A Partnership in West Sacramento Helps Youth Capture and Contribute to Their Community

When Juan Orquendo first held a camera and started documenting the conditions in his West Sacramento neighborhood, he never imagined the resulting photos would be part of a gallery exhibition at City Hall—with an opening event attended by the mayor and other elected officials. Nor did he think he and the other members of Youth Voices for Change would help policy makers design programs that would better reflect the concerns of underserved young people, who make up a substantial part of this small city in California’s Sacramento Valley.

Youth Voices for Change is a project of the Art of Regional Change (ARC), an initiative at the University of California Davis that brings together scholars, students, artists, and community groups to collaborate on media arts projects intended to strengthen communities, generate engaged scholarship, and inform regional decision making. Its strength and uniqueness lies in its dual emphasis: artists working to ensure that arts and culture are part of community development and social scientists actively looking for ways to infuse the social sciences with the arts.

Creative Process 

A multi-ethnic group of 20 West Sacramento youth—mostly boys—from 11 to 18 years old collaborated with university artists, humanists, and social scientists to document the neighborhood conditions in West Sacramento that affect their lives and to express their hopes for the future. With mentoring from university members, they were trained in digital storytelling. Together, project participants generated a web map featuring photos as well as audio and video recordings to help policy makers design programs that better reflect the voices and concerns of the young people in their community.

Youth Voices for Change - Interactive Map 

Their efforts culminated in a Project Exhibit and Idea Exchange held at Sacramento City Hall and composed of media stations, haiku, and a graffiti wall on which participants expressed their hopes for the future. Approximately 100 people attended the opening, including the young artists and many of their parents, the mayor, city council members, university collaborators, and residents of all ages—a true cross section of the community. During a half-hour presentation, youth engaged all those in attendance and were able to talk 
directly to the mayor and other government leaders.

Following the exhibition, a subcommittee of youth teamed with university artists and researchers to create a comic book to creatively express their ideas and recommendations for change. The youth then brainstormed about who they wanted to reach and created an implementation plan in which they formally presented the comic book to adults who make decisions that affect their lives. Those given the comic book included the entire board of education, all city council members, city commission chairs (e.g., parks and community services; arts, culture, and historic preservation; planning; Natural Resources) and key city departments, such as public works and community development.  To extend their reach, the youth also presented on their comic book to regionwide organizations, coalitions, and funders. 

Youth Voices for Change: Opinions and IDeas for the Future of West Sacramento Comicbook PDF 

The collaboration also generated a gallery exhibition at UC Davis that later traveled to the Sierra Health Foundation, one of the project funders. Both of these subsequent exhibitions featured receptions in which the youth mediamakers presented their ideas and received feedback.



Being part of this participatory art project had an impact both on the young people involved and on the leaders of the city. It enabled youth to ask key questions and to gain confidence in their ability to articulate their viewpoints in a way that could influence change. As the mayor of West Sacramento stated, “The project served in helping figure out what the priorities should be in the city, which is both about what do we want to see changed but also what do we like? We have to make some big budget decisions in the city. We can only have so many parks, we can only have so many facilities, and so getting the help from the youth to say ‘this is what is important to us,’ really makes a difference.”

With art as the catalyst, young people, along with their mentors and partners, did not just develop an art-for-social-change project, they also created a different model of what youth leadership could be. Working with local activists and policy makers, the youth helped inform a regional research study that examines critical areas that affect young people, providing their unique perspective to support strategic efforts of policy makers, funders, nonprofit organizations, and businesses to improve youth well-being and regional success.

Following the young people’s participation in the research study, the local city government formed a Commission for Youth as an ongoing means of allowing young residents to provide advice and recommendations to the West Sacramento city council and staff on matters that affect them. Included on this commission are some of the original members of Youth Voices for Change.


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