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After Years As Youth Volunteer, City Heights Activist Hired To Lead Others

Rosa Olascoaga sits second from left among a crowd of youth advocates and hol...

Credit: Mid-City CAN

Above: Rosa Olascoaga sits second from left among a crowd of youth advocates and holds up a sign that reads "City Heights skate park" at a community meeting in this undated photo.

Youth power gained a national spotlight this year, with political marches and voter drives across the country and in our region, but young advocates have spent years calling for change in San Diego’s City Heights community.

One longtime youth activist plans to lead the neighborhood's next generation of change makers after securing a full-time role with the organization that first empowered her 10 years ago.

Rosa Olascoaga joined the nonprofit Mid-City Community Advocacy Network when she was 12, and helped to lobby the city to construct a skate park in the lower-income neighborhood.

She said the park was a "dream" that she and other young volunteers worried wouldn't become a reality.

"We were like, 'there's no way we're going to get that in City Heights,'" Olascoaga said.

After years of lobbying, the city funded a small skate plaza. Then, last December the dream came true with the opening of the $5 million Park De La Cruz Neighborhood Park skating facility.

Olascoaga is now 22 and a college graduate. Her experience achieving change at a young age led her to pursue a career in advocacy with the intention of returning to improve her home neighborhood after graduation. Mid-City CAN recently hired Olascoaga as a community organizer.

KPBS Reporter Tarryn Mento spoke with Olascoaga about what to expect from youth advocates in the new year and why adults and elected officials should pay attention.

Q: You've been active with the nonprofit Mid-City Community Advocacy Network since you were 12. Tell me how you got started.

A: When my brother got involved with Reality Changers, I followed him and he got introduced with Mid-City CAN through a community service event in City Heights. It was the youth kick-off event for the youth council. I wasn't at that kick-off event but the first meeting right after I showed up with my brother. My brother was really annoyed with me. He was like, "Why are you following me around?" And I was just like, "You're talking about the community, you're talking about college...like something we could possibly do," and I continued being annoying and did that.

Q: What have you accomplished as a youth council member with Mid-City CAN?

A: My biggest life accomplishment along with the other youth council members is bringing a skate park to City Heights, and not just a skate park but also the plaza. That was a dream that we had.

We visited different youth centers in Oakland... We were like, "There's no way we're going to get that in City Heights," or, "There's no way that much big territory is going to come to City Heights." But when my brother got hit by a car (while skateboarding) after coming back and finding out what our project was, we thought it was relevant. This is so relevant. Youth in City Heights are getting hit by cars, primary example: my brother. And we decided to bring a skate park in City Heights.

At first, we thought it was going to be like a year most of that work that we were going to do. We did not expect it to go for almost eight years in total of just like campaigning. We secured the funding and the land in the third year, fourth year, but the construction — that took forever and we did not expect it to take that long.

Q: You recently helped get out the vote during the November election. In an interview, you told me that you thought youth were often dismissed by adults, especially those in positions of power. How do you explain to them why youth shouldn't be overlooked?

Photo caption: Dennis Smith, 18 (left), and Rosa Olascoaga Vidal, 22, descend the stairs of ...

Photo by Tarryn Mento

Dennis Smith, 18 (left), and Rosa Olascoaga Vidal, 22, descend the stairs of an apartment complex where they contacted a voter, Nov. 5, 2018.

A: It's really quick for us to just show up in numbers. Because sometimes when we're just young people talking to older people, they dismiss us, like (they say) "Oh, you know what you're saying and I guess" in the room, but when you leave they just ignore us.... and I think when (we) are physically present and showing up in numbers, there's no way they can ignore us. Especially when the media's around and you ignore a young person in front of the whole viewership, they look bad. Just holding them more accountable by just making sure they listen to the young people in the room and just bringing the media, bring that attention to the people. Because the community members are not going to forget that if they're ignored. That's when we show up in numbers to the polls and we elect people who are going to listen to us.

Q: You have a new role as community organizer with Mid-City CAN and you have said that it's sort of a dream job. Why is that?

A: Because I saw how relevant and how powerful our voice is in City Heights. I went to college to come back to my community and being a community organizer and being able to invest full-time in just making sure our community shows up and knows what's going on at system-levels and in policy is what I want to do because our community needs to take ownership on what policies are impacting us.

Q: On what local topics should we expect to see youth pushing for change?

Definitely in City Heights and in San Diego, the youth opportunity bus passes. That's going to be coming out a lot. Young people are tired of having their parents worried about how much they're paying, and it's a reality for us; and restorative practices in schools — that's going to be the voice that going to keep coming; and holding our people that said they're going to support us accountable.

The newest community organizer at the nonprofit Mid-City Community Advocacy Network has a long history of pushing for change in her neighborhood and now hopes to inspire others.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Mid-City CAN is supported by The California Endowment, which also supports City Heights reporting at KPBS.

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