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New Jack Activists

Photo by Ted Soqui

Crenshaw High senior Frances Martin is hoarse from shouting, but the 17-year-old is composed as she takes the microphone to decry the Los Angeles Unified School District’s almost pathological habit of spending money everywhere but where it’s needed the most — in the classroom. “We’ve got to cut out the middleman,” she declares with as much certainty as any seasoned activist, dozens of whom are in the crowd of protesters before her. A sea of red-shirted teachers representing the United Teachers union, with a contingent of blue-shirted kids and adults from the Coalition for Eductional Justice sprinkled among them, cheers raucously.

The largely inner-city students who form the unlikely heart and backbone of the CEJ have joined this June rally in front of the district’s downtown headquarters because they are incensed about the sorry state of affairs in their schools and about the bureaucrats’ endless inability to do anything about them.

Three CEJ students — Marquise Williams, Channing Martinez and Jessica Reese — take turns with a megaphone: “I don’t know, but I’ve been told/All our schools are mighty old/Give us teachers, give us books/Get those recruiters off our hooks!”

Other students wave signs that echo the sentiments; one bangs a drum constructed of rope and an upturned, empty water bottle. Marquise and Jessica have the word “media” written on yellow tape across their backs. This is a group determined to be heard, and seen.

Frances continues. “But you know,” she says, as if the thought suddenly strikes her, “we have other issues too. Like the militarization of our schools. Like overcrowding. And change needs to happen now. Not later, but now. So call your local school board member . . .” She is drowned out by more cheers and approving whistles. A middle-aged black woman in a red union shirt shouts, “Hurrah for the students!” Frances pumps her fist above her head and smiles almost sweetly before taking a chair.

The CEJ is, to put it mildly, ambitious. It wants every problem in the dizzying pantheon of public-school problems — from overcrowded classes to decrepit book stocks — corrected, but it’s content to do things a bit at a time. The magnitude of the goal and the work required to achieve it are such that most students, while they often agree with the CEJ, do not get involved. “My friends have no idea what this is about,” remarks Travon Hodge, a junior at Crenshaw High who was a key organizer of CEJ’s participation in this rally. “But I understand. I used to be that way.”

Forget football — the latest team sport in the hood is the Coalition for Educational Justice, one of the most far-reaching attempts to equalize public education in L.A. since mandatory busing was tried and burned in the 1970s. What distinguishes the CEJ from other, similar efforts is the central role of students. Not just any students; those who have jump-started the CEJ and given it life are the very black and Latino working-class kids in the worst-performing schools who are secretly written off by many in the education community as uneducable. It is this gray population that is now realizing that their own education up to this point has very likely been insufficient, but that they must try to change its course anyway. The most disadvantaged kids, who have long been the most hapless characters in the titanic tragedy of failing public schools, are learning how to effectively confront bigwig superintendents and board members with grievances, explain the history and rationale of each one, and lay out timelines to address them.

 

It is several weeks before the aforementioned June rally, and Travon is co-chairing a CEJ meeting at Dorsey High School with his friend Channing, a 16-year-old junior who, like Travon, goes to nearby Crenshaw. Both are on the shy side and, for the last year or so, have been devoted to pursuits that lack the traditional appeal or ego stroke of other afterschool activities, like sports or dance practice. This get-together is unglamorous that way, which makes it all the more remarkable that Travon is here. He frankly doesn’t look like a student who’d be interested in hanging around campus any longer than he has to: He’s thin, languid, dark-skinned, dressed in a white T-shirt and voluminous blue jeans that are belted somewhere between his knees and his waist. He wears a thick silver chain around his neck that gleams in the bright afternoon sun. He has neatly plaited cornrows, a faux-diamond stud in each ear and mild, heavy-lidded eyes that make him look vaguely like a young Snoop Dogg.

But Travon has bigger things on his mind than the presiding dean of gangsta rap; in a classroom he bends over the day’s agenda and reads the items aloud carefully, with the manner of a new Boy Scout ushering an old woman across a busy street. Channing nods slightly in approval, as he tends to do whenever Travon has the floor. Channing is slender, almost elfin, with shoulder-length dreadlocks and a laconic air that masks a seriousness about his involvement with the Coalition for Educational Justice. He is quick with a wry smile or a joke, but when it comes to the CEJ, he is always looking to see that everyone else is serious too, especially his friend Travon.

