About 650 delegates from faith-based groups and grassroots organizations gathered in Modesto over the past few days to hear a message about inclusion and empowerment. Their task is to help people stuck in an endless cycle of poverty, and the first step is galvanizing those they want to help.
“The poor shall be the authors of their own destiny. There should be a groundswell by those who are most affected,” said Joseph McKellar, co-director of the California chapter of People Improving Communities Through Organizing.
McKellar and the other delegates discussed this issue in the first U.S. regional World Meeting of Popular Movements, an initiative created by Pope Francis to bring church leadership and grassroots organizations together to address the “economy of exclusion and inequality.”
It’s no accident Modesto was chosen for its first regional meeting. McKellar, one of the organizers, said the area embodies some of the issues affecting marginalized people. The shared themes for the delegates included land, work, housing, migration and racism.
Most of delegates were from 25 to 30 states. They met Thursday through Sunday in the Central Catholic High School gym in west Modesto. While the event was open only to registered delegates, it was streamed live online.
The poor shall be the authors of their own destiny. There should be a groundswell by those who are most affected.
Joseph McKellar, co-director of PICO California
Pope Francis is the driving force behind the initiative, McKellar said, but the event was not a church meeting. He said it was designed to help community groups strengthen their dialogue with marginalized people.
For the Central Valley, that means ending an “economy of extraction” that pulls out so many resources, McKellar said – for instance, helping end agricultural practices that pollute the air and water and provide nothing but low wages for working families.
“A clean economy that works for all people, not just for some,” McKellar said. “Creating jobs of the future, keeping youths and their families in the Valley.”
PICO works with 45 groups in more than 120 cities and 21 states throughout the country. In September, PICO re-formed its Central Valley chapters into Faith in the Valley. It has groups in Stanislaus, San Joaquin, Merced, Fresno and Kern counties. (Stanislaus was formerly known as Congregations Building Community.)
Estela Arreola of Ceres started working with the Stanislaus group when she was in the eighth grade, providing information by canvassing neighborhoods and phone-banking. Now a 17-year-old Pitman High School junior, she’s a youth leader for the group. She’s helped organize workshops to help immigrants seek legal residency in the U.S., a subject that hits close to home.
We had to have the talk of what we’re going to do. I personally didn’t want to have the talk, because I was so scared.
Estela Arreola of Ceres
Her parents both entered the country illegally from Mexico. They met while working at a tomato-processing facility and started a family. Heated political rhetoric with racist undertones and recent presidential executive orders launching deportation sweeps has gripped Arreola’s family with fear. So much so that Arreola’s parents and their four children discussed a horrible scenario. They made plans on what to do if both parents were snatched up by federal officials and deported.
“We had to have the talk of what we’re going to do,” Arreola said. “I personally didn’t want to have the talk, because I was so scared.”
As a delegate at the Modesto meeting, Arreola said, she learned she has to go outside her comfort zone and discuss the immigration issue, even with people who might not agree with her. She says she hasn’t tried having those discussions at school, fearing it would just leave her angry.
“I just need to overcome that,” she said.
Trena Turner, executive director of Faith in the Valley, said hearing stories from delegates such as Arreola has energized her. Turner heard stories at the event from farmworkers with swollen hands after years of harvesting grapes. She said she’ll never look at grapes the same way again, knowing the hard labor used to provide produce to the rest of the country.
“You carry these stories with you,” Turner said. “And it’s not someone else’s fight.”
Jose Arellano, a former prison convict, shared his personal story of redemption and how he now helps others seeking to leave behind lives of crime, drug addiction and incarceration. He works as a “navigator”for Los Angeles-based Homeboy Industries, a work-training program that helps former prison inmates and gang members reform their lives.
Homeboy Industries hires former inmates and gang members to work in its bakery, a Latin food restaurant and a diner at L.A.’s City Hall. It also has an 18-month training program for homeless people to work in a business that manufactures silk-screen T-shirts, embroidered button-down shirts and hooded sweatshirts.
They’re talking about organizing. They’re starting so young. It’s amazing; it’s inspiring me.
Jose Arellano of Homeboy Industries
Arellano said more than 300 participants are provided with mental health treatment, anti-domestic violence courses and educational programs that could lead to a general equivalence diploma or even college. Homeboy Industries also provides educational programs for juvenile offenders in Los Angeles County who have been denied re-entry to school.
“I was like them. I grew up in the ’hood. I never knew my dad,” Arellano said. “I didn’t know any better.”
His mother died during his last stay in prison, a six-year stint for assault with a deadly weapon. He was released with no direction, but someone told him about Homeboy Industries.
“It was the first time in my life that anyone gave me an opportunity,” Arellano said.
He worked with a therapist to help him deal with post-traumatic stress disorder after years of incarceration. Arellano said the therapy helped him break away from drugs and alcohol.
“I used to always be watching who was around me, always looking for the quickest exit. I still eat fast to this day,” Arellano said. “The prison culture is different from being out here.”
He left the Modesto meeting Sunday with goals of including more young people in community-improvement efforts. Arellano said youths have to be a part of finding solutions, because gangs, crime and drugs are affecting young people the most. He heard from Stockton youths who still live in broken homes and impoverished neighborhoods surrounded by crime, yet they’re trying to start programs to better their communities.
“They’re talking about organizing,” Arellano said. “They’re starting so young. It’s amazing; it’s inspiring me.”