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Students Voice Economic Woes, Catch Obama’s Attention

March 20, 2009 at 6:10 PM EDT
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High school students in Pomona, Calif., articulated the struggles of millions of Americans by making a video called, "Is Anybody Listening?" about the economic hardships they have faced. KCET's "SoCal Connected" examines their story, which ends with a visit by President Obama.

JOHN LARSON, KCET correspondent: Like many California cities, Pomona was badly wounded by the imploding real estate boom, a boom that feels now more like a roadside bomb. Record foreclosures, rising unemployment. As Pomona-born Tom Waits sings it, it’s a matter of trying to hold on.

TOM WAITS (singing): So hold on, hold on.

MICHAEL STEINMAN, teacher, Village Academy High School: I’d say the American dream is changing. You know, in the past, kids wanted material. And I think now it’s more making sure we get through this together.

JOHN LARSON: If you want to hear something new about the economic downturn and something encouraging about the American spirit, listen to this high school teacher.

MICHAEL STEINMAN: Everyone has to kind of roll their sleeve up and work within their community to help one another.

JOHN LARSON: Michael Steinman teaches advanced placement language arts at Village Academy High School in Pomona. Built in an abandoned department store in a shopping mall, Village Academy High is nonetheless a state-of-the-art public high school.

MICHAEL STEINMAN: The American dream changed. Is it different now? Is it more about ideals or opportunities?

JOHN LARSON: So you were reading “The Great Gatsby,” and you were talking about the American dream.

MICHAEL STEINMAN: Well, usually when you talk about the American dream, kids are into material possessions. They’re into cars and jobs.

But when I asked them about how their lives were going, they just came alive. They all had a story, whether it had to do with parents losing jobs, foreclosures, everybody had something, and they were very impassioned in telling the story.

JOHN LARSON: So the teacher asked his students to write anonymous essays about what the current economy was doing to their families, essays which took his breath away.

MICHAEL STEINMAN: And the stories I read were just absolutely riveting. I read about students who were living in little house trailers behind houses, who were eating meager amounts of food.

Students make film about crisis

JOHN LARSON: And then he made his students an offer.

MICHAEL STEINMAN: I said, if you'd like to somehow utilize your freedom of speech and utilize the democratic process, I'll be happy to guide you and put together your thoughts in a film, and we'll try to send it off to both Senator McCain and Senator Obama, who -- at the time, it was prior to the election.

JOHN LARSON: So Mr. Steinman's students went to the school's video lab and began recording their stories.

STUDENT: No matter what you think about it, it's always in your head, and it's always in the back of your mind.

JOHN LARSON: They put together a video which asked the question, "Is Anybody Listening?"

STUDENT: I want to be a neurologist...

STUDENT: ... plastic surgeon.

STUDENT: ... environmental scientist.

STUDENT: ... psychologist, a guidance counselor.

YVONNE: We have all been affected by this economic crisis. I mean, we're all college-bound students, right? But the way things are going, we're not going to be able to make it.

STUDENT: My father has just lost one of his jobs, and now it's even more difficult for to us pay our house.

VICTORIA GONZALEZ, student: At the moment, I am currently the only one that can support my family, and can't. My mom won't let me get a job to help her, and I'm really, really scared. And I might have to put off school for another year.

STUDENT: You just -- you just wonder, do people even care anymore? Do people look around and see what's really going on?

CHRIS SCHULTZ: We're, like, four months behind rent. And just -- and my brothers, we might be homeless -- I mean, I can get out, but my brothers. You just -- we might be homeless pretty soon.

STUDENT: We lived in the home for three years, and we lost it about almost a year ago, so we moved with our aunt. There are currently 12 of us in a one-room house, so do the math.

JOHN LARSON: The students had asked whether anyone was listening. They would soon be stunned by the answer.

MICHAEL STEINMAN: And then it went to YouTube, and we started getting hits on YouTube, people watching it. They were crying. They were so touched by it. This is what's happening in the country. We also had a couple of stories appear in local newspapers.

JOHN LARSON: The local newspaper accounts brought us to Village Academy to hear the story behind their story.

VICTORIA GONZALEZ: And we pay about $1,100 for the rent space, because we live in a mobile home park.

JOHN LARSON: Victoria Gonzalez, like all the other students in the video, can do the math. In her case, it's her family's rent.

VICTORIA GONZALEZ: So it didn't go up this month. It's going to go up in June. And then, after that, it's going to keep going up and up and up.

Fighting off hunger, poverty

JOHN LARSON: Victoria shares her home with her mother, brother, disabled sister, and two other people they've taken in to try to pay the rent. Her mother, a homemaker, is desperate to find work, after her husband, Victoria's father, was laid off and returned to Mexico to try to find work. Their family could soon be evicted.

VICTORIA GONZALEZ: It's sad walking into your house 3 o'clock in the afternoon, coming from school, and seeing your mother just sitting there, at times wondering if she's still alive, because she's just sitting there, saying absolutely nothing, and I know what she's thinking. You know, and it's hard. It's very, very hard.

CHRIS SCHULTZ: My brothers, we might be homeless. I mean, I can get out, but my brothers.

