Thesis project becomes thriving community center

Estella Sanchez ’04 (Social Science), M.A. ’08 (Education Leadership & Policy Studies) credits her parents and grandparents, who immigrated to the Sacramento region from Mexico to work first in agriculture and later in the construction industry, for instilling in her the importance of serving her community.

“They came with that idea of, ‘We’re staying, this is our home, and we want to give back,’” she says. “Even though they had low-paying jobs in agriculture, like many who immigrated to the region, they helped to build one of the largest economies in the world. Because of their sacrifices for me to have a better life, I’ve always felt that need to give back.”

So as a master’s student at Sacramento State, well aware of the systemic inequities in education and surrounded by classmates who shared her desire to address them, she came up with a unique thesis idea: an after-school program for underrepresented children that drew upon the community to provide resources and support.

That idea became Sol Collective, a center dedicated to arts, culture, and activism that today is based out of a 3,200-square-foot warehouse in Sacramento’s Curtis Park neighborhood. Sanchez founded the organization in 2005 and continues to serve as its executive director, overseeing a thriving community hub that offers educational programming, arts exhibits, community workshops, and other events focused on social justice and youth empowerment.

“When we opened up Sol Collective, we put out a call to the community that we have the space if you have something you want to offer,” Sanchez says. “We had people who wanted to teach cultural history to students. We had people who wanted to teach traditional health, silk screening, music production. All of these different people in the community came out, and we started to develop programming around it.”

That programming is varied and plentiful. Monday features free community yoga, while Tuesdays include Native American drumming classes. On Wednesdays, the organization offers political analysis of current events and training for activists through its “Sac Activist School.” Thursdays feature Aztec dancing and indigenous music classes. Art exhibit openings, film screenings, or music performances often take place on Fridays and Saturdays.

The name Sol Collective itself is a play on words. Sol, the Spanish word for “sun,” is a nod to Sanchez’s Mexican heritage. But it also, she says, evokes the phrase “everyone under the sun,” indicating that the collective is a space for all people to come together and get to know one another.

“When we live in the same community, we don’t always know why someone dresses the way they do or why they speak the way they speak, or why they have certain traditions,” she says. “A space like this allows everyone in the community to begin to learn about each other.”

It has been a busy few months. Sol Collective recently purchased the building it occupies, as well as hired its first full-time employees. Sanchez and her staff also have been fielding inquiries from organizations across the country looking to replicate their model.

As part of its youth outreach, the organization offers internships to high school students. One of their former interns is Salvin Chahal ’17 (Sociology), a Sacramento State alumnus who first came to Sol Collective in high school as part of the spoken word group Sacramento Area Youth Speaks, which practiced and performed there. He now works for the organization part time, helping with social media and event production.

When Chahal wanted to start producing spoken word and slam poetry shows himself, he knew exactly where to go.

“Sol Collective and Estella were always trying to provide a platform for young people of color, so I would produce shows here with my friends,” he says. “Whatever project you have, they’ll guide you. I’m just one example out of a multitude of people who have been able to launch a career and work specifically off their creative endeavors.”

Sanchez transferred to Sacramento State from Sacramento City College, while at the same time working as the youth program director for a drug and alcohol center in Oak Park. That experience exposed her to the ways in which both the juvenile justice and education systems were failing many young people of color – and inspired her to return to Sac State for graduate school.

“We expect all students to achieve the same way, yet some students are coming with a variety of complexities,” she says. “Having been in the community for a couple of years and being able to witness firsthand students coming out of juvenile justice and learning their stories, and having my own background, I got really interested in pursuing a master’s in education and seeing what I could do to support other students.”

At Sacramento State, Sanchez had the opportunity to take courses, including in ethnic studies, that helped her better understand her heritage and the importance of social justice, paving the way for her to create something like Sol Collective. She credits the late Professor Ricardo Favela for allowing her to take an independent studies course in which she began experimenting with community program development.

“I wouldn’t be doing any of this work if I hadn’t been at Sac State and specifically at Sac State, because I had access to these incredible professors who really shaped me as a person,” Sanchez says.

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Michael Lynch builds cycle of support for high school, college students

Growing up in Stockton and Sacramento, Michael Lynch M.P.P.A. ’11 knew he had a support system that many of his fellow young men of color didn’t – a system he credits with helping him earn two college degrees.

“I wasn’t the smartest, I wasn’t the most athletic, but I was provided unique opportunities,” he says. “As an athlete, I got a chance to go to colleges across the state, I got specialized tutoring, I had mentorship from my middle school days. I had a dad at home, which was huge. Barely any of my friends had dads at home.”

