[Name]: Gino Pastori-Ng
[Areas of Expertise]: Youth Empowerment, Environmental Justice, Group Psychology, Local Food
[Hub Memory Lane]
The Community Panel was amazing. Our keynote speaker was this woman named Dr. Barbara Staggers, the leading adolescent health expert in the country. She specifically came early to address the youth in a small side room, before she addressed the whole audience. She told them what an honor it was to witness what they’re doing. The defining moment was when she got up to give her speech after seeing some of the youth presentations– and she was speechless. She thanked the youth, and it was really powerful. She was just in awe of the work that they’re doing.
When he was young, Gino wanted to be rich. At times, he dreamt of becoming an NBA superstar. At other times, he wanted to be a rapper. Didn’t matter how, he just wanted to make it big.
Money is still a motivator. But it’s no longer his own personal-profit that Gino seeks to boost. Instead he’s trying to grow funding for community-based youth ventures in the East Bay Area.
“I’ve accepted that I’m probably not going to make a lot of money in my field. My objective today is transforming the image of my hometown, Oakland. Oakland is a place of a lot of negative connotations and challenges. But it’s also got a tremendous amount of passionate, creative people,” Gino says. “I think that if we can demonstrate how Oakland can transform, it could be something that can be replicated elsewhere.”
What changed? At UC Santa Cruz, Gino had a realization. “A lot of my peers that were much smarter and more creative than me never made it out of Oakland because they didn’t have the opportunity to go to college like I did. I just want to create that opportunity, not necessarily college, but just creating more opportunity for those people who might otherwise fall through the cracks.”
Coming from a girl who cried this year at the Brower Youth Awards, I’m probably a little biased. That said, I believe that Gino– Youth Engagement Specialist at Ashoka Youth Venture Bay Area— is doing big things for Oakland. He may not play for the Warriors, but his commitment to empowering youth in his hometown is– in my mind– more challenging than making a 75 foot 3-point shot or venturing to faraway lands to enact social change.
So what is Ashoka’s Youth Venture? According to Gino, Ashoka was the first international social entrepreneur organization. Started in 1980 by Bill Drayton, Ashoka creates fellowships that provide resources, networking, and support to people with great potential to make a positive social impact. Typically, an Ashoka fellow receives up to $300,000 to use at his or her discretion.
Before you get too excited, though, the process to become a fellow is extremely intensive. “They practically interview your babysitter from when you were 10 years old,” Gino jokes. Youth Venture is a branch of Ashoka, started in 1996. The core curriculum uses workshops to train youth in the various stages of a start-up: everything from research to fundraising.
“They come to us with an idea,” says Gino, “And in a series of 10 weekly workshops, we train them how to make that idea into a business plan.” The youth teams are then eligible for $1,000 to start their venture. Gino’s job is to recruit youth and serve as the contact between the program, youth teams, and mentors.
“Gino’s a great guy,” says Salvador Mateo– 2011 Youth Venture participant. “He’s calm, and he knows what he’s talking about. He’s always on point. Whenever we need help, he’s there.”
Last year was the pilot for the YV program here in the Bay Area, which boasts the world’s highest concentration of Ashoka fellows. In general, the Youth Venture is a wide open campaign to support a diverse range of community-betterment projects. Projects last year ranged from a record label that promotes non-violence to a program that improves relations between police and the community.
But three out of seven Bay Area teams last year, including a bicycled-powered produce delivery service called WYSE (West-Oakland Youth Standing Empowered), chose to focus on food issues in their venture, and so Youth Ventures Bay Area decided to shake up the curriculum. This year, it’s Just Food.
Ten youth teams participated in the program this year, recruited primarily from preexisting food justice programs in the East Bay. One team is raising fish in an existing community garden, using an aquaponic tank, and selling fish to local restaurants in the community. Another uses healthy and multicultural alternatives to processed school lunches to address segregation at their high school. There’s also a catering business, that will produce community poetry and spoken word events catered with food cooked by youth.
Many of the youth who are doing food justice work don’t necessarily call it that, Gino explains. “They just know that there’s no grocery store in their neighborhood and they see their family dying in their 40s and 50s of poor diet. That’s something really powerful.”
“We shopped at Lucky or Mi Pueblo (a large Bay Area mercado chain that abruptly fired 300 workers this January without just reason), where there’s produce but it’s not fresh– there are toxins inside that we didn’t even know about,” says Eat Grub’s Julio Madrigal, 2011 Youth Venture participant. “It’s a waste of money when people could be growing their own healthy food right in their backyard.”
Salvador (above) remembers that growing up in a big family, his mom wanted them to eat healthy but she worked two jobs and didn’t have time to go shopping for groceries. “She would give us money and we’d go buy something that was already made– fast food pretty much.”
“For a long time in West Oakland, there used to be supermarkets,” Gino recounts. “But they left. Twenty years now we’ve had no grocery store. They left for these kind of arguments: too much stealing, people aren’t supporting the store, just not good for business. Now, all of a sudden, the City of Oakland is trying to bring a supermarket back into West Oakland, but in the mean time independent places like Mandela Marketplace have stepped up to be the community grocery store. They acknowledge that the community needs a big supermarket, but at the same time if some big corporation comes in, they’re not going to hire anyone from the community. Maybe they’ll hire them to bag groceries, but they’re not gonna hire them to be managers or supervisors, they’re going to bring those people in from somewhere else.”
It’s hard for Gino to be down with that. If I may be so optimistic, I wonder if his original dream of fame and riches for himself may have had less to do with massive piles of money and a house worthy of MTV’s Cribs, and more to do with securing a means of making a sustainable living and achieving a sense of respect not often afforded to the youth of one of our country’s most gang/violence-stereotyped communities. The same ones we’ve given up on as “dangerous,” “irreparable,” and “morally depraved.” Because now, Gino is giving a chance to the next generation to experience opportunities that he and his peers were rarely afforded.
“Every kid I told about this opportunity was like ‘Wow, this is too good to be true!’” says Gino. “It’s free, you can come and get mentored on how to make a business plan, and you get a thousand dollars to use at your discretion to better your community.”
To stay where you are and look the problems plaguing your own neighborhood in the face is easier said than done. So why do it? Gino explains:
“I’ve spent time in other countries, and for a while I thought I would be working for an NGO in another country. But then I thought, ‘wait a minute… Oakland needs my support’ I just want to focus on what I really know. If I can create something here, then maybe I’ll change it somewhere else.”
At the risk of sounding soft (Thanks a lot Mom & Dad for raising me in Berkeley, home of the bleeding heart liberal), I have to say that Gino has ended up wealthy in a currency more valuable than cash. Inspiration, a common sentiment we experience here at the Hub, is now fueling Gino’s fire. “I feel like I’ve led a relatively easy life, and just hearing some of the stories of these youth and what they’ve already overcome, and how focused and driven they are at their age is amazing. It’s the first and foremost reason I do what I do.”