Standing up for Students: FIA Youth Organizer Javier Barraza

Meet FIA’s Javier Barraza, an East Oakland native who is working to bring resources back to his community

East Oakland Student to East Oakland Organizer- Javi’s Story

Growing up in East Oakland, Javier Barraza remembers a lack of resources. “Like messed up streets,” he says. He loved playing sports but there weren’t any rec centers to play at; he remembers the fence at the old Brookfield park had a hole in it and he and his friends would lose baseballs that kept rolling. Instead of any grocery stores nearby, there were liquor stores.

“In Oakland, you do grow up with a tougher skin because of the things you see around you,” he says. “A lot of bright kids don’t make it out of Oakland.”

Our Schools Need Resources

He remembers East Oakland public schools the same way: severely lacking.

“The lack of resources that don’t really allow the people of Oakland to reach their full potential,” Barraza says. “I could see that in the schools, too.”

When Barraza arrived at Unity High school as a freshman, the school looked like it was lacking, too. It didn’t look like much more than a parking lot with a few portables. But nestled in the middle of the block was a strong school community where Barraza found his love of education and passion for organizing.

“We didn’t have that building or technology that a lot of schools have,” he remembers. “Those same lack of resources were here in our schools, and that can prevent students from reaching their full potential as well.

“You see that a lot with students in Oakland,” he continues. “That’s why I got more involved to fight for choice in education: even if this school didn’t have the most resources, it’s still a school that does a good job of getting students to college and be successful.”

The Importance of the Black and Brown Vote

Now when he returns to Unity, Barraza does so as a student organizer for Families in Action for Quality Education. He’s a college student now at San Francisco State. On this day, he’s back in the Unity High auditorium speaking with students about the importance of the upcoming March 3 election, and why it’s important for Black and Brown communities to vote.

“A lot of this reflects back to my experience: when I was in high school, I didn’t pre-register to vote,” he says. “I think sometimes we don’t realize when we’re in high school the importance of voting, and that there are people making these decisions who, in my opinion, don’t really care about us. At least they don’t think about us when they’re making decisions. That’s why it’s so important for (students) to get involved in that process.”

Barraza says he got involved in this work to see students grow. “Some students are at first shy, and that’s how I was when I was a student,” he says. “I wasn’t outgoing, I kept to myself and played sports and that was it.”

“Our Parents Sacrificed and We Need to Get Involved”

After his senior year of high school, Barraza was an intern in the Student Leadership Institute with CCSA. He remembers canvassing in downtown Oakland for Measure G. “Me being really to myself, that was hard for me,” Barraza remembers. “But that was really the first steps for me becoming who I am.”

A year later he was organizing students with CCSA, his previous role before joining FIA. He says that his own experience really prepared him for relating to the students and helping them out of their comfort zones and grow.

“We went to different protests, including this big one in Sacramento, Stand for Students,” Barraza says, a rally where 8,000 people attended and he organized about 100 charter school students from Oakland and Alameda to be there. “It was really cool for the students to be out there, for me to be out there too, and see how many people really care about education choice and how many people really believe these charter schools are doing a good job providing a quality education for all students.”

Each One Teach One, or More

A student Barraza was working with spoke during the Stand for Students rally, speaking with power. “That was so great to see,” Barraza says. “I’m excited to see what he does with his life now. Just in general having students being able to do that is so powerful. Instead of an adult up there, it’s a student of color in high school, advocating, preaching about his school choice and why his school is important to him. It shows what the school was able to do for him, too.”

Barraza is working on a listening campaign with students at Unity. “We want to get the students’ input on issues they see both inside and outside of their school,” he says. By the end of the year, his plan is for the students to take that issue (“school safety” for example) and create a larger project to help highlight why it’s important to them. Student empowerment is a big part of it.

“It’s their school, and how they’re affected by it, so the project is really up to them,” he says. “It’s important for students to make their own choices, and give input on what they want to see in their community. Whether it’s here at the school or outside of school.”

Unity High is a family school for the Barraza’s. Javier says his first relative graduated in 2008; since then, seven of his family members have graduated from Unity and three are current students. “It’s cool to see how many members have family have graduated from Unity and are doing good stuff now,” Barraza says.

We Have to Take Advantage of the Opportunities Our Parents Didn’t have

During the voting event, Barraza was speaking to a table of students in the back. He asked them how many of them have parents who are immigrants. “All of them raised their hands, including me,” Barraza says.

“I told them, ‘Our parents made this mission for us to get this education, this opportunity that they didn’t have over there,’” Barraza says, remembering advice from his father, a construction worker. “My Dad would always tell, actually, he always does tell me, ‘Education is the most important thing, make sure I’m getting my work done and don’t take education for granted. You don’t want to be doing this back-breaking work that I’m doing in the sun.’”

“I feel like that is true for so many students in Oakland: We need to take this seriously because our parents sacrificed for us to get an education. And many people here in Oakland are actually fighting for us to not get the best education, to not have that education choice. I think it’s important for students to get involved and understand the urgency of where we’re at, and to know their vote matters.”

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