“How to uplift our people?”

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!