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Youth voice in the Valley

“The teenage population here feels invisible, unimportant, and unsupported.”
Youth voice in the Valley
Victoria Hernandez Padilla and Lily Gelb advocate for youth in Sonoma Valley.Photo by Maite Iturri

by Maite Iturri

As an advocate for ensuring youth voice is present in all spaces where decisions are made, I find it only fitting that my inaugural piece for the Kenwood Press be about youth in our Valley.

Recently, I had the opportunity to communicate with two young leaders in Sonoma Valley. Both of these amazing young people are committed to uplifting the voice of youth. Lily Gelb and Victoria Hernandez Padilla will be juniors in high school in the coming year. Victoria attends Sonoma Valley High School (SVHS), and Lily is a student at Sonoma Academy. Victoria and Lily responded to questions about their current projects, needs among youth, and what they want adults to know and understand.

Gelb and Hernandez Padilla are both deeply committed to social justice and representation in all spaces and places that affect youth life locally and globally. In addition to their busy academic schedules, they have found time to start clubs, host podcasts, and advocate for a local youth commission.

Diversify Our Narrative

Through Diversify Our Narrative, Gelb and Hernandez Padilla have been focused on education advocacy and bringing diverse books into Sonoma Valley Unified School District (SVUSD) classrooms.

“So far, we have brought three diverse books to every classroom at El Verano Elementary School, and now we are currently working on bringing three diverse books to every classroom at Flowery Elementary School,” they explained.

Hernandez Padilla also cohosts a podcast with some of her peers at SVHS that covers a diverse range of topics. “Dragons Mic Podcast is Sonoma Valley High School’s official/ unofficial podcast where we share student perspectives,” Hernandez Padilla said. “We discuss things that range from homophobia on our campus to drug use among teens, mental health, and more.”

When asked about needs among youth, without hesitation, prioritizing mental health was the response. “I have always been an advocate for mental health,” Hernandez Padilla stated. “It is imperative to any institution that centers around the well-being of families and youth. As a sophomore at SVHS, I have seen a rise in rampant racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and transphobia among some students at SVHS and beyond. I do agree that this generation is generally more accepting, but there is still work to be done to ensure that our world is the best place it can be.”

Gelb is in agreement with the mental health crisis in our Valley and commented, “Sonoma is already suffering from a youth mental health crisis, and youth-serving institutions in our town need to intervene immediately by providing access to additional mental health resources.”

Gelb mentioned that being a young person now is far different than it was a few decades ago. Social media is having a drastic impact on youth, with continuous and immediate access to information. “While having knowledge of these events is important for teens, awareness can cause stressed, anxious, and depressed feelings,” Gelb said. “Additionally, social media is drastically increasing and amplifying mental health struggles in youth.”

Hernandez Padilla would love to see more mental health resources destigmatized and widely available regardless of one’s background.

“We need to see more unity amongst our youth,” she said. “Our youth need to be more accepting and respectful of one another and of their identities. We need leaders to reflect the population and voices that are left out of conversations.”

Hernandez Padilla notes she is “currently making a mental health club at my school. I have a vision of incorporating speakers, educators, and organizations to come visit. I plan to educate students about mental illness and create a safe space for all students.”

Gelb is working on a youth council in Sonoma Valley to encourage the inclusion and representation of youth voice in policy and decision-making. “I believe that a Sonoma Valley Youth Council has the potential to improve our community and better the lives of teens,” she said, noting she has communicated with the Sonoma City Council, the Springs Municipal Advisory Council, county politicians, and school board trustees about the council and that she and fellow leaders are drafting bylaws. What the adults need to know

Finally, I asked Gelb and Hernandez Padilla what they wanted adults to know.

“It is hard,” said Hernandez Padilla. “I know that it has always been hard to be a teen, but [it’s] especially hard in times like this, with COVID-19 and people lacking social interaction. When adults fail to act, it lands on the youth to advocate and make up for the change that needs to occur.

“The work is all piling on teens. There is no consistency in Sonoma and yes, it is frustrating for everyone, but there is no stable support system for many teens during an incredibly important developmental time, and many feel like they are not safe,” she said.

“I would like adults to know that the teenage population here feels invisible, unimportant, and unsupported,” Gelb said. “We have been shown, throughout our childhoods and adolescence, that our happiness is not necessary to the success of our town and that it is therefore unnecessary for youth to be an integrated part of Sonoma’s culture or receive resources to feel valued and supported.

“I would like to see adult stakeholders and decision-makers recognize that the teenage population in Sonoma Valley has been overlooked and disregarded when important decisions about the structure and culture of our town have been made. I would like to see more resources, opportunities, and activities to engage students of all ages,” she said.

The takeaway

Hernandez Padilla and Gelb are asking for the space and place to be heard by the adults in power and decision-makers. I have always found that youth have brilliant ideas and are excellent problem-solvers. Their contributions to our community have been impactful and meaningful toward improving the quality of life for many.

Students serve as trustees on school boards, and their voices provide valuable insight into the experience of youth in our schools. Perhaps creating more space and opportunity for amplification of their voices could lead to some creative problem-solving in other areas.

The health of our community is dependent on the inclusion and support of our most precious resources. Creating sustainable systems for youth voice is something we should consider and act on for the health of all of us.