Every year, the Summer At City Hall program brings high school students from all over Sacramento to the hub of government: the olive green chairs and wood paneling of city council chambers.
On the first day of this year’s class, the students met Mayor Darrell Steinberg. “You can change it all,” the mayor told them.
The summer of 2018 program started with 85 kids, mostly sophomores and juniors, who were divided into eight groups and took part in learning exercises, field trips and projects, which were presented before city council. The 78 who graduated received five high school credits and a stipend.
Tui Saukuru, who lives in Oak Park, said a teacher encouraged him to check it out. "I signed up for the program to see if I could help change the neighborhood,” he said.
Tui spoke about some of the problems near his home. “Mostly gunshots around the neighborhood, and there's always somebody getting hurt and a lot of car crashes and stuff," he said.
The students in each group had to identify a problem, and then create a flier, video or billboard to raise awareness about it. The kids had six weeks to complete their campaign.
Tui's group voted to focus on the police department. “Usually in my neighborhood, when something goes wrong and when a cop comes by — when he tries to do an arrest — they don't do a calm arrest,” Tui said. “They usually just rush in and take them down.”
But he added that not all cops are bad. “Just some of them,” he said.
Tui's group met with officers, performed research, and discovered that the police department holds community events. His group created a public-service campaign to promote them.
Omar Alvarez goes to Valley High School and said he hoped the program would allow him to find solutions to the housing crisis.
"I saw a lot of disabled homeless people,” Omar said. “I remember walking out, taking a jog, and I saw a ton of them just sleeping by stop signs, waiting for buses."
After a stint with one group making a video about drinking straws made from bread, Omar eventually ended up focusing on homeless issues. His group designed a billboard with a message to the mayor about homelessness and mental health.
"It's going to have a huge effect," Omar said.
Phenghoua Xiong lives near Florin Road in South Sacramento. He described the sounds of his neighborhood.
"During nighttime, we would sometimes hear gunshots or we sometimes hear police choppers,” Phenghoua said. “It's not always, but every two weeks or so there would be a chopper or police on the speaker talking about suspects."
He had hoped to work on real solutions to violent crime, prostitution, human trafficking or homelessness. Instead, his group created a public service announcement to encourage safe driving in school zones.
"I kind of didn't want to do it, but I was forced to because of democracy and majority voting,” he explained, adding that he complained about the decision.
Kriztina Palone, interim director of the city’s Neighborhood Services Division, said that in previous years students would come up with solutions to difficult social issues, but their recommendations didn't go anywhere. So, her office decided to lower student expectations.
"We were unable to dedicate staff time to follow-through on and follow-up with all the council offices on the project ideas and other city departments,” she said. “Unfortunately, some of the projects did not go very far. We had a lot of students who were really upset.”
This year, an informational flier or a video or a billboard is as close as the kids will get to finding solutions to the problems that affect where they live.