The meeting starts, and CEJ students from other campuses like Crenshaw and Los Angeles report on the progress of organizing and outreach. They talk about an upcoming parent meeting. Marquise, a Dorsey High senior who is husky and amiable, suggests that coalition students be invited too. Travon shakes his head. “No,” he says firmly. “It’s best to keep student and parent meetings separate for now.”

It’s agreed that each school will be responsible for carrying out an agenda item: Dorsey will do an icebreaking kit detailing the outrages of the Bush administration, such as the inadequacies of the No Child Left Behind Act — a signature bit. Next is a discussion about the pending rally at the LAUSD’s downtown headquarters, at which the coalition plans to publicize its demands for school reform. What will be the coalition’s theme, the hook to grab the media’s attention and get the event in the papers? Visibility is a must. Somebody suggests a food theme with a slogan like “We’re hungry for justice.” Marquise volunteers to play drums, and the room breaks up. A question is raised about the powerful teachers union, UTLA, and its role in staging the rally. Does it mostly side with CEJ or not?

Alex Caputo-Pearl, a Crenshaw history teacher and key coalition member who is often its press liaison, though only because somebody in this painstakingly democratic group has to be, gets up from his seat and goes to the chalkboard. Caputo-Pearl, who has been sitting pretty quietly up to this point, scrawls some questions that go well beyond the scope of the one raised: What is the real difference between the right and left wing? Does UTLA claim to represent the working class? And, Could CEJ change UTLA leadership? Caputo-Pearl maps out who’s involved in local education reform and what they believe in politically, what they’re willing to do and what they won’t do at all. He explains that with the CEJ’s help, the teachers union now has within its ranks PEAC, the Progressive Educators for Action Caucus, an independent activist group that is a valuable bridge between outside agitators and sympathetic insiders who can help the CEJ change the system. That’s always the idea.

The impromptu lesson in realpolitik is not on the agenda, but it’s a typical CEJ big-picture moment — one more piece of information for students to add to their growing perspective on precisely why so many things in their community, beginning with school, don’t work. CEJ kids don’t have all the solutions, but they have one or two, which may be more than the UTLA has. And though they often have a genuinely good time in meetings like this — Travon laughs readily at easygoing Marquise, Channing plays straight man, Caputo-Pearl goes gamely along — they’re dead serious about what they’re doing.

The phenomenon of the CEJ makes sense. After years of exhaustive analyses by pundits and professionals about what’s wrong with schools and what they need, the sleeping giant of the student body is waking up and taking matters into its own hands. Though for and about students, the CEJ is in fact an alliance of students, teachers and parents who have independent functions but who also frequently work together toward achieving a goal that’s as lofty as the name implies. Where a PTA might aim to clean up trash at a school, the CEJ would aim to equalize janitorial expenditures at every school, particularly historically underserved schools throughout L.A. Unified.

Even when it does tackle site-specific problems, the coalition thinks big: Parents and teachers in its North/East area, dissatisfied with the caliber of school lunches on campuses, joined forces with the Healthy Schools Food Coalition to institute better food choices districtwide. Though its proposed reforms are more commonsensical than radical, the CEJ’s ideology is unabashedly left. It preaches and practices grassroots organizing and always describes its work as being anti-racist, anti-imperialist and pro–people of color. In the last year, it has had an increasingly anti-war focus.

These are uncompromising positions that have resonated deeply with black and Latino students, perhaps the only positions that could have involved them in politics and activism at all, because it puts race front and center in the public-education debate, thereby going where Democrats, Republicans and many third parties will not. But as one CEJ parent, Kahllid Al-Alim, pointed out, the positions sell not because of their politics but because they best describe the world in which most of the students live. They give order to what has long felt chaotic.

“Failing schools, too much military recruitment, no supplies — it doesn’t have to be explained to them,” says Al-Alim. “They see it around them every day.”