JOHN LARSON: When Chris Schultz spoke of his family's struggles, he was not exaggerating.

How long you lived here?

CHRIS SCHULTZ: I've been living here, like -- since I was, like -- it was like third grade.

JOHN LARSON: Chris invited us to his home. His youngest brother, David, met us at the front door.

David, hi. How's Sponge Bob? You got them both? Uh-huh. All right, let me see. Very nice.

Chris' father, an accountant, has been out of work for a year.

CHRIS SCHULTZ: This is my mom, Joanne.

JOHN LARSON: His mother, a teacher's aide, has had her hours reduced due to school budget cuts.

How do you get by, you know, based on the school job you've got? And how do you pay the rent?

JOANNE SCHULTZ: Well, we're behind. My landlord's really good. As long as we maintain what we -- you know, on the first of the month, the rent now, she's willing to work with us.


JOANNE SCHULTZ: Yes, she's a blessing to our family.

JOHN LARSON: But how far behind?

JOANNE SCHULTZ: A couple of months.

JOHN LARSON: A quick tour of their home: two bedrooms for the five of them, a kitchen, and the refrigerator.

CHRIS SCHULTZ: In my refrigerator, well, we've got milk, eggs, ham, and barbecue sauce.

JOHN LARSON: Mostly, it's just milk, water, and oatmeal from the food bank.

CHRIS SCHULTZ: In here, we have burritos. And that's our dinner. I mean, so we're not too bad off right now.

Sometimes I wish I can come home and, you know, I wish the refrigerator was filled up, you know, sometimes? But then, also -- but then, I mean, it's hard for me, because I look at it and I see -- I mean, I want eat. I want to eat so bad. I just -- I'm really hungry sometimes, but then, you know, you can go out, "OK, I have to feed my brothers. I have to feed my brothers, you know?"

MICHAEL STEINMAN: They are handling problems that, really, adults handle. And some situations, really, nobody should ever have to handle. They haven't shirked from their responsibility. They've taken to it with courage, sometimes with tears, but they're just doing it. They have to.

Postponing higher education

JOHN LARSON: And then there's Victoria. Worried about her future, she may put off her dream of going to Yale to become a doctor, because even if she got a scholarship, she would leave her family suffering.

So you're really weighing, "Do I go to college and pursue my dream or do I work in a fast food restaurant or something like that?"

VICTORIA GONZALEZ: Yes. I need some peace of mind. I need to make sure that they're OK, because, I mean, education is my number-one priority, but my family is also one of my priorities. And for me to turn my back on them, go to college, you know, pursue my dreams, and I'll be able to help them, I -- you know, I feel that that isn't the gratitude I should show my parents.

JOHN LARSON: How many people have thought, "I've got to get a job"? I have to -- every one of you, every one except one?

In their video, nearly every student in the class is worried about their parents and the future.

MARISSA: It's been really hard on me and my family. My father walked out on us, and it's really hard, because, like, my mom, I see her struggling. It makes me really mad, because the people we trusted the most with all our money now have everything, and they're making things worse for us, so I can't imagine what's going to happen for our generation.

JOHN LARSON: The students had made their video "Is Anybody Listening?" right here in their high school TV studio in the hopes that one day they might be able to send it to someone who would listen, someone who could appreciate that, despite these hard times, they have dreams, too.

The students' video impressed the school district's superintendent, who carried the video to Washington, D.C. And then, five months after the students made the video, which Yvonne began with this simple message...

YVONNE: We're all businessmen, and doctors, and lawyers, and all this great stuff, and we have all this potential, but the way things are going, we're not going to be able to do that.

Obama offers a response

JOHN LARSON: The students of Village Academy got a lesson in democracy and an answer to their question, "Is Anybody Listening?"

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: So, today, there's something I want to say to Yvonne and her class at Village Academy: I am listening. We are listening. America is listening.

And we will not rest until your parents can keep your jobs. We will not rest until your parents can keep their jobs and your families can keep their homes and you can focus on what you should be focusing on -- your own education -- until you can become the businessmen, and doctors, and lawyers of tomorrow, until you can reach out and grasp your dreams for the future.

VICTORIA GONZALEZ: When I saw the actual clip, it was just like surreal. It was so amazing. And, you know, our message got across, and he's listening, and hopefully, you know, that something great comes out of this.

YVONNE: It made me realize that people do care and people are listening.

JOHN LARSON: There is no promise, of course, that the president's mention will change any of their situations, but the students of Village Academy have already started changing it themselves. They call it the Village Project: students helping students find food banks, share used clothing, even gift cards.

STUDENT: If someone needs it, they can come to us and we can help them. We have an answer, instead of them just having to worry every day of, what are they going to do? Where are they going to sleep? What are they going to eat? So it's just about students helping each other.

JOHN LARSON: And their teacher believes that may be the lesson here, that together his students are telling a new American story and that, together, theirs is a powerful voice.

JIM LEHRER: There's an Obama postscript to John's report: The president visited the students in Pomona yesterday during his trip to Southern California. And he answered their questions and pledged his education policies would help improve their situation.