Gema Quetzal (Stanford ‘23) Organizes for Oakland Youth Vote



Gema Quetzal during a recent visit to UCLA. Courtesy of Gema Quetzal

Gema Quetzal ’23 (CSRE Major) began speaking up on school matters at age ten when she attended school board meetings in the Fruitvale district of Oakland, CA, to urge the board not to close her school. As a freshman in high school, she channeled her anger over the lack of school resources into coalition building and educating her community together with her peers. As summer fellow in CCSRE’s Praxis Fellowship in Advocacy and Social Change, Quetzal continued her community involvement by working with Oakland Youth Vote to educate others about Measure QQ, which would allow sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds to vote in local school board elections.

“[Measure QQ] is an opportunity for young people to hold politicians accountable for the education of young people because for many years the young people have been ignored despite all of the organizing they have been doing. With this measure the Board would have to listen to us because we [would become] voters,” Quetzal affirmed.

One significant theme for Quetzal and many other fellows in the 2020 cohort is the focus on building meaningful community. In the course she took prior to embarking on her summer project, required as part of the fellowship, Quetzal said she became more conscious of what it means to become a true community ally.

“The education that was provided in the class really helped because [it addressed] that when you’re going into fellowships and service learning, you need to make sure that you’re actually going into it with the intention to support the community and not try to co-opt it. And I think that the benefit that I had was that I came from this community and I worked with these organizations, but I had to remind myself that my positionality has changed and so the class really made me think about what my positionality means within my own community. What are my intentions? What am I doing? How can I support and be a true ally to the young people of Oakland?” Quetzal reflected.

Among her tasks, Quetzal focused on peer-to-peer outreach to educate the community on Measure QQ. “We know that hearing about a measure from family members and peers is much more effective than hearing about [local policies] from strangers,” she said.

Oakland youth organizers meet virtually about Measure QQ during summer 2020. Courtesy of Gema Quetzal

She furthered, “Electoral organizing is very new to [Oakland Youth Vote]. So we have had a different perspective when approaching Measure QQ. It’s a consistent idea of building community. Often electoral organizing is about following the rules with a focusing only on the process and passing the measure. But we’re coming from the perspective that you can’t pass something without connecting with your community. And is it really for the community if you are not talking to the community?”

Her work in the low-income communities of color of the Oakland flatlands stems from personal experience with educational inequities, particularly in high school. “At my [high] school, which was in the Fruitvale district, we did not have a janitor. We ran out of paper. Teacher retention was and is super low. Our young people were and are constantly experiencing budget cuts — and that’s not okay. That’s not something that’s normal in other communities,” Gema said.

In response, Quetzal organized walkouts and worked with a coalition of non-profits focused on various issues including supporting a teacher strike and fighting school budget cuts. Oakland Youth Vote was one of the grassroots movements that Gema and her peers started to work on before she graduated and enrolled at Stanford.

Quetzal is hopeful the measure will pass on November 4th and recognizes the current efforts of Oakland youth as part of larger trends. To be sure, Berkeley passed a similar measure in 2018; Californians will be deciding on Proposition 18, which would allow some 17-year-olds the right to vote in the primaries; and San Francisco is currently voting on Measure G, which would allow sixteen and seventeen year olds to vote in all local elections. For Oakland Youth Vote and other communities “this is a vote-at-sixteen movement that is really focusing on local elections,” Quetzal stated.

Quetzal’s commitment is part of a family legacy of activism. Her mother, who immigrated from El Salvador, fleeing civil war, was an organizer in Oakland in the 1990s supporting Ethnic Studies students at U.C. Berkeley and leading the first shutdown of BART in protest of a proposal to develop a new prison for youth. Quetzal’s 14-year-old sister, a sophomore in high school, is trained in restorative justice and focuses on education for Oakland Youth Vote. “I’m working on this measure so that in two years my sister will be able to vote,” said Quetzal.

Looking forward, Quetzal underscores the importance of community building for group cohesion and policy implementation. “After November there is going to be a lot more conversation beyond Oakland Youth Vote about how we make sure youth voices are heard. Oakland has large low-income minority communities. A lot of our schools are underfunded. And we will continue to ask how we can best center young people and support the work that they are leading.”

Vida Mendoza organizes for her right to vote for Oakland’s School Board.

Quetzal’s summer project led to a formal, paid organizing position with one of the non-profits she worked with over the summer, which involves twenty work hours a week, on top of a full load of virtual courses.

“I strongly believe in making sure that I never leave my community and that I never stop working with my community. Everything I do is for my community. And so I just hope I hold on to that motivation,” Quetzal said. “It’s challenging, but it’s worth it.”


Phone bank with Oakland Youth Vote:

Learn More and Donate:

Instagram: @OaklandYouthVote

Facebook: Oakland Youth Vote

Twitter: @OakYouthVote

Connect with Gema Quetzal on Twitter @gemaquetzal, Facebook at Gema Quetzal and on Instagram @Oaktown_trucha.

Perlita R. Dicochea, Ph.D., is Communications & Events Associate at Stanford Center for Comparative Studies in Race & Ethnicity. Based in San José, CA, she currently writes about the joys and challenges of single mothering in a multigenerational household.



Center for Comparative Studies in Race & Ethnicity
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The Center for Comparative Studies in Race & Ethnicity (CCSRE) is Stanford University’s interdisciplinary hub for teaching and research on race and ethnicity.