SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
If you've only been to Napa as a visitor it might be hard to understand why that city needs a Democracy Zone. The vineyards that we've all seen, those treasured rows of gold-tinged leaves, don't need a Democracy Zone, and neither do the people who live in the stately country homes that oversee those vines.
But if you take a turn off of Highway 29, and detour down Lincoln Avenue, that's when the idea of a Democracy Zone doesn't seem so unnecessary. Here the pastel houses are small and the roads are pockmarked. There's chicken wire in mysterious places and hedges that spill onto the sidewalk; your English won't get you very far here. This is where the 44 percent live who receive free or reduced price school meals. If they have little say in the city's civic and cultural life, it's not because they don't exist.
The big story in Napa is that their children are the ones who have chosen to advocate for them. I recently went to see how they had managed not just to circumvent the existing power structure but build an entirely separate one designed on a principle of inclusiveness. At McPherson Elementary School - 88 percent Latino, 62 percent English as a second language, 86 percent on free or reduced lunch - a small group of high-school students broke ground on a neighborhood center and cultural plaza, officially establishing the McPherson Neighborhood Democracy Zone.
The zone is based on New England town hall meetings; the idea is that the neighborhood has to accomplish the projects they want by working together. The first decision that the neighborhood made - led by the children who are in it - was that they needed a meeting place.
After a tremendous amount of hard work, it's underway. It will include community gardens, meeting spaces, a high-school leadership academy, and an educational building for parents. There will be trees and benches, volleyball pits and public art pieces. They will build it over the next two years. And they did it themselves.
"I never dreamed I'd be doing things like this at my age," said Jessenia Fitzpatrick, who happens to be a 17-year-old senior at Napa High. "I want people to have a place where they belong and they feel like they fit in. Because I know what it's like to not fit in."
Fitzpatrick is one of the 20 high-school students who's responsible for the Democracy Zone. With the help of a small group of dedicated adults, they canvassed the community for input about what they wanted and then figured out how to design it. The plan took at least five drafts and multiple votes.
"I was very, very careful not to push anything on the kids," said landscape architect Emmanuel Donval, who runs the Green Cherry firm in Napa. Donval donated his services for the community garden. "They thought of everything, even down to how we could keep all the existing trees. I was very impressed with their hard work and their message."
The aspect of hard work makes sense. The amount of red tape that must be stripped away for this kind of project is daunting. The students lobbied three different groups, often simultaneously: the school district, the parks and recreation commission, and the city council. The plaza had to be incorporated into the Parks Commission's new master plan. Fitzpatrick told me that a surprising amount of time and effort went into lobbying for a restroom. There were endless presentations. And all of this had to be shared at meetings with the community, which showed up to meetings in force: 70 people here, 150 people there.
But hard work simply requires persistence; a message requires vision. The students knew what they needed. They knew what was lacking in Napa. "We've only got a movie theater and a bowling alley," Fitzpatrick told me. "The movies cost $10 a ticket. The bowling alley's usually full with bowling leagues. So we're on our own." The idea had been kicking around Napa High School for a couple of years - the students just needed a way to articulate it.
That's when Leslie Medine showed up.
The indefatigable Medine is no stranger to the art of bringing children and miracles together: as executive director of Napa VOICES, she helped foster children develop a groundbreaking youth-led foster care program that's been modeled by counties all over the country. With the McPherson project, she saw how codifying the students' plans under a democracy rubric could provide the students with principles and planning - and funding.
"The one thing adults will come out for is children," Medine said. "That's the one thing that people don't argue about. So in a place like Napa, where there are two worlds that rarely come together for anything, the children can be that bridge for the whole community to gain empowerment."
Fortunately, funders agreed. "We don't have answers to these questions," said Steve Kelban, executive director of the Andrus Family Fund, which funds community reconciliation projects. The Andrus Family Fund is a major donor to the McPherson project. "Maybe the students can figure them out. I've seen a real commitment on their part to do so."
So over the next two years the students, along with their community, will be building a 3,000 square foot community center and a 15,000 square foot cultural plaza. The goal is to engage at least 3,000 residents in the building phase. Once the building phase is complete, the community moves on to developing and installing public art, planting the gardens, and figuring out how to live together in the new digs. Because they will be living together - the point of a Democracy Zone is that no one can be turned away because of racial, cultural, language, or class barriers.
It won't be easy. But the 20 students who launched the project can rest assured that they have backup - in the form of the 20 fifth-grade McPherson Elementary School students who they're training to be leaders right now. The fifth-graders have already completed their first community project: rebuilding a wall on the school playground that they use for dodgeball. They're even going to be painting murals on it with the help of a local artist.
"They're already better than we are at leadership," said 17-year-old Eric Cruz. "They'll know a lot more by the time they get to be our age."