It’s a cliché, but it’s true: The children are our future—and that’s why it’s vital for them to become knowledgeable about and involved in worldly affairs now.

Inland Congregations United for Change (ICUC) is working to make sure that’s happening locally.

ICUC is a nonprofit community organization that “empowers people of faith, youth, and marginalized communities by teaching them community organizing and providing them with the tools to revitalize and transform their neighborhoods” in San Bernardino and Riverside counties. In recent months, the ICUC in the eastern Coachella Valley has formed a tight-knit group of youth leaders, thanks in large part to Monica Galvez, ICUC’s Coachella Valley youth organizer.

“ICUC has been here in the Coachella Valley for many years, but they haven’t actually focused on the youth,” Galvez said. “Last year, I started doing one-on-ones with different youth—seeing what they were going through during this pandemic, during their lives, and finding more information about what the youth were interested in. Before talking about ICUC and all the work we were trying to do, I wanted to give them the opportunity to actually be heard. That’s actually how everything started—just by listening to the youth.”

As for what Galvez heard: Local youth were interested in mental-health issues, especially surrounding the pandemic; voter engagement; and environmental health, among other things. “After I did the one-on-ones with them, I told them to do the same thing (by talking) with their peers and classmates, to see how they were doing—and for them to realize that they were not the only ones going through the situation with online learning and all the changes with the pandemic.”

Then they got to work. Local ICUC youth organized candidate forums during the election season, held food drives for families impacted by COVID-19, and engaged in canvassing in the east valley. In May, the group put on an in-person “Nurture the Vote” event at the Rancho 51 Date Garden in Coachella.

“It was an amazing event that was planned and led by the youth,” said Galvez. “Me and another organizer were there for support, but everything that happened was their idea. The purpose of this event was basically to talk to the community—but it was especially for the youth to talk to other youth about the importance of voting, and how they can register once they turn 16 so that once they hit 18, they’re already registered. We tried to make the event entertaining as well, because talking about voting and politics can be boring for the community, especially the youth. … It was one of the first events that people could actually attend in person.”

Next up, the youth council has its sights set on destigmatizing mental-health issues and improving mental health within the Coachella Valley Unified School District.

“I know they’re interested in making changes in their schools and communities, but I don’t want them to feel like it’s only work. It’s also giving them the opportunity to be part of a group, make new friends, interact with other people, and learn from different experiences.” Monica Galvez, Inland Congregations United for Change’s Coachella Valley youth organizer

“We have been attending the (CVUSD) board meetings just to hear what their plans are for the next school year in terms of reopening and mental health, to see how we can work together,” Galvez said. “We noticed that they are actually going to be hiring a therapist for every school within the district, from elementary schools to high schools, which is great. Our main goal is going to be talking to the board, and also to (Norma) Rodriguez, who is in charge of the mental health (issues), and also the welfare and attendance department. … I made a mental health survey for the students just to see how their mental health is; if they’re prepared to go to in-person school … and if they have actually reached out to the district.”

ICUC youth made sure they kept on working despite pandemic lockdowns.

“At the beginning, everything was virtual, so it was hard for them to be on the screen all day attending classes or regular classes, and also doing homework,” Galvez said. “The challenge that I face is trying to make this as fun and entertaining as possible for them so that they keep joining, while also showing them the importance of the different issues that we’re working on. It’s hard to be talking to someone through a screen, because you don’t get that sense of belonging. The main challenge was trying to make them feel a part of a group.”

Despite the challenges, Galvez was able to keep the youth council together.

“We meet every week, but every other week, we try to have a fun day, meaning that we play virtual games,” Galvez said. “We actually did it in person one time, with all the precautions and everything. It’s to keep them motivated, because I know they’re interested in making changes in their schools and communities, but I don’t want them to feel like it’s only work. It’s also giving them the opportunity to be part of a group, make new friends, interact with other people, and learn from different experiences. Even if they’re helping the community, they can also enjoy the work in the process.”

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Matt King

Matt King is a freelance writer for the Coachella Valley Independent. A creative at heart, his love for music thrust him into the world of journalism at 17 years old, and he hasn't looked back. Before...