Today, Lynch is working to ensure that those like him have similar support – and similar opportunities. In 2013, he and fellow Sacramento State alum Michael Casper ’10 (Communication Studies) co-founded Improve Your Tomorrow (IYT), a nonprofit that works to increase the number of young men of color who attend and graduate college by providing academic support services such as academic support, mentorship, college exposure, workshops, and internships. The program has a presence at 10 Sacramento-area schools and serves nearly 700 students.

“I wanted to impact young men of color and help them get to and through college,” he says, noting that black and Latino men remain, on average, the lowest-performing students in the state. “Create the system that helped me, from college tours, to mentorship, to study halls, to internships. Wraparound support to make sure these young men have the skills they need.”

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Michael Lynch (left) with Improve Your Tomorrow co-founder and fellow Sacramento State alum Michael Casper. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

That support includes required weekly study halls, as well as monthly college workshops, community service projects, and team-building activities. IYT students visit college campuses and receive mentoring from IYT students currently in college – mentoring that continues even after they have been accepted into a college themselves. They are encouraged to apply to as many as 10 colleges – one of which must be Sacramento State.

The results have been remarkable. IYT has a 100 percent high school graduation rate, compared with 65 percent and 75 percent, respectively, for black and Latino males in California overall. Eighty-nine percent of IYT alums are accepted to a four-year college or university and 94 percent attend either a four-year or community college.

Running a nonprofit was far from Lynch’s mind when, in 2007 while a sophomore studying criminal justice at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, in preparation for attending law school, a friend invited him to a campaign rally.

“There’s about 150 people in the room,” he says. “This guy gets on stage, and he’s talking about hope and change and what government can do to help others. And that was Barack Obama. That was his second campaign stop, and that got me thinking about how politics can be used to shape peoples’ lives.”

Lynch eventually transferred to Humboldt State and earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration, then was accepted into Sacramento State’s Capitol Fellows program. After a year of working at the Capitol, he enrolled in the University’s Master’s in Public Policy Administration program.

The faculty at Sacramento State “pushed me like no other professor or teacher had in my entire academic career,” Lynch says. also learned that passion can produce results. He also built important relationships that were key to getting Improve Your Tomorrow off the ground, including with President Robert S. Nelsen, who became an early cheerleader for the program.

“Education is a powerful tool – one that can lift families out of poverty and reduce inequality. Michael is living proof of Sac State’s mission. Not only has he shown remarkable dedication in earning two CSU degrees, but through his work with Improve Your Tomorrow, he is also helping to ensure that the path to a college education remains open for hundreds of young men who are following in his footsteps,” Nelsen says. “He is changing lives, he is transforming our community, and he truly embodies what it means to be Made at Sac State.”

In 2017, Improve Your Tomorrow and Sacramento State launched a partnership called IYT U aimed at increasing the number of black and Latino men who graduate on time and prepared to enter the workforce. The partnership, which launched as a pilot with 35 Sacramento State students and plans to expand to 50-100 students each year, received a $20,000 CSU grant to develop scholarships, retreats, tutoring programs, and other support.

IYT U students must continue to attend study hall and participate in community service and leadership training – and they are required to go back to their high school and talk about what it means to attend college.

Keylen Newsome, a Sacramento State junior studying economics, says joining Improve Your Tomorrow while a student at Valley High School in south Sacramento gave him a new perspective on college. Although his grades were good, he had become disillusioned with higher education – the levels of student debt, and a shaky post-graduation job market, for example. IYT helped him realize that, by attending college himself, he could gain the skills and experience necessary to help others and change the system, which he does today as the program director for the IYT College Academy at Jackman Middle School.

“I built stronger relationships with guys I already had friendships with,” Newsome says. “I found male leadership that I didn’t have growing up. I found a sense of belonging. I was always involved in different organizations (in high school), but IYT is the only one I’m still involved with.”

It’s precisely the cycle Lynch envisioned when he helped found the organization five years ago. Provide support to high school students to help them get into college, so that they can in turn support the people coming up behind them.

“Education was my gateway, but so few people who look like me have those opportunities,” Lynch says. “We wanted to create an intentional opportunity to make sure these young men of color were supported.”

Social work alumna blends homeless advocacy with humor

On stage during a comedy night in Chico just before the 2016 election, Shahera Hyatt ’08 (Social Work), MSW ’10 is talking about two homeless teenagers she met who, while rummaging through a trash can, had the police called on them.

