“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!
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.
What we try our best to do is to bring our youth voices and art work to the center of the movement, to the center of the stage and put them on a platform where the movement can hear what they are saying. It’s kind of like this back-and-forth flow where not only is it our youth voices but voices from the community who are sharing their testimonies with us, sharing their struggles with us, sharing their visions with us. It’s not just our smaller group but the larger movement that we’re trying to uplift.
We have weekly classes that we do with middle school students. We do this Drop the MIC [Military Industrial Complex] campaign. It’s a huge project that we started a couple years ago. It includes research through surveys and focus groups. It includes a series of workshops that we train our youth to facilitate out in the community for other students or other community organizations. Organizing is just something that we do as activists. So art is really the vehicle that we use to build community, to have conversations and to uplift our voices and our vision.
LM: That’s beautiful. I love that you have adaptive strategy and follow emergent priorities in this political moment. How does that work with your students, your youth over the longer term?
Leilani: Prior to us establishing Drop the MIC we never had a specific campaign that we focused on or a specific issue because violence comes in so many different forms. It is very intersectional. We can talk about the issue of militarization. We can talk about police brutality. We can talk about migration. We can talk about the school to prison pipeline. We can talk about gender issues, reproductive justice or LGBTQ issues. Historically different organizations working on different issues would invite us into their work to be supportive of their efforts — add artistry and additional people power for what they’re trying to do because broadly it allied with what we’re trying to do.
Another thing that’s unique about our work is that we pay our youth. You know we pay them because we value their time and we know that this work that we’re doing is valuable. One of the things that we’ve been doing in the past few years is figuring out how to build financial sustainability because philanthropy is not reliable. What we are hoping to do is to operate with a business model so that we can rely on ourselves, our programming, the work that we create, and things that we produce. It’s valuable and it’s something that people pay for usually. You pay for workshops, pay to be trained, pay to learn about new things, you pay for a new t-shirt, you pay performers — and that’s all the work that we do!
LM: You all been around for a minute which means you also have “alumni”. You have a lot of folks that have moved through your workshops, through your trainings, through the home that you’ve created. What does it look like to have multiple lineages and generations of folks who have moved through BAY-Peace? What does that community look like?
Leilani: Yeah, it’s been really amazing. We have this really beautiful successive leadership model where our hope really is to build the leadership by putting youth into training to do the same thing that we’re doing, so that they can become stronger leaders with bigger roles and bigger responsibility, and have the growth that they need to pursue this work if it’s something that they see themselves doing continually. Our work being intergenerational has been so critical to our success because we rely so heavily on a lot of the elders who we work with us and support our work. Our experience and knowledge is limited and it’s also bound to the time that we grew up in. I think actually that’s one of my favorite parts about the work.
LM: We’ve been talking about successes. What are some of the challenges you grapple with in growing BAY-Peace?
Leilani: One of the biggest challenges has been the systems of our work. You know it’s great to be innovative, but it means going back to the drawing board every year and it’s tiring. I think when we have a solid management system internally to fall back on, it makes it easier to be flexible and it makes it easier to be creative. Like you know when you’re writing if somebody said, “Write a poem!” A lot of people who might not know or say “I don’t know what how to write,” “I’ve never even done that.” Things like HR [human resources] — I have no idea how that works but I’ve had to figure out. It’s been one of the biggest struggles to make sure I’m following labor laws, supporting our staff — personally and bureaucratically.
Another challenge is with the issue of militarization. It’s so broad, and so prevalent. And nobody knows what it is. It’s so complex. It’s been a struggle for us to figure-out how to make this as accessible as possible to young people and especially young people who may have not ever been exposed to the social justice world.
LM: I’m curious to hear where you seen folks trying to be in solidarity with your movements and failed. Or where you would like to call folks into being in solidarity.
Leilani: We’re at a really pivotal political moment. People are starting to talk about militarization. People are starting to notice that the military is a huge priority for the government. And the government is largely de-prioritizing youth and learning — and the health of historically marginalized communities. This has been happening for centuries, since the very beginning of this country, but the mainstream realizing that.
I want to share the mission of what we’re trying to build in combining Wage Art and BAY-Peace. WAY UP stands for “Women And Youth Uplifting our People.” It will provide development opportunities through arts and media education and activism to combat violence and build healthier communities. We have a very healing centered approach to everything that we do. We prioritize folks who have been impacted by violence but it’s less about the trauma and more about the healing, more about growth and positivity, and less about negativity and harm. How do uplift our people? How do we bring our people out? How do we vibrate higher? How do we get to higher consciousness to do more greatness?
LM: Yes! I’m really excited for you in this moment of transition! Thank you for all your work and your partnership with Blue Heart.