 

The CEJ formed in 1999 in the bitter wake of Proposition 227, the state measure that banned bilingual education in public schools. It took root with an eclectic group of young teachers, including Caputo-Pearl: teachers in training; a number of education professors at Claremont Colleges, where they had studied; various education advocates; and many activists left over from the anti-227 and anti–Prop. 209 campaigns who were looking to do something bigger and more coherent than simply fend off the next ballot initiative by California conservatives.

“The whole point was to connect education to a larger social movement,” says Caputo-Pearl.

The CEJ claims an active membership of roughly 300 in about 40 elementary, middle and high schools throughout L.A. Unified, with campuses concentrated in the urban core. It claims to have many more supporters than that. Teachers and parents are crucial to the CEJ, but student involvement in its various campaigns is the heart and public face of its work. CEJ student leaders have met privately with all seven members of the L.A. school board and extracted, at the very least, consensus on many agenda items and agreements to meet further.

At the moment, eight high schools are heavily involved in campaigns to pressure district officials to remedy what the CEJ sees as two of the system’s most urgent problems for students of color: overcrowding and overrecruitment by the military. The coalition wants the district to redirect money from police and other non-classroom expenditures to buy more teachers, counselors, and basic learning materials such as books, and thereby move toward reducing class size close to the ideal 20.

The anti-military-recruitment campaign is

more pointed.

The Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) is a well-funded program paid for by the federal government that offers for-credit classes in the schools and facilitates military recruitment within the district. The CEJ isn’t asking the district to get rid of JROTC — it knows that’s too extreme — but to downgrade it to an extracurricular activity so that it doesn’t have such an overweening presence on campuses that are chiefly black and Latino. Students say counselors at some campuses push JROTC classes as an alternative to regular P.E. classes that are either not offered or are at capacity. The other part of the campaign to stem militarization is educating students and parents about the right to be taken off a contact list for military recruiters, who tend to target those with the fewest academic prospects — one provision of the No Child Left Behind Act, which has increased demands for standardized tests while apparently increasing the consequences for failing them. Currently, students are automatically on the list unless parents fill out a form to take them off; CEJ wants to reverse the equation by requiring students to fill out forms to put them on the list at all.

The student campaign that’s been most successful so far has been the effort to reform standardized, or “high-stakes,” testing, which the coalition believes punishes low-achieving students who are already being punished by attending substandard schools. In 2002, the school board agreed to explore alternatives to the California high school exit exam and the Stanford 9, the controversial test that ranks schools academically statewide and is the basis of a monetary reward system. Last year, the state education board agreed to suspend implementation of the exit exam altogether for two years. Though happy with such victories, the CEJ is hardly resting on them. “It’s been one year already,” says Caputo-Pearl of last year’s decision. “We’ve got one more left.”

 

Travon Hodge grew up in South-Central near 68th Street and was introduced to the coalition two years ago, when Caputo-Pearl took him aside and “explained some stuff” about troublesome things at Crenshaw he’d always accepted as facts of life: no books, graffiti, crowded classrooms, indifferent teachers. Travon also has an uncle who is an Army recruiter who regularly talked to students like him. He saw no connection between the two until the coalition.

“I learned that everything is based on how well or how poorly you do in school,” says Travon, who is upbeat if not overly talkative. “And I realized that minority schools just don’t have the material. We have people who just aren’t doing the job. We’ve got one English teacher on campus who sells candy to make money instead of teaching.”

Channing’s take is more forgiving. Most of his teachers have been good, he says, but discipline problems

aggravated by overpopulated classrooms can undermine everything. “Class control is major,” he says. “Either you have it or you don’t.”

CEJ students learn to be clear about their points of view and not equivocate; for many who have never been anchored in a group like this or politicized at all, that’s a lesson learned slowly. Travon says that when he first started coming to CEJ meetings, he “sat back and checked things out” and rarely opened his mouth. Gradually, with the encouragement of Channing and others, he developed into a “student leader” — someone who regularly runs meetings and helps plan and execute actions. He’s one of a cadre of leaders who has met with L.A. school-board members to promote the CEJ’s agenda and demands for school improvements.

