Blue Heart sits down with Leilani Salvador-Jones, Director of B.A.Y. Peace (Better Alternatives for Youth) to talk organizational vision, de-militarization, and youth liberation.
Lindley Mease: How would you describe in a couple of sentences, to someone who isn’t exposed to your work, what BAY-Peace is about?
Leilani: BAY-Peace is on a mission to empower young people to transform violence. Especially violence that’s normalized in our culture in terms of how we treat people, how we see the world, how we talk to ourselves, and within systems. For example, violence that occurs in schools, in prisons, that is perpetuated by the government. We do that through art. We do that through community building. We do that through organizing and we do that through political education.
LM: I would love to hear a little about you — the milestones and moments that were pivotal to you and how you got into this work at B.A.Y. Peace
Leilani Salvador-Jones: It all started when I started college. Actually I was a senior in high school and I had gotten into a lot of trouble as a young person. I had multiple misdemeanors, had been arrested multiple times. My dad was in jail and I grew up with a single mother, so I had a lot of freedom and independence, but not a lot of guidance. It got to a point where I was like, “I gotta stop doing this.”
I got presented with the opportunity to join a youth development program where I learned a lot more about professional development and business. So, I came up to my senior year and I had three options. It was go to the military, go to UC Santa Cruz, or start my own program straight out of high school. So I decided to go to college and when I went to college I proposed the bioengineering major, but I was failing my math placement test horribly.
I had just came across an opportunity to join the Rainbow Theater. Rainbow Theater is the only multicultural theater arts group in the entire UC system. They have a Latino-American show, an African-American show, an Asian American show. They have a poets’ corner. Then they have Fifth Element which is sort of like between different intersectional issues whether it’s related to queer issues or relates to immigration issues. Rainbow Theater was a project of a larger resource center called the Cultural Arts and Diversity Resource Center. I was invited to be on the very first advisory board — or board of directors — for that Cultural Arts and Diversity Resource Center. So that was my introduction into student-centered spaces, organizing, and community-based arts.
From there I just got more pulled into the work. Eventually I was a paid staff for the cultural center and I realized it was possible for me to do something that I love and make a living from it. Since then I’ve been like wholeheartedly, mentally, physically committed to organizing, art, youth development, and social justice.
So right after I graduated I started teaching art and social justice for elementary students, but I had a family. I had my son right after my first year of college. I got married my second year of college. I had a lot of responsibilities at the same time. The after school teaching wasn’t enough — it was only a part-time job. I came across the job with BAY-Peace. What really stood out to me with BAY-Peace was the mixture of everything I had been working on in college. I thought “I have to apply for this job!” I started with BAY-Peace in December 2015. I was facilitating our afterschool program, the internship program, developing curricula, bringing students out to demonstrations, actions like city council meetings…things like that.
When I started in 2015, we had one full-time paid staff member and three youth staff and our director who was a full-time volunteer asked. In 2016 we had to layoff all three of our youth staff and I was only paid staff. I was able to secure grants, so now we have three full-time staff members and one part time staff member. It’s been nonstop growth, but one of the biggest challenges with my role in this work is having to lead, but not having anybody to guide me. That’s one thing that’s really unique about BAY-Peace, we are entirely youth-led. Everybody in the office is under the age of twenty-four. I’m the oldest in the organization and I’m only twenty-five!
LM: I hear you on the challenge of being a young leader and not having — and wanting — more direct mentorship or guidance.
Leilani: Even though we had our director who is a full-time volunteer, she didn’t really have the
knowledge of starting a business or implementing HR systems or implementing operating procedures or employee handbooks. None of that existed when I started. We just started doing strategic planning last year. And I just implemented a youth advisory board this year. My next step is implementing a board of elders so that in addition to our work being of-by-and-for and member-led, I also have guidance and mentorship for myself in my position because I’m still learning and I’m still young and a lot of this is still really new to me.
I started a Masters program in interdisciplinary art and writing in 2016 and I just graduated. For my Masters project I started another non-profit called Wage Art. Essentially what we do is facilitate healing circles with young women and in our most recent project we decided instead of it being exclusively for women, we did one with young women and one with young men. Then we brought them all together to talk about the same subject. We turned everybody’s testimonies and stories into an art production. The first was a choreography poem. The second one was a poem with a concept video. The last one was what we call a self-portrait project. I was leading that body of work at the same time that I started directing BAY-Peace.
And big news! We haven’t made a formal announcement yet. For the past two months we’ve been having a conversation about how do we bring the work of Wage Art and BAY-Peace together. How do we continue to make BAY-Peace youth-and-women-led but still be as inclusive as possible to all community members who face different types of struggles and really maintain intergenerational, intersectional effort in our social justice and organizing work? We’re in the process of merging the two and becoming a lot larger entity called WAY UP.
LM: That’s amazing! Congratulations!
I appreciate the deep learning that you’ve had from your life and your body, and that arts and performance and culture is so central to the mission of BAY-Peace. That is something that we really believe at Blue Heart. If we’re not supporting art, then we can’t envision a different world. Can you tell us a little bit more about what that actually looks like? What are some of the ways that you interweave arts into the organizing that you do?
Leilani: The thing about BAY-Peace that has kinda driven me crazy but it’s also helped me learn a lot more is that our work changes every year. A lot of organizations who have been around for a long time have the same program model that they run every year. Or they have the same classes that they teach every single year. You know it’s kinda like clockwork, but us — the way we operate — we’re always thinking of new ideas. Let’s try this! Let’s try it this way!
All of the staff right now are artists. This is the first time we’ve had a staff like this. Every single one of the staff members has a deep outside commitment to their artistry. Our program assistant is a painter and tattoo artist. I’m a performer and sing and do one-off shows and I teach art outside of BAY-Peace. Our program manager is a poet. Our youth organizer draws and does screen printing and things like that.
For example, on MLK Day we built a really big youth contingent. We invited all of our youth allies to come march with us. We did an art build and we had posters. We came out to show faith and be present and be in solidarity with folks. We’ve also done demonstrations where we do guerrilla theater. We pop up out of nowhere and our youth devise poems or theater pieces as a collective.