Meet the A-Teens
Chico’s youngest activists are committed to making the world a better place
Pity those who say today’s teens don’t care to get involved in their communities, politics or social causes. They haven’t met these Chico students.
Here, many teens are doing everything they can to change the world for the better—some sparked by the recent terrorist attacks, others by observing smaller-scale inequities in society.
While activism—a term defined as taking positive, direct action to achieve a political or social end—may have been more visible in the Vietnam War era, today’s young people are researching causes on the Internet and elsewhere before getting involved and sticking it out over the long term.
We chose six of them to stand as examples of the many who are eager to take up a cause for the good of society and their own futures. These teens say their peers are very interested in learning more about issues, whether it’s neighborhood pride, Afghanistan or eating meat. Don’t underestimate any of them.
Two years ago, when she was a sophomore, Emily Adams set about becoming a vegan the way she approaches all her activist activities: deliberately and with passion. She and a friend had heard about people who chose to eat nothing made from animal products. “We wondered why people would do that and we started researching.” They learned about how grazing can affect the environment and health issues.
“We did it really gradually,” she said. First they stopped eating meat, and then they eliminated dairy products. It was actually pretty easy, said Adams, who is 18.
Adams’ interests have broadened to include social causes. She’s involved in the Students for Human Rights club at Chico High School and prepares and serves meals, almost all of them vegan, for the hungry through Food Not Bombs.
It’s hard to imagine this camera-shy teen (her studded wrist cuff does lend a bit of an edge) as a hard-core advocate of animal rights, but she’s a card-carrying member of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
She’s boycotted Nike since the seventh grade, when she learned about sweatshops overseas. “I try to stay away from big corporations that I know about. I haven’t been to Wal-Mart in a really long time, and I’m pretty happy about that.”
Her sisters were into animal rights and feminism, and, she said, “I guess that kind of rubbed off, like I can take power over anything.”
Last winter, members of the club braved the rain to present Christmas shoppers at the Chico Old Navy store with information about child labor and how Gap owners are connected to cutting down ancient redwoods.
Cindy Triffo, the Chico High teacher who advises the human-rights club and leads the service learning program, called Adams “good-hearted” and said, “She’s a self-motivated youth activist, where a lot of students wait for adults to get them involved.”
Adams was among the students who, after Sept. 11, wore green armbands to protest “the knee-jerk reaction [that] they’re all terrorists and they all need to die.”
Chico-style protests have proven a little disappointing to Adams, who counts only a “handful” of animal-rights activists here. But one she participated in, outside a Chico McDonald’s, drew a fair turnout and lots of questions from passersby. Later, she learned that some fast-food restaurants changed their policies on slaughterhouse standards as a result of the nationwide protests. “I didn’t think that they would change at all.”
Adams said speaking out didn’t come easy at first. “I’m normally a shy person.” Now, she’s at ease chatting with the people who come to eat with Food Not Bombs and end up jamming with volunteers on guitars and bongos.
Zeke Rogers, a Chico State student and de facto coordinator of the loosely assembled Food Not Bombs group, said Adams has rallied her peers from Chico High to get involved in various causes. “She is kind of soft-spoken,” he said. But her enthusiasm gets people motivated. “She’s always eager to learn more.”
Whereas longtime activists may tend toward burnout in their 20s, Rogers said teen volunteers are “more optimistic.” Once they get past the public-school mentality of “people tell you what to do and you do it,” they readily make their own decisions.
Adams tries not to foist her views on people, but if a friend is, say, eating a hamburger, she’ll ask if he or she is interested in hearing more.
As for how she’ll translate her interests to a career, Adams said, “It sounds weird—I want to make documentaries about the issues I’m interested in.” She’s already done some of that as part of the ACT program at Chico High.
She’s forgiving of adults who come off as condescending in condoning her activism. “I know what they’re thinking: ‘In the real world you can’t do this.’
"[Classmates] even wrote in my yearbook, ‘You have a lot of willpower; I could never do that.’ And I’m, like, ‘Yes, you can. If you feel really strongly about it, you can do anything.'”
Kate Holcombe is one of those “driven” teens, but she’s anything but stereotypical. She’s headed to Sarah Lawrence College in New York to study political science and law and is thinking about becoming a political lobbyist.
The 17-year-old senior has been the president of Chico High’s human-rights club and knows how to write grants—she learned through the school’s Leadership Through Service class—and is working on one for the Blue Room Theatre.
By her sophomore year, Holcombe said, “I realized I wanted to be more of an organizer than a participant.” She’s twice traveled to Oakland for a conference put on by Youth Force Coalition, which trains teens on how to advocate, from fund-raising to World Trade Organization issues.