“I was very nervous inside at the first meeting, but I didn’t let it show,” says Travon, grinning. “I never thought I’d see myself in that situation. Now I don’t care what anybody thinks. On days I had board meetings I would get all dressed up. That really impressed this one teacher. He’d see me and say, ‘Good morning, Mr. Hodge.’ It makes me feel like I have a lot more confidence.”

Channing was also recruited by Caputo-Pearl. Like Travon and others, he grew up in Central L.A. and went through elementary and middle school fairly obliviously. When he got to high school, “I started to notice things, like 10 people had to sit on a drawing table in class because there was nowhere to sit, and there was no control,” he says. “But it was still just like background noise.”

Then, he says, “I got in Alex’s life-skills class at Crenshaw, and he was the first guy who put things in context for me. He connected the stuff in school to broader issues.” Channing later took Caputo-Pearl for world history, “and he kept talking to me. Then I went to a Peace Club meeting [a campus anti-war group] for the first time, and Mr. C educated me about the real reasons behind the war.” It was the anti-war stance of the Peace Club that propelled him to the CEJ.

Channing sits with his arms folded over his notebook. Double-taped to the cover is an L.A. Times story about a CEJ protest over standardized scores. The story features a photograph of him. “Got myself in the paper,” he says modestly. “Mr. C saw a little bit of leadership that he could build on. That’s what he does. If someone in class says something interesting, he identifies that person and makes him stay after.”

The CEJ is the most comprehensive of several student-activist groups that have gained traction in recent years. Others include the Community Coalition’s South Central Youth Empowered Thru Action and United Students, in East L.A., run by the community organization Inner City Struggle. Among other things, United Students and Inner City Struggle have successfully pressured the school district to expedite construction of the first new school built in the East L.A. area in 80 years.

The student-empowerment trend comes not a moment too soon. Fifty years ago, when the Brown v. Board of Education decision was handed down by the Supreme Court, education was the most crucial front of the civil rights and equal-rights battle. It was presumed that integrating schools would close the gap of academic access and give blacks the direct route to success and the middle class that they’d never had. A strange thing happened on the way to that success. School desegregation lost its champions to steady disillusionment over the glacial implementation of Brown and to a host of other racial causes in subsequent decades that were sexier, more street-level, and more easily summed up in television images and headlines.

The black middle class that school desegregation made possible severed its fortunes over the years from the larger lower class that never found its way out of segregated schools at all. Education reform is back on the national agenda, but it is no longer framed as a matter of racial justice — to do so would be, in this highly ironic post-affirmative-action age, almost against the law — and so it has settled into the strange sociological niche occupied by the war on drugs: that of a massive social problem that has plenty of visibility but no real imperative to solve it. Even in discussions among current black leadership about core issues in the new century, education barely rates a mention.

This is where the CEJ comes in. Unlike other leftist organizations, which tend to be more academic than action-oriented, CEJ is both: It critiques the state of things but is determined to provide a constructive alternative to it. It is radical but reasoned, highly political but also pragmatic, because, as it impresses on students repeatedly, it wants to get things done. Instead of blasting the NAACP for not sharing its cause, for example, the CEJ simply creates a model it would like the NAACP to follow — moving past the reactive, picket-line mode of social protest to one of community organizing that doesn’t take on any issue without devising a workable plan of action first.

The Kweisi Mfumes and Jesse Jacksons of the world should be so inclined. So should Bill Cosby, who recently ignited a firestorm after he went public with his wrath about the ongoing failure of the black lower class to lift itself out of its poverty/ghetto mentality and cultivate education above all else. Cosby may be right in the main, but he has yet to offer a plan on what to do next. To the CEJ students — many of whom are certainly among the lower class Cosby was speaking of — to get with a program, you’ve got to have one.

The CEJ may be a wonderful exercise in building esteem for kids a bit short on it, but the bottom line is that they need the coalition. Badly. A recent Louis Harris poll of California teachers revealed that school quality, and inequality, breaks down as sharply along racial and ethnic lines now as it always has. Not coincidentally, the poll’s findings were announced in the same month that the country was observing the 50th anniversary of Brown.

