Fifteen students took part in a new program called Soulforce Leadership, a nonprofit that kicked off this year as a way for a diverse group of students to come together and learn about the social issues faced by the local community.
Poonam Singh, co-founder of the nonprofit, said her goal was to bring together students from all backgrounds, social and cultural, and get the younger generation talking about some of the problems they're interested in, whether it be female empowerment or gentrification.
"There's a lot of achievement-oriented programs in the area," Singh said. "We want to promote values like public service, and community and civic engagement — all the things that are important for leaders to have."
During the all-day meetings, students hear from local business leaders and nonprofit activists who volunteer their time in the city, including members of Peninsula Interfaith Action and the Day Worker Center.
In the final days of summer, the students have been working on a capstone project that will be presented to Mayor John McAlister, council members Mike Kasperzak and Lenny Siegel, and members of the public at the Foothill Covenant Church on Aug. 8 from 10 a.m. to noon. Just as housing has been a top issue for council members, the issue bubbled to the top as a popular issue for the students.
Nusly Zuniga, a senior at Los Altos High School, said her group went through a huge list of subjects they are passionate about, including religion, policy brutality and immigration, and eventually landed on rent control.
Her group researched city laws and ordinances and found that Mountain View allows landlords to increase rent on their tenants without many restrictions, and they wondered what kind of support they could drum up in favor of a rent stabilization policy. They set up an online petition, and received hundreds of supporters within the first two days. The petition is currently up to 909 supporters.
Seeing the kinds of responses people left on the petition was an eye-opening experience for Simge Yildiz, a junior at Los Altos High School. She said people described how they were living paycheck to paycheck, and how one man with a military background had his whole family in one bedroom of a shared apartment. Even a Google employee mentioned they were struggling, Yildiz said.
As someone whose family was forced to move before, Yildiz said she sympathized with the people who left comments and said it's tough dealing with that kind of relocation, particularly when the city doesn't do much to help out.
"People have to leave everything behind because there's no policy in place to protect them," she said.
In the same vein, student Tino Tugwete said her group took on gentrification in the city of Mountain View, filming interviews with people in the community on what they see as residents get priced out by the high cost of living. She said they noticed a distinct lack of communication between the city and the marginalized, lower-income families.
"We realize gentrification has many benefits, but the people who slip through the cracks often have no way to share their ideas and be heard," Tugwete said.
As friends and family continue to move out of Mountain View because their rent has increased by as much as double in recent years, Tugwete said she discovered through the project that there needs to be a greater level of awareness and open dialogue on gentrification, particularly for the residents who feel they don't have a voice.
Other students took on entirely different social justice issues. Yildiz said her group focused on issues facing women in the area, including domestic violence, body image and eating disorders. They interviewed nurses from El Camino Hospital and talked to staff at local domestic violence shelters including WomenSV and Next Door Solutions to get a better idea of the scope and scale of the problem.
In polling women online, they found 32 of respondents had been subject to catcalls, and 14.5 percent had been verbally or physically assaulted.
Singh said the first year has been a tremendous success, and they're working on the logistics for next summer's program. She said one of the key aspects that made the program work is that they chose students who were very different from one another. Some of the students came from 2,000-square-foot houses in Los Altos Hills, she said, while others were living with multiple families in the same apartment and taking time off work to attend.
"As students work together on social change issues, they're listening to each other's stories and seeing their realities," Singh said. "They're learning to work with a diverse group towards a common goal."