Voter education, registration, and outreach was a primary focus of the nonpartisan Central Valley Freedom Summer, which promoted civic engagement among the valley’s youth. (Photo by Arnold Morrison)
California’s Central Valley is plagued by poverty, unemployment, pollution, and high rates of youth incarceration. For most kids who grow up there, the goal is to get out. But this summer, 25 UC Santa Cruz and UC Merced students turned that narrative on its head and returned home, eager to give back to their communities.
Through the nonpartisan Central Valley Freedom Summer project, students spent three months empowering youth. They interned with community organizations and reached out to high school students to register young voters and teach them about civic engagement. They hosted youth summits, conferences, and workshops about grassroots organizing. They sponsored art events and mural paintings, all with an eye toward beautifying their hometowns and energizing underserved residents.
Modeled after Freedom Summer, the Mississippi voter-registration drive that began in 1964, Central Valley Freedom Summer was the brainchild of Veronica Terriquez, an associate professor of sociology at UC Santa Cruz whose research focuses on youth civic engagement. In the 1960s, young university students from all over the country, but particularly the Northeast, flocked to the South to support the Civil Rights Movement. But many of the students were outsiders, and they didn’t have deep ties to the community. When they left, they took their energy and talent with them. Terriquez wanted to support a different movement in the Central Valley, one that would build on the undergraduates’ deep ties to their hometowns.
“In the South in the early ’60s, black voters were terrorized and intimidated. Voter suppression was deliberate and effective,” said Terriquez. “In the Central Valley, part of the challenge is a lot of youth are the children of first-generation immigrants who don’t have the right to vote. One of the …