For 11 years, Youth United for Community Action (YUCA) has trained young leaders of color out of a cozy, humble yellow-brick house on Clarke Avenue in East Palo Alto.
That house is now up for sale, and the community nonprofit is scrambling to preserve its roots in East Palo Alto by raising enough funds to purchase the 2135 Clarke Ave. building. But with an ambitious goal of securing $1.2 million by the end of this month, and $500,000 in aid pledged by two local funders, the group's GoFundMe campaign has raised only $43,000 to date.
Since 1994, YUCA has worked to empower young people of color in East Palo Alto, many of whom have gone on to serve on local boards, commissions and other decision-making bodies. The nonprofit is a social justice hub that's advocated for restorative justice in schools, immigration policy and tenant rights. YUCA staff visit middle schools and lead tours of the city to educate younger generations on East Palo Alto history — and hopefully plant a seed that will inspire them to become community activists.
The nonprofit's leadership says its location, embedded in the community it serves, is essential to its success and impact. The building also serves as a second home for teenagers, many of whom live in the neighborhood and can easily walk there to participate in activities or do homework. Staff members deliver free produce from a backyard garden to people who live nearby.
"We walk out of our office to serve the community that's literally next door. That's why it's essential that we stay in a place like this that's very homey and very connected to the community," YUCA Program Director Kenia Najar said. "We're a part of it. We're in the middle of it. We're a resource."
Najar said the building owner notified YUCA in January that he wanted to sell the house. YUCA quickly started conversations with EPA Can Do and the Pahali Community Land Trust, which both work to maintain and create affordable housing in East Palo Alto. The two organizations agreed to partner with YUCA to acquire the house and make it a community land trust. There's also an accessory dwelling unit on the site that could be used for affordable housing.
EPA Can Do has pledged a $250,000 loan toward the purchase and another private funder has also pledged $250,000. YUCA is continuing to talk with other funders, Najar said, and is hopeful there will be further contributions. The GoFundMe campaign will cover the remaining amount. Anything beyond the fundraising goal would go toward "badly needed" repairs for central heating and the house's roof.
"We've been essential in advocating for what's right in our community for 27 years," Najar said. "There's a lot of revolutionary history that comes from East Palo Alto that we follow and that we live by. To not have a YUCA or to not have a revolutionary space just doesn't seem possible for East Palo Alto."
YUCA youth are currently working on two primary campaigns: promoting environmental health, justice and anti-displacement principles in land use policies; and increasing high school graduation rates and preparing students for college or careers. Through the campaigns, which involve running meetings and speaking at public hearings, the nonprofit aims to help young people improve their writing and public speaking skills and increase their self-confidence.
Ingrid Yasmine Ruiz Alvarado, an East Palo Alto Academy student, first joined YUCA to complete community service hours. But eventually, it became a second home. She now spends a lot of time at the yellow house, both for YUCA activities and to do schoolwork, particularly during the pandemic.
"It's a quiet, safe space for me. I can concentrate. At home I don't have that space," she said. "The youth and staff empower me. That's something I need daily."
Julisa Carriel-Lopez, a junior at East Palo Alto Academy, said she and her friends don't call the Clark Avenue house the YUCA office.
"We say, 'the YUCA home,'" she said.
Carriel-Lopez has been involved with YUCA since 2018. She was drawn in by the nonprofit's focus on restorative justice, or working to examine the traumas underlying students' misconduct rather than penalizing them with discipline. She also saw herself in education advocacy projects for elementary school students not receiving adequate support for special needs.
"I got to understand more about my background, the harm that was caused to me that either affected me in a negative way or affected my social upbringing," Carriel-Lopez said. "It grew this confidence (in me). It pushed me to grow from my past and not let my insecurities take over."
She feels empowered by YUCA staff, also all young people of color, who treat her as an equal, not as a child. She relished being able to correct an uncle who assumed she was a babysitter, telling him that she's working as a community organizer.
"I'm helping my community because I care about it. This is something that motivates me to get out of my house every day," Carriel-Lopez said.
Ruiz Alvarado added: "YUCA has inspired us to be more powerful and to be out there. Youth don't get that recognition. Youth have power. This should be known."