Rising to the Challenge in Richmond 

New RYSE Commons a tribute to the resiliency of youth.

click to enlarge RYSE Commons represents a culmination of the center’s vision.

Images courtesy of the RYSE Center

RYSE Commons represents a culmination of the center’s vision.

Kimberly Aceves-Iñiguez heard it over and over, whenever she shared her vision for a new nonprofit center.

"This will never work here."

The co-founder and executive director of Richmond's RYSE Center recalls hearing many versions of those words when she first started the facility 10 years ago. "There was huge disinvestment in Richmond at the time," she remembers. "People did not believe that young people here could do what they have now proved they can do."

RYSE was based on the then-controversial idea that the youth whom the center would serve could identify their own needs, as well as help shape the services offered and the atmosphere in which they were provided. A decade later, the concept's success is unquestionable. Many RYSE staff are former RYSE "members," helped through difficult times by the educational, social, and emotional support the center has provided. One former member is now a San Pablo city councilmember.

More than 3,700 young people ages 13-21 have gone through RYSE Center's programs. Ninety-eight percent of them are youth of color. Many have experienced trauma, violence, and failure. Another 10,000 kids have been impacted through in-classroom workshops and community events. Educational programs such as "College Access," "Study Up," and the RYSE Scholars Club have opened up their futures. The center's music, art, and technology programs enliven and enhance members' skills. The RYSE Youth Organizing Team gives members a political voice in the community.

"In the midst of trauma, our young people have shown that they can heal and can heal their community," she said. "They are truly magical."

With success has come additional civic, corporate, and grant support. Now, the 6,600-square-foot center is officially breaking ground on Sept. 6 for "RYSE Commons," which will include a new 37,000-square-foot multi-use building and grounds. In Phase 2, the center's existing building will be gutted and re-designed as a more modern, light-filled, user-friendly space. Phase 3 will incorporate what Aceves-Iñiguez described as a "youth-driven health clinic." The project is already one of the winners of Fast Company's 2019 World Changing Ideas Awards.

RYSE members have been the visioners of RYSE Commons. More than 150 young people participated in the design process, from conception all the way down to the lighting, said Aceves-Iñiguez. "They told us things like, 'I want it to feel like home,' and 'I want to walk in and feel trusted,'" she said.

When completed, RYSE Commons will include a theater, a basketball court, study and mediation spaces, art and music studios, gardens where members will grow food, and a kitchen for both teaching cooking skills and feeding members. The design also includes computer labs, an innovation and design center, and a makerspace and pop-up shop.

"Entrepreneurial opportunities have been highlighted all along here, but the new facilities will allow young people the space to just create," said RYSE Director of Innovation Dan Reilly. The natural innovative inclinations of youth to "experiment and tinker" can flourish in an atmosphere in which failure is OK. As RYSE continues to connect with more Bay Area community partners, "This could lead to an amazing economic pathway," Reilly said. It also expands RYSE members' opportunities to "see themselves as they see themselves, not as others see them."

The new facilities also will be home to a pilot "restorative justice" program championed by the Contra Costa County district attorney's office, which will allow young people arrested for certain crimes, such as vandalism, robbery, burglary or assault, to be referred by prosecutors to RYSE. A team of family members or guardians, along with professional counselors and the crime victims themselves will work together to create a path for the offender to make amends. In the program's first year, about 15-20 Richmond youth will be accepted, and if more funding is secured, the program will begin to roll out countywide.

"Restorative justice is all about relationships," said RYSE Director of Education and Justice Stephanie Medley. RYSE Commons will provide the spaces for building those relationships, which, she pointed out, doesn't have to happen in a conference room. Centering the program initially on Richmond makes sense, she said, because the majority of West Contra Costa youth targeted by it come from Richmond.

"We want to ask, 'Why did this happen?' and also create an opportunity for the survivors of crimes to have an empowered voice," Medley said. The youth will be asked to right the wrong they've done, and examine how it impacted the people around them.

This concept fits perfectly into RYSE's mission, said Aceves-Iñiguez, because of its philosophy that each individual's actions impact everyone and "no one is outside the community." RYSE members accept that they must treat each other with respect and dignity, and sometimes call each other out by saying, "That's not RYSE-appropriate."

The RYSE staff agreed that perhaps the most important enhancement the expansion will provide is additional space for "healing and sanctuary." Whether it's connecting with themselves in the art studio; telling their stories in the music studio and then having a chance to speak with a therapist about the feelings those stories reveal; or just having a good, healthy meal; the fluid, open design of the facility will allow members to "take a breather" from the rest of their lives. And it will be a safe space, as defined by the young people — all the young people, from those recovering from trauma, to LGBTQ youth who find acceptance there, to those "re-entering" the community from the criminal justice system. "We take kids who have two ankle bracelets on," said Aceves-Iñiguez. "How they are here is how they can be."

So far, the 18-month timeline for the RYSE Commons build-out is right on schedule, Reilly said. When it opens, RYSE will be able to accommodate a wider age range, taking members from age 11 up to 24. Because the new facility also will feature more meeting spaces, including some for lease to appropriate agencies and organizations, RYSE is seeking more partners who share its vision, Aceves-Iñiguez said.

Other counties and states are watching and taking note. "It was a bold statement if you say, 'Not only do young people matter, but you need to let them create the vision,'" she said. For the current RYSE members and staff, RYSE Commons is both a new beginning and their legacy.

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