She was also a coordinator on the Empty Bowls project, which raised money for the Chico Community Shelter Partnership. “She’s definitely the advocate for the underdog,” observed Triffo, the Chico High teacher. “She’s a very well organized and motivated student when her interest is piqued.”
Food Not Bombs also is a cause for her, and one recent sunny Saturday found her tugging at overgrown weeds in the garden that produces the onions, broccoli and other staples for the group’s weekend lunches.
Her father, a Chico tenants'-rights attorney (her mom is a school counselor), is on the board of directors for the Chico Community Shelter Partnership, which led to her own interest in the nonprofit.
Both of her parents encouraged her to volunteer. “We have a lot of political discussions—mostly local.” Her father marched against the Vietnam War back in the day, but now—she grins fondly—"he’s kind of square.”
She’s confident life won’t make her jaded. “I really don’t see that happening. I see this becoming some type of career. … Hopefully, if I do have kids I will require them to be involved in something, because it helps a lot.”
She worked on two of Coleen Jarvis’ successful campaigns for Chico City Council. Local politics, Holcombe said, “is really grass roots. It’s basically a lot of people getting together and stuffing envelopes.”
Jarvis said of the young activist, “She’s got commitment, drive—you don’t find many young people with her commitment, understanding and passion for social causes.”
“Chico is obviously changing,” Holcombe said. “When you’ve grown up here, it’s shocking. I don’t even go to half of Chico because it doesn’t seem like Chico. Personally, I don’t want developers on our City Council.
“It’s not really a part of our education or culture to go after information that doesn’t help you with a grade,” added Holcombe, who searches the Internet or listens to National Public Radio to learn more. “I generally don’t support things that I don’t have very much knowledge of.
“If you’re going to be an activist and put yourself out there and be informed, you need to do the research.”
Most people her age, she’s found, are up for the debate. “If it’s something they don’t want to hear about, they might come back with, ‘You liberal hippie.'”
Quiet at first, Phouvieng Savangsy—nicknamed “Skee"—grows positively verbose when he starts talking about his passion: the Chapmantown neighborhood and the kids who live and play there.
He is a community organizer with TEAM Chapman, where he works with fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders in an after-school program, helping them with their homework and “just setting an example—having someone to be there to talk to.” He also coaches basketball teams through the Chico Area Recreation District.
His own former CARD basketball coach, Mark Hooper, a TEAM Chapman board member, suggested that he volunteer when he was about 13.
“At that time I was running around in the streets a lot and wasting time and getting into a little trouble,” Savangsy remembered, sheepishly. Since then, his grades have gone up and he’s taking Butte College courses with plans of getting an associate of arts degree in health or physical fitness and following that up with a teaching credential.
He sometimes hangs out with the same crowd, and while he gets teased a little for being a community activist, “they actually support me on this.”
He thinks keeping young people on a positive track is a matter of making sure “they have the right guidance,” whether it’s from a parent, teacher or someone else who cares about them. He’s sure the boys he mentors can succeed; “they just don’t think they can do it.”
When he started seeing the young people he worked with making smart choices in part due to his influence, Savangsy said, “there’s not a word I can use to describe that.”
Darcia Johnson, the director of TEAM Chapman, said, “If you saw [him], you wouldn’t necessarily think it, but Skee has a big heart and he really cares about the kids in the community.” Any time there’s an event, she said, the kids nag: “Where’s Skee? Is Skee coming?”
“Anything he asks, they’ll do it,” adds Sonia Robles, who also works at TEAM Chapman.
In turn, Savangsy credits the children for changes within himself: “They taught me a lot—to keep my cool.”
The Chico High senior, who emigrated with his family from Laos when he was just a couple of months old, now uses his knowledge of the Laotian language to help his neighbors who don’t speak English.
“I go take surveys,” he explained. He interviews Chapmantown residents about their health care needs and tells them about the low-cost mobile health clinic.
Recently, his interest in politics was piqued when he worked on the No on Measure B campaign, which would have changed voting districts in such a way as to quiet Chapmantown residents’ voice in future elections. Savangsy went door-to-door explaining the measure and was a facilitator at neighborhood meetings.
“I got more politically involved, which is a new thing for me,” he said. “I just thought [the redistricting plan] was unfair and totally insane.”
At the time of the March election, he said, “I just barely turned 18.” He took special pleasure in casting his vote.
He attributes his success to several of his teachers. At Chapman, Lisa Roy—who gave him the “Skee” nickname—and Joanne Parsley encouraged him. At Chico High, English teacher Bradley Davis “made my brains click.”