Thus far, Brown remains much more observation than celebration because, as virtually every article written on the subject admits, banning desegregation did not translate into the equality that was expected, and for all the pooh-poohing of racial injustice these days,

the problem of unequal public schools is as urgent as ever.

 

CEJ students say they’ve known this practically since kindergarten, but poor conditions on ethnically isolated campuses were so commonplace and so widely accepted that raising questions was not only not encouraged, it seemed a moot point. Most say that when they reached high school, disaffection threatened to set in for good — but then they landed in a history or English or life-skills class with a CEJ teacher. Epiphanies about their educational situation and the stirrings of activism began then and haven’t abated.

“For me, it really started with 9/11,” says Frances Martin, the 17-year-old CEJ leader who spoke at the June rally. Frances is animated and speaks rapid-fire. Like Channing, she found the CEJ through Crenshaw’s Peace Club. “I like history, and then Alex and CEJ really started breaking it down for me. I mean, America really needs to get off its high horse! Everything connects, issue-wise — war, recruitment, education. People don’t see the connection. Why? We have the escalating price of college, but we’re paying billions for the war machine — you could take a fraction of that money and fix the stuff we’re talking about.” She shakes her head fiercely, and her reddish braids dance.

Marquise, the student from Dorsey, shares this indignation, though somewhat more circumspectly. “I always wanted to act when I saw things wrong, but I didn’t know how,” he says. “I’ve been experiencing lots of things ever since middle school. In my community I see, like, police brutality and crooked cops. There are police on the block every day, but none of the crime seems to stop.”

He says that when he enrolled in a 10th-grade history class with Noah Lippe-Klein, another CEJ teacher, he was at a low point. “I wasn’t doing too well in school,” Marquise recalls, a little sheepishly. “Mr. Lippe-Klein’s class was the only thing I was doing well in. He was teaching me things I’d never heard before, like the truth about Abraham Lincoln and his view of black people, and how that was related to the Southern economy. I liked it. It’s not just dates; it’s things you really need to know. I thought, ‘Wow, maybe I have a knack for this.’” He smiles in a kind of disbelief. “It’s funny, but the first day of class I thought, ‘Okay, this is another class where I have a book, I turn in a piece of paper, and that’s it, get the grade.’ That wasn’t it.”

The division of labor within the CEJ is roughly this: Students carry out protests and agitate for reforms, parents monitor school budgets, and teachers try to enlarge the group’s political presence within UTLA to rouse that particular sleeping giant. At points, everybody works together; for instance, at rallies and general meetings. If this wheel has a center, it’s the teachers. Most CEJ teachers have done time in some kind of progressive group or movement, such as the Bamboo Lane Collective or the Solidarity Socialist Organization. Caputo-Pearl and several others did theirs at the Labor Community Strategy Center, one of the city’s premier community-organizing outfits and the birthplace of the Bus Riders Union. The BRU is the occasionally infamous group, comprising mostly low-income black, Latino and Asian bus riders, that made history by forcing the powerful Metropolitan Transportation Authority into court in the mid-’90s over its separate-and-unequal treatment of bus riders. Against great odds, the BRU won a federal consent decree that required the MTA to improve its bus services to the working class and poor — 90 percent of its clientele. In grassroots campaigns like the BRU’s, the David-vs.-Goliath paradigm is a given, and to the CEJ teachers indoctrinated at the Labor Strategy Center and organizations like it, taking on the school bureaucracy is merely another battle that is better fought against great odds than not fought at all.

And as formidable an opponent as that bureaucracy is, the CEJ views school improvement as the opening skirmish in the bigger fight for social and racial equity that’s being waged not just in Los Angeles, or in the U.S., but worldwide. Public school issues are useful to CEJ members as an entrée into the battle over what it sees as the long-standing neglect and exploitation of poor and colored people by power structures that resist seeing problems in those terms, when seeing problems at all. Not surprisingly, the CEJ gets its share of resistance; school-board maverick David Tokofsky once described it as being Marxist and — because of its anti-testing stance — an advocate of social promotion. Tokofsky has since met with the CEJ and warmed to its agenda, at least on paper.

