Change West Covina co-founder Peter Dien stands in front of the distribution table at "Solidarity at Sunset," one of their newest mutual aid projects, holding the revolutionary material they hand out. (Photo by Payton Zarceno)

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After a year of social reckoning, these students took matters into their own hands

It began with four West Covina students who felt frustrated with the decisions that their community leaders were making about policing. The idea came in May 2020, and in the midst of political polarization and a national reckoning over police brutality, the students turned their frustration into something tangible, forming an organization that would advocate…
<a href="https://highschool.latimes.com/author/pzarceno/" target="_self">Payton Zarceno</a>

Payton Zarceno

August 3, 2021

It began with four West Covina students who felt frustrated with the decisions that their community leaders were making about policing. The idea came in May 2020, and in the midst of political polarization and a national reckoning over police brutality, the students turned their frustration into something tangible, forming an organization that would advocate for the changes they hoped to see in their community.

A year later, Change West Covina has doubled in size and gained a loyal following of dozens of volunteers —  the passion for community change continues to grow. Across the city, students are banding together in an effort to bring mutual aid and revolutionary ideals to the community. They’ve left behind an organization filled with young students ready to make change.

Since forming in June 2020, Change West Covina has organized mutual aid events, town halls and volunteer opportunities to strengthen the relationships between community members. Organizers have distributed basic needs to the unhoused and held biweekly town halls for all residents. They’re pushing for progressive policies, including increasing aid for unhoused neighbors and reducing the city police budget — something thousands of citizens across the country are advocating for.

The organization has spent several hours educating citizens about these issues after hearing concerns from other community members about the left-leaning policies. They’ve hosted events ranging from panels on feminine identity to community vigils for Asian American Pacific Islanders in response to a rise in anti-Asian hate.

Despite the progress that the group has made in pushing for progressive policies, they don’t always see eye-to-eye with the City Council. This includes the decision to create an independent health department and the sale of the hazardous BKK landfill to hotel development company Singpoli. CWC opposed the decisions, but the City Council is still moving forward with both items.

Still, they have won some battles. When the City Council chose to ignore virtual public comments submitted at council meetings starting last July, the group circulated an online petition to reverse the directive. The COVID-19 pandemic meant the public would put their health at risk by attending meetings in person, the group argued, and the public had a right to voice their concerns. After a day of online protests, the council changed course and began accepting comments by phone and email again. 

Before CWC entered the picture, organizers said, students often felt like their opinions didn’t matter. Being a part of CWC allowed them to organize with other students that shared the same concerns. 

“Overall, the main goal of Change West Covina is to raise class consciousness and raise political consciousness amongst the youth,” Emylou Vergel de Dios, a co-founder of the group said. “Really just to make people feel like we’re working in solidarity for a revolution.” 

 

Making a difference 

Despite backlash from some members of the community, the organization has made strides in providing mutual aid and assisting unhoused neighbors, a goal members have focused on for the past couple of months. Through “Abolish Poverty Drives” and their newest project, “Water not Wars,” they’ve become closer to their community and can better understand the situations of unhoused individuals, co-founder of CWC Peter Dien said. 

On Sunday afternoons, the group holds “Water not Wars,” an event where members distribute cold bottled water to unhoused neighbors in West Covina and offer assistance where they can. Assisting the unhoused is one of the larger issues CWC disagrees with the city council about. The group has been actively trying to encourage city leadership to take a more proactive role in assisting the unhoused by building more affordable housing but to no avail, according to Vergel de Dios. 

When the city announced its plans for an independent public health department, the group organized a press conference and rally for residents to voice their opinions on the decision. 

At the event, Council member Brian Tabatabai and Eileen Miranda Jimenez, West Covina Unified School District school board president, spoke about their concerns with the creation of an independent health department. As of right now, residents alongside CWC are currently working to get the creation of an independent health department on the ballot so residents may vote on it. 

CWC has also been invited to present at West Covina’s school board meetings about student grievances. Over the past year, they have partnered with different clubs and student groups across all three high school campuses in West Covina, discussing everything from mental health issues, period poverty, dress code and ethnic studies. All eight of the presenters were current students of WCUSD.

“It was ultimately a team effort. You know, we were all trying to advocate for different things. But we worked together and we got it done,” CWC member and WCUSD student Brittany Gutierrez said.

Although reactions of the school board members towards the presentation were not all positive, the group received support from current WCUSD students, alum and teachers. 

“I think that’s the attitude a lot of our members have, like, regardless of what anyone else says, they want to do what they know is right,” Vergel de Dios said. “They do that with so much passion and conviction, and usually with better morals than some of our politicians. Working with youth has been super inspiring, they make me want to be a better leader. They make me want to be a better organizer.”

Change West Covina member Brittany Gutierrez packs a bag with hygiene products and food supplies for their monthly distribution “Solidarity at Sunset.” (Photo by Payton Zarceno)

Public perception

Over the past year, residents have shown their support for the group through social media and in person. Community members have donated clothing, hygiene products and money for their mutual aid fund that goes toward assisting unhoused neighbors. 

Council member Brian Tabatabai appreciates the perspective that CWC brings to the table. The only left-leaning council member was endorsed by the group for his policy positions when he was running for office. After he won, he continued to receive support from the group. 

But while CWC may have an ally in Tabatabai, he described the relationship between CWC and the rest of the city council as “adversarial” as they became a force to be reckoned with.

“The council went from being patronizing to actually understanding the real political power Change West Covina has,” Tabatabai explained.

However, not everyone is in agreement with what the group is doing. Some have taken issue with the group’s stance on defunding the police, accusing them of being too young to understand the role of law enforcement and of being a part of the “Democratic Machine.”

Residents have made negative comments about the group and its members at city council meetings. At one meeting, organizers listened as the spouse of a City Council member made comments aimed toward CWC members that Tabatabai called “very negative, racist, and misogynistic.” Online, residents have also accused the group of having a mantra of “contempt for and hatred of white people.”

“At the end of the day, elected leaders can’t save us. We help ourselves, and we decide to make decisions for ourselves and we transform our communities ourselves, and politics is all about putting pressure upon elected officials and building power,” Dien said.

Change West Covina members with members of Sunrise Arcadia after a round of distribution for “Water not War.” (Photo courtesy of Change West Covina)

Moving forward

Three of the four founding members of Change West Covina no longer live in West Covina, but they still give as much as they can to keep helping the community. Dien says there’s nothing special about the group —  it was the decision to organize and take action that sets it apart. 

“I don’t think there’s any exceptional element of starting Change West Covina. I don’t think there’s anything special about me inherently, or special about Erin, or Emy or Yusuf that made us want to do what we did,” Dien said. “It was just that we had information that we thought should be out there. And we saw an injustice that we thought should be corrected. Just like everybody across the country.”

Many of the members hope that even when they leave for college or leave the city, a new class of students will continue the group’s efforts. 

“We’re a group that is uniting among any racial, class, political boundaries,” Dien said. “Anybody can join in on the fight, if they want to … all you have to do is be willing to learn, and be willing to organize.”

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