Students go all-in for human rights, empowerment at 6th Annual Social Justice Youth Conference

Posted: Friday, February 7th 2020

Rincon Youth Storytellers at the 6th Annual Social Justice Youth Conference January 25, 2020

As the Payómkawichum and Kumeyaay performers took the stage in traditional dress, the crowd became quiet.

The auditorium had been filled with boisterous conviviality just moments before, but all eyes and ears were now on the Rincon Youth Storytellers and the performance of Rez Beats, a movement for native and indigenous San Diego youth.

It was early on a Saturday morning, but nearly 200 students from across the city were not in bed. They had come to Bell Middle School for the Social Justice Youth Conference, a grassroots celebration of equity and activism.

That the celebration kicked off with native spoken word poetry and dancing was especially fitting; the Bell campus, and all of San Diego, lies on land recognized as traditional Kumeyaay territory.

Connecting teens with the indigenous history of their city was just one part of the conference, a unique event hosted by Bell Middle School and the Cesar Chavez Service Clubs, now in its sixth year.

Following the opening performance, students jumped into workshops including African Drumming, How to Advocate for LGBTQIA Rights, Immigration Injustices, Latino/Filipino Struggle, Hip Hop Expressions, Getting to College, ARTivisim through Comics, and more.

“This conference taught me that I don’t have to be afraid to do what I want to do, and be who I want to be,” said Bilal D., a 7th grader at Bell.

Bilal attended the Rez Beats workshop and created an art piece in honor of his mom. “It was really cool that I got to go on stage and share about what I love to other people,” he said after proudly showing his artwork to the crowd.

The overarching goal of the annual conference is to raise consciousness with youth about a diverse range of topics relating to empowerment, environmental and social justice, and defending human rights.

“It started six years ago with a vision of a day of developmentally-appropriate, interactive learning opportunities for middle and high school students with a heavy emphasis on art, expression and music,” said Kyle Weinberg, a San Diego Unified resource teacher and one of the conference’s lead organizers. “This whole day is organized by a grassroots, all-volunteer committee of educators and community activists.”


The theme of this year’s conference was “Nuestra Lucha es por La Vida - Our Struggle is for Our Lives,” drawing on the spirit of the Zapatista movement and San Diego’s Latin American culture.

Participating students came from middle and high schools across the county.

“It was really cool when we did our chants and everyone did them with us,” said Ashley V., one of the student leaders from the Bell Middle Chavista Social Justice Club.

Ashley said the conference was personally important because she was able to share what she had learned about social justice and teach others something new. Students’ enthusiasm also played a key part in creating the fun, welcoming atmosphere at the conference. “I was surprised by how loud everyone was!”

Weinberg believes the conference was just the latest success in a growing tradition that gets better each year.

“Over the years, we have had the honor to host esteemed presenters and performers from all over the world,” he said. “We’ve hosted the Beehive Collective from Maine, Mare Advertencia Lirika from Oaxaca, Desirae Harp and Calina Lawrence from the Pacific Northwest, Olmeca from Las Vegas, M1 from Florida, Audry Funk from New York, and our own local artists Chunky and Rick Sanchez and Mujeres en Resistencia.”

The conference thrives because of the support from Cesar Chavez Club advisors and San Diego Unified teachers, who do the organizing work at their individual sites promoting the conference to students and coordinating transportation logistics. The district also assists with providing bus transportation, allowing more students to attend.

“We couldn’t do the conference without the invaluable support of staff at Bell Middle School,” Weinberg adds. “A big thank you to our principal Precious Hubbard-Jackson, counselor Ramona Garcia, building supervisor Phillip Rogers and custodian Carl Pressley, and all the teachers who volunteer their classrooms and time on the day of the event.”

Members of the Social Justice Youth Conference organizing committee this year were SDUSD teachers Laurie Bailon-Yagyagan, Ciria Brewer, Kyle Weinberg and Rene Zambrano, Cesar Chavez Club manager Ariana Gallegos and San Diego State Chicanx Studies professor Michael Dominguez.

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