Parsley, now principal at Parkview Elementary, remembers Savangsy well. “I’m not surprised that he’s such an exceptional teenager because he was an exceptional person when he was in the sixth grade,” she said, calling him a gifted athlete and a motivated, positive force at Chapman.
Savangsy also said, “I really learned a lot from my parents.” His father just graduated from Chico State and his mother works taking care of his grandmother. “They didn’t want us to forget our culture and our people. They didn’t want me to forget who I am and where I came from.”
“What I want to do is just give back. I want to show these guys how to have fun and play, and I want to do it for Chapman [school] because I went here.”
In fact, he concludes, surveying the neighborhood from the vantage point of the Chapman school playground, wherever the future takes him, “I still want to live over here.”
For the second year in a row, Ashley Erickson spent spring break in Mexico, not partying, but building houses for poor people.
“I’m like a two-shower-a-day girl, and you go down and live in the dirt for a week,” she said, so it was somewhat of a culture shock. But what stood out most was how happy the people there were with what they did have. “It was a really humbling experience.”
She is the first student to coordinate and administer the grant for InterAct, the high school version of Rotary. She takes Chico High’s philosophy of service learning—incorporating volunteerism into the curriculum—very seriously. And she’s the only student on the Chico Unified School District’s Strategic Planning Action Team for service learning. She was also on the youth philanthropy board for Youth Nexis, a program sponsored by Butte County’s Department of Behavioral Health.
As a 17-year-old senior who wants to major in international relations, Erickson fits the definition of well rounded, and while it crossed her mind that being involved looks good on college applications, her motivation comes from higher up.
“I have a strong faith in Jesus,” Erickson said, referencing the originator of the Christian do-unto-others directive. That’s something that, unlike convictions arising from other motivations, “is constant. It doesn’t change.”
Will Wilson, the associate pastor who led the group of 120 from Chico’s Evangelical Free Church to a community near Tijuana, Mexico, said people underestimate teens today, who are often eager to help others.
“Whatever she does she does well,” Wilson said of Erickson. “She’s a great role model for her peers, and she’s very well respected by the adults. … She always finds a way to do what people need her to do.” Plus, he said, “She can laugh with the best of them.”
Erickson has found that when she sets out to help someone else, it’s she who ends up getting a lesson in life. In Mexico, she said, “I learned so much from the people.”
And with the Empty Bowls project, of which she was co-coordinator, she admits that at first she “wasn’t exactly comfortable” with the homeless. The experience taught her more about people from different backgrounds.
In pondering her future, she said, “I’d really like to go on a mission trip overseas. … And I’d like to take up sailing—that’s really hard in Chico.”
Erickson said that while she likes to talk about her Christian faith, she usually waits until someone shows an interest. “I think it’s more the subtle things.
“I try to live by example,” she said. “People look at your life and they wonder, ‘What’s different about her? Why does she want to give up her Saturday?'”
It’s not always easy. “Sometimes you feel like you really believe and you’re really on fire and you want to go serve people. And sometimes you want to stay home and watch a movie.”
Andrea DeBrito is decidedly well-traveled compared to most of her classmates at Chico High. Her father is Brazilian, and she’s spent part of her summers living in a humble, undeveloped area with her paternal grandparents. But at the same time, her parents are scholars, and she’s lived much of her life in progressive college towns.
Before she came to Chico, she was living in Amherst, Mass. “That area is one of the most liberal, sexually outspoken communities,” said DeBrito, who, though straight herself, was quick to support gay rights and march in parades there and in New York City. “That was really a good lesson for me.”
She’s a feminist, but not in the way conservative talk show hosts perceive, “that we’re male-haters or femi-Nazis.”
“I just got inspired by going to meetings and watching women speak about feminist issues,” she said, mentioning Angela Davis and authors like Gloria Steinem and Sylvia Plath. Besides teaching her tolerance, learning more about women’s rights boosted her self-confidence. “I don’t feel like a weak person who will take anything from anybody.”
When she moved here, she found it oddly liberating to have a fresh start in a community where she didn’t know anybody and didn’t care about how other teens judged her. “I almost considered it to be a nerdy thing to be involved.”
Last year, she invited speakers from groups like Amnesty International to come to her Chico High classes, where classmates were similarly intrigued. “I think there’s resistance, but when one person speaks in a very convincing way on an issue they feel strongly about,” she said, the listener has no choice but to respect the person’s passion and consider his or her point of view.
Amaera BayLaurel, who supervised DeBrito when she volunteered at the Chico Peace and Justice Center, said, “She’s exceptionally bright and talented—a real great blend of intellectual and emotional energies. … I see a lifelong commitment to her principles.”
