For young people growing up in Richmond, California, in the early 2000s, their future often felt uncertain. Just across the San Francisco Bay from one of the wealthiest counties in the United States–Marin–and bearing witness to the region’s technology boom, kids in Richmond were mired in problems closer to home. The city was among the highest in the country for rates of homicide and HIV; a major freeway and oil refinery plant adversely affected the local air quality. Hundreds of youth were incarcerated or placed under supervision each year.
Recognizing that this was the result of a system and a place that wasn’t working for them, the youth rose up. “They organized to say to the adults in the community: ‘We are struggling, we are in pain, we are trying to find the best ways to cope and deal, and we need you to provide the support,'” says Kanwarpal Dhaliwal, who was involved with the organizing effort at the time. Local youth conducted a community-wide assessment, and in talking with their peers they heard a consistent need for a safe space for young people to go in the evenings–separate from school, and protected from the stressors of the city around them.
“We wanted space to decompress, connect, and get our needs met, and also get exposure to opportunities and options for our future that we might not otherwise know about,” Dhaliwal says.
Out of that need, Dhaliwal and her co-organizer and RYSE Executive Director Kimberly Aceves-Iñiguez, with the support of elected officials like county supervisor John Gioia, created RYSE Center, a community space that opened its doors in 2008. Since then, RYSE has welcomed over 3,700 youth who have participated in everything from youth organizing programs, where they learn to engage with other young people to call for change, to tutoring and college prep classes, to learning photography and screen printing. There’s a particular focus on justice, and kids engage in policy studies on criminal justice and how to build a more restorative system. RYSE Center, says Dhaliwal, who now serves as its associate director, was built by young people in response to their needs, and in its 11 years of existence, has become a national model for how to engage youth in community action and build out an alternative to a justice.
For RYSE to continue to grow, it needs to expand. Last year, RYSE unveiled its plan for its next phase, called RYSE Commons. It’s one of the winners of the Fast Company’s 2019 World Changing Ideas Awards in the Spaces, Places, and Cities category. The vision, which current youth members helped create, is for a whole campus built around their needs. Building out RYSE Commons, which is expected to start this year, will increase programming space by 250%, and allow RYSE to expand its age range from 13 to 21 to 11 to 24. The Commons will also be open on the weekends.
At RYSE Commons, the youth organizing and education work that made the smaller Center a success will continue, but the expanded space will allow many new programs. Kids will be able to grow food in a garden and learn about healthy cooking in a teaching kitchen; a pop-up shop space will enable youth to display and sell what they make in their creative classes; a meditation garden will help people truly unwind. The Commons will also create more space for on-site mental health services and counseling.
RYSE Commons will cost over $10 million to build out, but RYSE has sourced support from various philanthropic partners, including the California Endowment, which works to improve health and justice for communities across the state, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which focuses primarily on education grantmaking.
There’s no question, for Dhaliwal, that something like RYSE could benefit communities across the U.S. that face similar challenges to Richmond. But what makes RYSE work, and that other communities must keep in mind, is that everything it does has to originate with the people it serves. “What we’ve done is we’ve stayed really proximate to our community’s needs and priorities, and those can change rapidly,” Dhaliwal says. “It’s about how we stay responsive to that and keep meeting those needs.”