two women in headscarfs at microphoneAbout five or six years ago, students at Crawford High School in San Diego’s City Heights neighborhood formed the Food and Social Justice Club. One of their first goals was to persuade school administrators to provide halal food for Muslim students. This means no pork or pork products and only meat slaughtered and prepared according to Islamic law and tradition. Without halal food available, many of Crawford’s Muslim students wouldn’t eat lunch.

The club’s determination and grassroots efforts were successful: The school now provides a halal meal of chili-lemon chicken once a week. But that’s not enough, students say. The club is now working to increase halal offerings to more days a week and expand the program to other schools in their community.

The students’ grassroots advocacy for themselves is one example of how youth and adults can find power in their voices and make changes in their own neighborhoods. Lessons about changing the narrative and building collective agency were the focus of several breakout sessions during Saturday’s APHA/California Endowment Summit, “Building Power and a Narrative of Belonging to Create a More Inclusive Society,” which took place in conjunction with the APHA 2018 Annual Meeting and Expo in San Diego.

The summit shared strategies and lessons from the implementation of Building Healthy Communities, a 10-year $1 billion philanthropic initiative at the California Endowment. The summit’s breakout sessions focused specifically on case studies from City Heights, a diverse San Diego community with many refugee and immigrant populations and home to more than 30 languages.

The Food and Social Justice Club learned from and partnered with other community organizations, too.

“These other teams share the same mission as us, and working with them has been helping us a lot, getting other people to value our opinions,” said breakout session participant Siham Ismail, a junior at Crawford High School. “It really helps because we’re not experienced with the whole organizing and speaking to all these different adults and…this is exposing it to us at a young age. It’s helping us learn more from them, and we’re getting mentors at the same time. It’s assisting us in reaching our goals.”

The students’ current goal is to find ways to offer more affordable, more accessible, less expensive healthy food in their community.

Another summit breakout session focused on how to change the narrative of youth through media programs. The AjA Project teaches students participatory photography, in which the young people are asked to reflect on and analyze their personal and social landscapes.

We “use photography as a primary access point to be able to elevate community voices,” said Christina Chomut, director of the AjA Project. The students’ photos — and the messages that they tell — are shared with the public through exhibitions and installations.

“The goal is not to develop professional photographers, but to engage youth so they can identify what their voice and power is as an individual and as a collective,” Chomut said. In that way, they learn how to tell stories about their community to their community and beyond.

“One way to change the narrative is to take the power back, where instead of people telling our story for us, we tell our own story,” said Famo Musa, an AjA Project youth participant. “We take the power back; we tell them what our community is and what it’s like instead of them telling us what our community looks like from the outside.”

Read more about the APHA/California Endowment Summit in yesterday’s Annual Meeting coverage.

Read more about this story in the January 2019 issue of The Nation’s Health.