What was that 911 call like, she wonders aloud. Perhaps you should check your privilege and recognize that these people are less fortunate than you and not causing any harm, she imagines the dispatcher telling the caller, before waiting a beat.

“Just kidding. We’ll arrest them,” Hyatt-as-dispatcher quips.

It’s the perfect example of how seriousness and humor blend in Hyatt’s life. By day, she is the director of the California Homeless Youth Project, a nonpartisan state organization that works to educate policymakers on the issue of youth homelessness and provide research-backed solutions to the crisis. At night, she’s a fixture on the Sacramento comedy scene, drawing inspiration from her work and using her stand-up act and monthly live current events show to shed light on social justice issues and politics.

“My day job is pretty heady, and comedy is, too, because the threshold for getting people to laugh out loud is pretty high,” she says. “But I do it in part to have more laughter and levity in my life, because I’m constantly mired in awareness of social injustice and human suffering. It doesn’t take that away. It’s still a huge weight on my head and my heart. But I get to explore a creative community and laugh every night.”

Hyatt’s past informs much of her present. The issues she experienced growing up in Rancho Cordova, including homelessness, are part of what inspired her to pursue degrees in social work, and they provide a unique and important perspective as she tackles youth homelessness at the state level. The social justice and political issues she deals with during the day form the basis of her comedy, which in turn serves as relief from the weight of her job.

Homelessness forced her to drop out of high school at the age of 16 and take the California High School Proficiency exam in order enroll at American River College, where her class schedule could accommodate a work schedule.

“It wasn’t about being disconnected to my education, it was about needing to work to be able to afford rent and have a place to live,” she says. “I knew I wanted a pathway out, and I had role models, a cousin who had been through similar situations and went on to get her Ph.D. It illuminated a path for me.”

During her first semester, Hyatt audited a class on the psychology of chemical dependency. That sparked an interest in the helping professions, which eventually led her to Sacramento State for her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work. The University provided a practical education with field work at the core of both her undergraduate and graduate degrees. By the time she entered the workforce, Hyatt had more than six years of on-the-job experience, including at the Homeless Youth Project, where she first started working eight years ago as a grad student.

The makeup of Sacramento State’s student body provided an added, and equally important, benefit.

“The social work program at Sac State is one of the largest and most diverse in the country,” Hyatt says. “And something that prepares you well for working directly with communities of impact is studying with the communities that are impacted. Because our classrooms were so diverse and because the curriculum focused so much on introspection, the student body enriched my education.”

As the California Homeless Youth Project’s director, Hyatt educates state legislators, executive branch officials, and other policymakers about the issue of youth homelessness and works with them to develop evidence-backed solutions. She conducts academic research and meets regularly with children, teenagers, and young adults experiencing homelessness to gain their perspective and learn where gaps may exist in the state’s current support systems.

The need for such solutions is great: 5 percent of California public school students experienced homelessness during the 2013-14 school year, and roughly one in 10 CSU students are homeless, according to Hyatt.

“We try to speak and write in ways that are easy for folks to understand, no matter what their expertise level or how busy they are, to let them know what they need to know and how they can help,” she says. “We’re very research-informed, very solution-oriented, and I think that’s something we don’t see enough in policymaking.”

The project’s recent successes include passage of a bill requiring colleges and universities to develop a plan for housing students during academic breaks, as well as another that requires them to have a staff member on campus to respond to the needs of students experiencing homelessness. The latter bill led to Sacramento State hiring Case Manager Danielle Munozpart of the University’s ongoing efforts to help students in need – with whom Hyatt works closely. And the project’s connection to Sac State goes further: Both of Hyatt’s interns are current social work students.

As for stand-up comedy, that pastime began two years ago when Hyatt took a class at the Sacramento Comedy Spot, founded by comedian and fellow Sacramento State alum Brian Crall. She decided to perform at an open-mic night as a sort of one-off, “bucket list” thing and became hooked.

Today, she performs four times a week, is taking an improv class, hosts a weekly open-mic night and a monthly talk show called The Latest Show, and co-produces the Moving Van Show, a roving monthly pop-up comedy show.

“I talk about relationships and politics through a social justice lens,” she says. “It’s not like a TED talk. It’s funny jokes and they just happen to be about the things that I grapple with in my life. Taking it to the stage and making light of it, or even making some points while I’m just processing the world around me in funny ways, is a lot of fun for me.”