Brayhan Reveles serves as Planning and Research Facilitator with Lake County Build a Generation in Leadville, Colorado. Join us as Brayhan reflects on lessons he has learned as a change maker in this dynamic community, just a few days before his 21st birthday.
BR: For the last decade, community members, government, and nonprofits have been working together to try to improve residents’ health and well-being so Lake County is a healthy, happy, and safe place for everyone. Our work is community-driven and community-focused. So we focus on whatever the community prioritizes, and we tailor our work to community needs. As long as I can remember, we’ve tried to make Lake County an inclusive place.
"Our work is community-driven and community-focused. So we focus on whatever the community prioritizes, and we tailor our work to community needs."
I first became involved with Build a Generation in high school, supporting an initiative that helps make the outdoors more accessible for all families. At the time, I’d been working with some of my peers to find a safe and healthy place for youth to hang out in town. In my senior year of high school, I moved on to a healthy eating and active living (HEAL) internship. Eventually I applied for and was hired as Build a Generation’s HEAL coordinator, working with community partners and community members to increase equitable access to the outdoors and opportunities for physical activity. One of our projects served a mobile home park with about 1100 people, many of whom are Latinx. They live about three miles from the town center, and those without a car have no real connection to services. We worked with residents and the park owners to build a nature play yard to provide a shared community space. It’s on hold now due to COVID-19, but we continue to advocate for those residents’ needs.
This year, I transitioned to Planning and Research Facilitator. One of my current projects addresses food access. I support staff who are leading the project and worked with five community members who did research and outreach with food providers and local organizations. We also applied for a grant from the Colorado Health Foundation and received $200,000 to help support our vision of a mobile food pantry in Leadville, where food costs are about 18 percent higher than in the rest of the county.
I had quite a few adult figures—teachers and mentors—who supported me in this work. But the person who really got me involved was my mom. From the time I was very young, she brought me to her community meetings so I could learn how to navigate new processes. My parents emigrated from Mexico, and they had to learn a completely new system. They wanted to be sure I had what I needed to be successful and to advocate for my community. Most of those meetings were conducted entirely in English, which she was just learning. When we got home, we’d sit down, process the meeting, and talk through our questions for the next time. She was one of the only Latinas in the room at the time. And even though there was that language barrier, she tried to work around it as much as possible. She really pioneered a lot of that inclusivity that we began to see years later.
"My mom taught me that if there’s not a path, you should create it for yourself and make it big enough for everyone to contribute to and benefit from."
Language is central to our work; we make sure it’s not an afterthought. Most of our communication is available in English and Spanish. Many local organizations offer simultaneous interpretation at their meetings so everyone is looped into the conversation. Because of that, I’ve seen increased involvement from the Latinx community in schools and within organizations. We also noticed a gap in local interpreters, so a group of organizations recently helped fund a free training for community members to become interpreters.
Now that we have a local network of interpreters, it has helped build trust and improved our ability to invite people who wouldn’t normally be at the table into conversations. And in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, local organizations and community members had a lot of conversations about bias and discrimination, which helped us focus on how to change the systems that are damaging people’s lives. Now that the people most affected are involved in the discussions, it works better for everyone.
At the beginning, it was so difficult because the pandemic hit pretty abruptly. When we went to stay-at home-orders, a lot of our community members lost their jobs or were put on unpaid leave, especially our Latinx population. But I’m really proud of how our whole community came together to find solutions. Partners worked with our local food bank to expand their services and provide free food for everyone, regardless of their financial status or position. It started as a pick-up style program. Then community members started volunteering, and we were able to offer home deliveries every week. Another big solution brought city and county government together with local organizations to create a community relief fund. Many people worked long days to submit grants to support families who need rent, utility, and general financial assistance. That assistance was made available to all community members regardless of their documentation status, and we’ve continued to fund it. We’ll focus on this as long as there’s a need.
If anyone sees the need for change, they should step in to advocate for it and give voice to those who have been voiceless. Youth, Latinx people, and minorities have usually been included only as tokens—one or two seats at the table—and it makes some people think they’re doing a great job at inclusion. If you notice that, call it out. For people who are both minorities and youth, building courage to speak out is one of the most difficult, and most important, things to do. But it can be daunting, so I encourage people to really reflect on the work and get comfortable enough to advocate. Wisdom doesn’t come with age; it comes with experience. And who better to advocate than someone who has lived through those inequities?
"Wisdom doesn’t come with age; it comes with experience. And who better to advocate than someone who has lived through those inequities?"
Adults who recognize leadership in others and want to build and grow that leadership should be listeners. See the relationship as a partnership rather than a mentorship. Both parties can learn a lot through the process. Be willing to listen, even if the things being said are difficult to swallow. Criticism is a healthy part of change and relationship building. Be open to feedback, and grow your own skills. Provide tools for younger people so that they are able to do the work on their own, and support them in bringing others into the process.
I’m really excited to see this new wave of voluntarism that’s been built by noticing the inequities that exist in our local systems. This year, we’ve had an outpouring of community members who were inspired to get involved and encouraged others to do the same. Stronger partnerships have emerged in response to the community’s needs. I’m also very excited for our community to continue to work on language justice. I think 2021 will draw on a lot of lessons from 2020.
One lesson is that while it’s good to have change and growth, it should be viewed with an equity lens. One of my favorite quotes is from James Baldwin: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Even if it takes weeks, months, or years, just taking that step to initiate change, while still being mindful of everyone’s needs and ensuring they’re represented, will lead to progress that benefits everyone for years to come.
To hear more from Brayhan and other young leaders who are successfully advocating for community change, view this video from Community Conversations for Transformative Times, presented by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Culture of Health Prize on October 13-14, 2020.
This conversation can be read in Spanish here, with translation by Brayhan Reveles.
Photo credit: Ned Warner, brandfulmediadesign.com