Freshman LAUSD board member Jon Lauritzen says he’s impressed with the CEJ so far. “They’re very well informed, and very aggressive,” he says. “They’re knowledgeable in terms of the issues, problems and procedures. They know how to deal with elected officials like myself.”

Lauritzen is less willing to offer an opinion about the coalition’s politics; he supported JROTC at the San Fernando Valley high school where he worked and believes the military offers a viable option to students who need one. But he says he wants to investigate any possible abuses of the program and adds that he’ll support a board motion to make it easier for students to stay off military-recruitment lists. “We can probably adopt many of the things [the CEJ] is proposing,” he says. “A lot of what they want is pretty reasonable.”

 

Among the CEJ’s many committees

is an international one that’s looking at where the organization fits into a growing global concern about U.S. imperialism and attacks upon sovereign nations like Afghanistan and Iraq. It may seem like a bit of a stretch, but that’s the point: The coalition wants to bridge the arcane concerns of public education and the wider concerns of the radical left, which are getting wider all the time. The anti-military-recruitment campaign is both a bit of school reform and a larger protest against youth of color being consistently overrepresented in the armed forces — a concern that, with the open-ended war in Iraq and on terrorism generally, grows more urgent every day. The CEJ revives for a new generation a boilerplate of racially progressive causes that were orphaned by the moderate left years ago — educational equity, for starters.

“At CEJ, we pretty much look at every issue in LAUSD and see it as a race and class issue,” explains Caputo-Pearl. “Our job is to equip people with that knowledge, to frame their struggles with the anti-racist, social-justice stuff. It’s freed us up to bring lots of people in.”

That doesn’t mean that everybody in the coalition buys all the ideology all the time; they don’t. Along the way there has been spirited internal debate over exactly what the CEJ represents, what direction it’s going in, and whether it is overreaching when it shouldn’t or doesn’t have to. Sometimes, Caputo-Pearl admits, people clash over such mundane decisions as who should chair a meeting. “But we think that’s good,” he says in his unflappable way. “We always break into small groups and talk about it. We try and reach a consensus, do a vote. Or we table it for later. We have to keep moving.”

Caputo-Pearl is a CEJ linchpin and, more often than not, its reluctant spokesman. He has sandy hair, glasses and the imposing girth of an ex-athlete. He is smart, affable and extraordinarily tunnel-visioned about CEJ; he gives new meaning to the phrase “on point.” At 35, he is a curious mix of lived-in gravity and youthful idealism. The students obligingly treat him as a team player — they call him Alex or Mr. C — but they also clearly revere Caputo-Pearl as a major force behind a movement they might have imagined but had no real idea how to effect. He grew up in Prince George’s County, a Maryland suburb of D.C., where his parents were liberal Democrats who were committed to the public schools and to solving the system’s racial problems; they supported desegregation and busing, and Caputo-Pearl attended a racially mixed high school. He went on to Brown University and became heavily involved in anti-apartheid and Central American solidarity efforts.

“I decided then that I wanted to teach, and that L.A. would be a good place to go, even though I didn’t really know the scene,” he says. “I saw it as a kind of a laboratory for all the multiethnic issues I was interested in taking up.” His first teaching job here was, by choice, in Compton.

Teaching history was also strategic. History allows Caputo-Pearl and other CEJ teachers to introduce students to things they have likely not studied in depth before — labor movements, the full legacy of racial segregation in America, the history of political systems, and of global capitalism. At Washington Prep High, Edgar Sanchez teaches the history of oppression of people of color, relating it to the industrial revolution of the 19th century; he recently taught a unit on immigration policy, sweatshops and the extended grocery strike in Southern California. So far his curriculum hasn’t been challenged, or noticed, by any school administrators. “But,” says Sanchez, “that may change.”

 

Whether students actually join CEJ

or not is a bit beside the point. Teachers want to school students thoroughly about race- and class-based injustice and give them a foundation and perspective they can use for life; if they can’t make an activist now, they want to plant the seeds that might flower later. They want kids at some point, at any point, to see the relationship between increased military spending and increasingly bad schools, between overcrowded campuses and the overstuffed bank accounts of political haymakers and corporate CEOs. Of course, once students understand that the world isn’t fair and that the odds have long been stacked against people like them, they should do something about it.

