California teen breaks down stereotypes by leading positive change in her community

By staff

“Show the opposite of what they’re saying,” proclaims Maria Cuentas when asked how to combat negative stereotypes.

A confident student leader at North Monterey County High School, the teen isn’t afraid to face challenges head on—not even a problem as large as systemic racism. Prejudice is a familiar foe for residents of Castroville, an agricultural pocket of Northern California. “Castroville is this town that gets stereotyped. It’s known for violence or known for gangs,” explains Maria. “When people say that, I think they’re thinking, ‘small town, big problems.’”

In Castroville, where field workers struggle to support their families, while citizen children fight for their right to belong, the town’s people know what it means to be marginalized. “I’ve experienced discrimination,” Maria says somberly. At 16, the Latin American has already learned how to rise above the hateful rhetoric sometimes spewed in her direction—things like, “Why are you here? You’re taking American jobs.” For her, strength is found in numbers, specifically the growing number of students that make up North Monterey County High’s WE Club—the school’s teen leadership council and Maria’s support network.

The club is based on the Nordstrom-supported WE Schools program. Offering a unique service-learning curriculum, the program encourages student engagement with global issues, and teaches the leadership skills needed to initiate action on those issues. Through WE Schools programming, students learn to lead campaigns designed to tackle current social issues ranging from local poverty to global water scarcity.

Maria was introduced to the club by her older sister Acarceli—one of its founding members—and has since become one of the most active participants. Today, her list of good deeds is long. With the success of each campaign—from food collection ventures like WE Scare Hunger to building a repository of clothing and wares for local homeless as part of WE Won’t Rest—Maria is earning the reputation and regard of a role model. She handles it proudly; “It feels great to see this change that we created.”

North Monterey County High’s Educational Activities Director, Lori Lowensen, is the club’s co-leader. The position often leaves her in awe of her students. “The thing that touches me the most about these kids, and all of the work that they do, is that 80 per cent of our district is considered socially-economically disadvantaged,” she says. “Yet, these kids are going out trying to find people who need help and helping them.”

Since becoming involved with the Nordstrom-supported service-learning program, Maria is more engaged in school and in her community. For Yvette Padilla, who leads the club with Lowensen, Maria’s take away from WE Schools is precisely why the program was brought to North Monterey County High School. “I want kids to have more opportunities.”

Since the WE Schools program first challenged Maria to take action on social issues at home and abroad, knowledge has become the young woman’s greatest tool on the path to academic success—knowledge of the world around her, and knowledge of her power to change that world for the better.

Gathered today in the school library, Maria and WE Club members get ready for a leadership building activity. “Okay, I’m going to ask you guys a question; if it relates to you, step forward,” Maria explains. “Step in if you like eating sushi.” Less than half of the group of 20 students move forward. Giggles fill the room. Maria continues, “Step into the circle if you speak another language… other than English.” The entire group inches toward the center of the circle. The teen poses a final question, “Step in if you think that the stereotype of Castroville, saying it’s all about violence, isn’t true.” Again, all the bodies in the room move forward. Maria joins the group, “I’m going to step into this one with you guys.”

Today’s topic is stereotypes; the long-term learning is how to lead during a divided time. Good leaders listen to those around them to pinpoint and achieve common goals. In a community where racism is too often a part of daily life, young leaders need to push past prejudice to prevent it from obstructing the progress of future generations.

That’s the intention of North Monterey County High School’s WE Club. Together, its members embody the counter argument to the stereotypes attached to the town. After Maria’s activity, Ms. Lowensen gathers the group around a jigsaw puzzle of tables. She wants to talk about WE Day California, the L.A. event that club members will be heading to in a few days. The students have earned their tickets through volunteer work accumulated by way of WE Schools action campaigns. Not long from now, they will be in a stadium packed to the rafters with other students like them, who will come together to celebrate their collective impact on the world. To call to mind the reason behind it all, Ms. Lowensen asks the group why they first joined the club.

A young man raises his hand. “I chose to get involved because we have a small town…everybody knows everybody. We’re trying to change our community, to better ourselves and our future,” he says. Maria nods adamantly in agreement.

At WE Day, Maria and club members soak in the experience. They watch and listen, enthralled by the inspiring words of speakers and performers the likes of Lilly Singh and Alicia Keys. Later, in the afterglow of the event, Maria sums up her journey to WE Day, echoing her classmate’s words. “We’re all looking for a better future.”

Maria and her WE Club members are actively working to realize that future, with North Monterey County High School betting on their success. Given WE Schools track record for academic growth among its students, it’s a smart bet. External studies have found that youth engaged with the Nordstrom-supported service-learning curriculum not only show a greater enthusiasm for learning, but also have a greater sense of academic readiness, including college preparedness and motivation to pursue higher education. “She has big ideas and big aspirations,” says Ms. Padilla of Maria. “I can’t wait to see what she does.”

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