Jacque Chase, DeBrito’s mother, teaches at Chico State and said her daughter grew up understanding the important of respecting people’s uniqueness. “She’s always had access, because we’re in academia, to opportunities to learn more,” she said. “She’s very open to all kinds of different people,” Chase said. “She’s got really strong convictions, and I’m learning a lot from her.”
DeBrito observed that there’s not a huge feminist community in Chico, but people concerned about women’s issues came together in February for The Vagina Monologues, in which she played the role of an older woman who was sexually repressed. It was her first foray into the theater, and the monologues drew a much broader audience than she expected. The idea of the short pieces—which raised money for the Catalyst program that serves victims of domestic violence—was “to stop the oppression of women and to bring these issues out to the public to both males and females.
“A lot of women don’t feel that they’re oppressed individually,” and that may go double for teen girls, who didn’t live through their mother’s era of fighting for basic equality.
“I don’t go around preaching or anything,” DeBrito said, but she notices—especially at her job at a fast-food restaurant—that “a little bit lower on the social scale people are getting abused on a regular basis.”
At 17, DeBrito is getting a jump on her education by taking courses through the Butte College Connection. After college, she’d like to join the Peace Corps. “In small towns, it’s hard to know that there’s so much out there.”
She knows many people, when they get older, tend to lose their idealism, and that’s “kind of sad.”
“My grandma’s always saying, “When you get older, you’re going to become a Republican,” DeBrito laughs.
Chico High senior Steven Valentino readily admits that on occasion his peers might find him, well, somewhat annoying. “I’m a little high strung, and I guess I get on people’s nerves a little bit.” He doesn’t mind, figuring that’s just a side effect of standing up for what he believes in.
“Students always complain, but they never seem to follow through,” he said. When Valentino wanted to see Chico High look better, he went to the principal, did a couple of surveys, went to budget committee and school site council meetings, and before he knew it he was one of those student government guys. This year, he’s student body president.
He interned with 2nd District Butte County Supervisor Jane Dolan, and he hosts a talk show on KZFR on Mondays from 6 to 7 p.m., researching and then taking on political topics ranging from local schools to “anything from Gary Condit to slave reparations.”
Valentino recently wrapped up two terms as the student representative to the CUSD Board of Trustees and is now popping up on the other side of the dais, having been chosen by his classmates at Chico High to represent students’ views on budget cuts that could, among other things, increase class sizes.
It bugs him when people think he’s simply mimicking the views of, say, the teachers’ union, “because it’s not true and it really does irritate me. I think both sides are so entrenched in their ideology that when we try to call both of them on it … people don’t give students enough credit.”
School board President Ann Sisco said students likely chose Valentino as their representative because “they knew that we really respect him and respect his opinion. … He’s on top of things in the community, [and] he’s not afraid to ask some really pertinent questions of the board—especially the way we spend the money.”
What first got Valentino involved in district politics, seemingly ages ago in his sophomore year, was the condition of the restrooms at Chico High. Although a bond measure had passed in 1998, the district, hoping to leverage the bond money with additional state dollars, had yet to start work on the restrooms or the dilapidated gymnasium. Not to mention that land hasn’t even been bought for a new high school.
“I knew that education is a little bureaucratic,” Valentino said, but in 1998 he was in eighth grade, and “at orientation they said this gym is going to be redone this year.” While he was serving alongside the trustees, he asked that monthly updates on district building projects be placed on the agenda, and they were.
His radio show, dubbed Talking with Yogurt (an inside joke stemming from his being called “cultured"), doesn’t follow the left-leaning bent of most of KZFR’s programming. “I do come off as conservative, but I don’t like labels and I don’t like being put into one camp. I think ideas are more important than ideology.”
Accordingly, Valentino spent much of his April 15 radio show railing on taxes, pledging to vote Libertarian (when he’s not bound by being 17) and lambasting the Bush administration for overspending and allowing “pork” projects by legislators.
Dolan said Valentino is headed “anywhere he wants to go” in life. “He’s an extremely confident, articulate young man,” she said. “I hope he doesn’t lose his enthusiasm or idealism.” Also, she said, “he’s never boring.”
His family is supportive, although his mother worries about him a bit. “My mom is very protective, and she’s afraid there’ll be a backlash.”
Whereas some activists want instant gratification, Valentino said, “I can be a very patient person.” At the same time, part of his secret to fighting burnout is, “I’m staying on stuff that I feel can have a noticeable impact within a reasonable amount of time.
“You’re not going to make everything perfect, but you can make sure things are on the right track."