“When I first heard about CEJ, about people questioning things and doing things together, I thought, ‘Great, there are actually people out there fighting the system,’” says Robert Coto, a senior at Eagle Rock High. “It’s empowering.”

Robert is thoughtful and reserved, with an intellectual bent. He excels in school and belongs to several clubs, including an Eagle Rock chapter of Amnesty International, “but that’s so broad,” he says. “With CEJ you do things locally and you see some results.” He is from East L.A. but spent time in private school in El Salvador, and says he didn’t feel the full weight of governmental oppression until he entered high school here.

“People were sitting on the floor, there weren’t enough desks or supplies,” he says. “It was a depressing scene, and you pretty much feel isolated in it. Here in this country, you learn about democracy and freedom. But if you look at it, there really is no freedom without the freedom of education.”

It’s useful to remember that for all the weightiness and complexity of the CEJ’s mission, average teenagers are carrying it out. The typical coalition student is willing but is often in the middle academically — neither an honors student nor a troublemaker. Some, like Travon, have been in special education. Many CEJ students come from households run by single parents or grandparents in which siblings haven’t graduated from high school. Often, as with Robert, they are the first four-year-college prospects in the family.

“I have one older cousin who got a diploma, and that’s pretty much it,” he says. “My parents are immigrants who’ve always tended to say, ‘Study hard and get an education.’ I feel some pressure.”

So does Marquise. “My mother has very, very, very high hopes,” he says, with a sigh.

“It can get pretty hot sometimes. She wants me to go to college and be the poster boy in

the family.”

Angela Azurdia, a senior at L.A. High, is the third of seven children. Her older sister never finished high school and married at 18; a brother, she says, “just gave up.” Angela admits to coming to a CEJ meeting initially because she was looking forward to getting extra credit — “I’ve always been kind of nerdy,” she says, laughing — but she wound up getting hooked on the message.

“I was surprised that the students ran the whole thing, and that you could say whatever you want,” she says eagerly. “They talked a lot about issues I was interested in, like being against the war. I wanted to go to an anti-war protest. I made plans to do that, and at the last minute my mom said, ‘Oh no, you can’t go.’ Because in Guatemala, where she’s from, people who get involved in issues get killed. My mother’s really afraid of that. She used to live in the capital, and she knew people who would go to parties and suddenly, in the middle of the party, the lights would go out and the people would disappear. And then they would find them dead.” Angela’s teacher, a CEJ member, talked with her mother and allayed most of those fears, for the moment.

“She decided she was going to let me have an open mind,” says Angela.

Unlike a lot of their peers, CEJ students talk easily about the future. For all their informed criticism of the system, they, like all students, want to do well. They want good grades and spots at good colleges. Angela wants to work as a women’s-rights activist when she gets older, maybe run a safe haven for rape victims, an issue she is especially passionate about. Marquise hopes to go to Cal State Northridge and start a CEJ chapter at the college level, the first one. As crucial as the CEJ might be in encouraging the future, encouragement is always tempered by reality: Travon’s grades, never outstanding, have drifted lately; Frances confessed to the same thing. Travon vows that he’s going to make it up over the summer. He says he wants to go to USC and become a lawyer, “or something involved in justice,” he muses, “maybe business with a justice twist.”

Right now he’s visibly excited about an anti-war march happening in Hollywood; the CEJ will be there in formation, with banners and T-shirts to ensure that everyone knows who they are. The coalition has been planning this for weeks. Travon has never participated in a rally of this size before, and he’s looking forward to it.

“It’ll be hectic and outrageous, but it’ll be fun,” he says. “People say that when everybody’s walking between those tall buildings, the sound at some point gets very intense. Like a big whoosh.” He sweeps his arms above his head in an imaginary sky to describe it, and smiles big. “I’ve always wanted to be part of something like this,” he continues. “I just want to hear that sound. I know it’s gonna be great.”


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