When Survival is at Stake, History and Community Help us Find Our Way

Joel Arquillos
5 min readApr 21, 2021


Collaboration between 826LA and Roosevelt High School’s Ethnic Studies program produces Finding Our Way, an anthology of powerful student writing

“During this pandemic her family is staying strong and getting through it like they always have. They know they’ve faced worse challenges and this is just another one.” — Jaime F., 826LA student, in Finding Our Way, the 2020 Ethnic Studies book published in partnership with Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights, CA

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the phrase “mutual aid” became familiar to many people outside of political organizing circles for the first time. It’s a wonky word for a simple concept: taking care of each other. Communities of color and lower economic status have long relied on their own innovation and resilience to make up for what systemic racism and social injustice have denied them.

For students who attend Title I schools and are almost entirely BIPOC, the past school year has exacerbated existing inequities. LAUSD reported that Black and Latinx students, along with the 85% of students whose families qualify as low-income, participate in distance learning at a 10–20% lower rate than their White and middle-income peers.

A bright spot came in March, when after years of debate and many public comments, the California Board of Education approved a 900-page Ethnic Studies curriculum that emphasizes the contributions of African Americans, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, Latino Americans, and Native Americans, along with Jewish Americans and Arab Americans. As a former high school history teacher and current Executive Director of a writing and tutoring organization, 826LA, I’m buoyed by the adoption of a statewide Ethnic Studies curriculum.

As student Jaime hints at in the quote above, an understanding of history and a sense of pride in community is key to cultivating resilience.

826LA has worked with Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights since 2007, and has collaborated with students in the school’s Ethnic Studies program to publish an annual anthology of student writing since 2014. As topics including racism, immigration, and gentrification become increasingly prominent in national media, Roosevelt students are creating powerful reminders that no one is better equipped than them to tell their stories. The resulting books are integrated into the classroom curricula and are used in education programs at universities nationwide, including Harvard.

In Roosevelt’s surrounding neighborhood of Boyle Heights, the median household income is less than $34,000 and more than half of residents were born outside the United States. Roosevelt gained recognition in 1968 as one of several Los Angeles schools where students staged walkouts to protest unequal education in the LA Unified School District, as part of the larger Chicano Rights Movement. The Ethnic Studies program and publication project in collaboration with 826LA continues to be a proud tradition of Boyle Heights students taking a hands-on role in their education.

Last spring, as schools pivoted to distance learning, Roosevelt students continued to study writing by Paulo Freire and Gloria Anzaldúa. 826LA’s trained volunteers helped students process and write about the historic events they were living, through the lens of their Ethnic Studies curriculum.

That doesn’t mean students wrote explicitly about injustice. Often they expressed appreciation for their families, communities, and cultures, from tributes to parents and grandmothers, to an ode to “Mexican Macaroni,” the meal that “would always bring us together.” These pieces remind us that joy finds a way.

Reading their poems and essays, published this month in an anthology called Finding Our Way, I was often moved by students’ wisdom and determination. As police killings of young people of color, anti-Asian hate crimes, and mass shootings fill our news feeds, the voices of youth living with these realities are among the most hopeful. I believe that with tools and encouragement like those offered by 826LA and Roosevelt, this year’s cohort of published authors will create a better world.

I’ll leave you with a few of their words.

  • “The pandemic has made it a little harder for me because I have to wait to visit my dad in Mexico, but the teddy bear [he gave me] reminds me to never give up even, when bad times come. It’s a reminder that I am capable of dealing with so much…. It also reminds me to make my parents happy and proud by graduating, doing my best, and not giving up. The smallest things could have the biggest stories behind them.” — Stephanie M.
  • “We are humans who rage and fear in a world of suspense
    The sound of the wind and rain pouring feels like we’re in space
    Trapped inside, knowing the outside is just getting worse
    Remembering is what’s taking care of me
    It’s like replanting ourselves, taking another chance,
    finding our uniqueness in this new way of life”
    — Kate S.
  • “What a time to show support to those who need it
    It is time we respect all workers
    It is time we look out for each other’s well-being
    It is time we protect those most vulnerable
    It is time we provide resources for people in need”
    — B.C.


ABOUT 826LA: 826LA is a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting students ages 6 to 18 with their creative and expository writing skills, and to helping teachers inspire their students to write. Services are structured around the understanding that great leaps in learning can happen with one-on-one attention, and that strong writing skills are fundamental to future success. With this in mind, 826LA provides after-school tutoring, evening, and weekend workshops; in-school tutoring; help for English language learners; and assistance with student publications. All programs are challenging and enjoyable, and ultimately strengthen each student’s power to express ideas effectively, creatively, confidently, and in their individual voice.

For more information, please visit 826LA.org.



Joel Arquillos

Joel Arquillos is an executive director, educator, and consultant for education and arts nonprofits and school systems.