guys have been able to adapt and that is so great. Always try to get involved in youth organizations because they give you a space to be you and to create a better version of yourself.”
“Just do it,” Natalia adds. “Trying to advocate for my community [made it] get better for myself.”

For more information:
Learn more at Interested teens can apply to become a YAN General Member or Steering Committee member, and adults are encouraged to volunteer as well.

Listen to a interviews about YAN at

Suki Wessling is a local writer, teacher, and musician. Learn more about her work at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *