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 August 23, 2012
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A Special Back to School Edition of Coleman's E-Newsletter introducing you to three of our talented and inspiring leaders!

Back to School for Coleman leaders means so much more than just a return to classes and homework. For Ari, Ellie, Elsa and all of Coleman's hard working leaders, a new school year means new opportunities to transform our schools and our city so that all children and families in San Francisco have the opportunity to succeed and thrive.

 Arielle Aiken, SMAC Leader     Ellie Smith, YMAC Leader     Elsa Soriano, PMAC Leader

“SMAC and Coleman embraced me as an individual and inspired me to be a leader. Every day I feel more motivated and more encouraged to push for the issues that I care about. I feel surrounded by love at SMAC. It has helped to build my sense of purpose and I feel much more solid as a person and as a young woman of color. I probably wouldn’t have gotten my 4.0 last semester if it wasn’t for the support of my SMAC family.  SMAC isn’t a job or a club. SMAC is my friends, my family, my community, my support. I am blessed to be a part of it. - Ari Aiken    

Click here to read Ari's story.

“I like learning but I DO NOT like sitting in a classroom for 70 minutes, being bossed around by a teacher.  School would be a whole lot different if I was a teacher. I would ask my students what THEY want to learn and I would incorporate that into what I HAVE to teach them, and make it fun and exciting.”
- Ellie Smith 

Click here to read Ellie's story.

“People look at us and because we are Latino they think we are ignorant. I want to change that. I want to help build better schools for our Latino children, with better teachers and programs. And I dream of all the parents and the whole community and all the community organizations coming together to support our schools so we can make a very, very big change.”   - Elsa Soriano

Click here to read Elsa's story.

Arielle Aiken (her friends call her Ari) is a 25-year old San Francisco native and a proud SMAC (Students Making a Change) student leader at City College of San Francisco. Ari remembers her childhood growing up in the Richmond district fondly, in particular the Latchkey program of the SF Parks and Rec Department. It was in this program that Ari met all kinds of kids who could relate to her experience being raised by a single working mom, struggling to make ends meet.

Ari grew up in a “nice” neighborhood but in some ways this made her even more aware of the fact that her family was struggling. She and her mom and sister all lived in a one bedroom apartment because rents were so high. She distinctly recalls her mom going back to work after being on welfare and how suddenly it seemed there was never enough food in the house.  She remembers how confusing it was that she started seeing so much less of her mom who was working long hours, and at the same time it seemed like, financially, they were struggling even more than when they were on welfare. It didn’t make any sense to Ari because she had always been told going off welfare was “progress”.   

Ari was a good student and actually graduated with a 3.5, but she has no memory of college ever being proposed as a serious option for her. She describes wandering around her high school one day and falling upon the College Resource Center and being fascinated by it, but never thinking that any of the information had anything to do with her. As far as Ari was concerned, she was poor and needed to make money and so that meant she had to go to work. It was as simple as that. College seemed like something people do because they already have money. No one ever supported Ari to make the connection that college could lead to better paying and more satisfying work.

When Ari graduated from high school in 2004, she enrolled at CCSF for a semester but never took it very seriously and ended up dropping out after a semester to take on a full time job. While at CCSF, Ari says she felt lost and without direction or support and the one time she went in to talk to a counselor, she felt so disrespected, judged and disregarded that she never went back. 

Ari worked in office services until 2010 when she was offered a promotion that she was ultimately denied, simply because she did not have a college degree.  Frustrated with her dead-end job that didn’t seem to have anything to do with the things in life she valued or was interested in, she reenrolled in CCSF.   

When Ari first came back to CCSF in 2010, the school tried to place her in a remedial English class based on her most recent placement test score. Through the support of a counselor connected to the African American student retention program, Ari was able to appeal the placement and gain access to a higher level class. Ari got an A in that class and in retrospect felt like it wasn’t challenging enough and that she could probably have successfully skipped ahead to the next one. It was a very unusual thing that she was able to disregard the placement test at all though, and she has tremendous sympathy for the thousands of students at CCSF who have had to take unnecessary remedial level classes, prolonging their transfer processes by years.
Ari credits SMAC’s previous Basebuilding Lead, Veronica Garcia, with bringing her into the SMAC family. Veronica supported Ari to access various academic support and financial aid resources and throughout that process, she was telling Ari about SMAC and its work to improve educational opportunities and outcomes for low-income students of color at CCSF.   Ari was intrigued, especially because SMAC was working on issues – like placement testing reform and improvements to counseling – that were directly relevant to her experience. Ari went to a SMAC meeting and felt immediately embraced by the group and inspired by the talented and dynamic students leaders. 
Ari recalls many rewarding and powerful moments in her time so far as a SMAC leader, but cites Coleman’s March 29th ‘Our Jobs, Our Future’ rally and action at City Hall as a highlight.   “Being down there at City Hall and seeing all the people going in there with resumes that had our demands, insisting on meeting with Supervisors, speaking on the front steps, talking to the media, telling personal stories of struggle, I think it was the first time I really understood how powerful change could be at the organizing level.  How power really can come from numbers and we really can have a voice and a say in policies if we come together as a majority and demand it”.

This year, Ari is especially looking forward to moving forward SMAC’s Robyn Hood campaign to increase funding to CCSF and the community college system through California tax reforms. She is excited to raise awareness among students about the budget crisis and to empower students to find their voices, articulate their perspectives, and take action to make change.

Some day, Ari hopes to start a mentorship program that focuses on providing guidance, support and leadership development to middle-school aged children. “By the time they get to high school, they should already be thinking about college and what they need to do to make it happen. They should believe it is an option for them and that they have some control over their destiny – that they have more choices than to just get any job they can find to pay the bills. I want young people going into high school feeling more empowered than I did.”


Ellie Smith – born and raised in the Bernal Heights neighborhood of San Francisco – joined YMAC (Youth Making a Change) last year, as a Freshman at Balboa High. She recalls wandering in to her first campus meeting with some friends because they were hungry and had heard there was free lunch. Half way through the first meeting though, Ellie was excited about much more than the pizza. 

YMAC meetings were like discovering a whole new world for Ellie. In constrast to her classes where she struggled to pay attention to "long boring lectures", in YMAC meetings students were helping to create the agendas and facilitate the meetings. They seemed to be in charge of every aspect of the program.  There was always food and a fun icebreaker and lots of interaction and moving around. And the discussion and training topics were things that young people care about because they are directly relevant to their lives. Ellie remembers how even at that first meeting, just quietly listening to the organizers and the other students talk about issues at her high school, she felt a spark of something begin to come alive in her. 

Ellie describes her last few years, since her parents’ divorce, as intensely challenging and painful. Feeling abandoned and angry, for a long time every day felt to Ellie like a struggle to care enough about her own life to even show up to school.  She started cutting classes last year and she credits YMAC for putting her on a new path, both academically and emotionally.  Being part of something bigger than herself, feeling like an integral part of a community that values what she has to offer, and helping to make positive changes for her community have inspired a new energy, motivation, and hope in Ellie that she had no idea was possible.

Ellie is one of YMAC’s most committed and active members and is proud of the many leadership roles she has taken on over the last year, including speaking at rallies, facilitating meetings, and leading workshops.  She laughs, remembering the anxiety she felt the first time a Coleman staff member pushed her to speak before a crowd at a rally at a Board of Education meeting. Ellie explains that before YMAC she had gone out of her way to avoid the spotlight and had been deathly afraid of public speaking.  Everything in her body was resisting speaking at that rally but she told herself that the fight for quality education for Black and Brown students was more important than her fears. So she stepped into the spotlight and, not only did she survive, but she spoke passionately and powerfully. Since that day, Ellie has no longer been afraid of speaking before groups, and has even volunteered for public speaking roles. 
Ellie is looking forward to taking on additional leadership in Coleman campaigns this year, and to supporting the development of new YMAC members.  She is especially excited about the opportunity to represent YMAC in a convening in South Africa this coming January, as part of an international study on youth organizing.  

When asked about her goals, Ellie says that she is 100% committed to going to college and to fighting to improve SF schools so all young people have the opportunity to pursue their dreams.  She says just about every week she changes her mind about what she wants to be when she grows up, but she knows – one way or another – she will be involved in social justice work her whole life.   


Elsa Soriano first joined PMAC (Parents Making A Change) two years ago when her youngest daughter, Jasmine, was in first grade at Cleveland Elementary School.  A Coleman Parent Organizer approached Elsa in the cafeteria and persuaded her to check out a PMAC meeting. She remembers feeling inspired by the school and district reform success stories that PMAC staff and members shared with her.  She had always been an incredibly engaged parent, learning early on that vigilance and a near-constant fight was required of her to ensure that her children’s basic educational needs were being met.  But working with PMAC presented the opportunity of real voice, and the power to make long-term institutional change.

Elsa came to the United State when she was 17, escaping the war in her home country of El Salvador.  She married at 18 and soon after became a mother. Though Elsa had always dreamed of getting a college degree, she had no choice but to forgo her personal goals and focus on bringing in money to help support her family. She and her husband worked whatever jobs they could find. Elsa still dreams about college degrees, but these days her aspirations are for her children. Elsa is determined for her children to go to university and have academic and career opportunities that she did not.

Elsa says that while she loves her city, sometimes it is hard to stay hopeful. Between the high rents and a school system that doesn’t seem invested in the success of its Black and Latino students, Elsa explains, San Francisco can feel like a harsh place.  “I have to struggle so much to get even the most basic support that my kids deserve and to get my rights as a parent respected. Latinos and African Americans always end up placed in the worse schools. And teachers in our schools are not prepared, and it affects our kids.”  

Elsa has played just about every leadership role in PMAC in her two years, from meeting with School Board members and Supervisors to testifying at hearings to organizing community events.  She credits PMAC for supporting her to be the fearless leader that she is today, and for giving her a voice and a vision for change.  “I learned in PMAC that we have rights as parents. Housing rights and rights to a good education and good jobs. And we have the right to make changes for our communities.  And we are stronger when we get together and demand our rights in one voice.”

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