It’s easy for young people to feel frustrated by not having a voice. Many cannot vote yet, have little in the way of finances and are largely excluded from the creation of the policies that affect them.

Twenty-one-year-old Cecilia Galeano, a recipient of our Maisin Scholar Award, is working to change that. As a member of San Francisco’s Youth Commission representing District 10, Cecilia advocates on behalf of young people from some of the city’s most underrepresented neighborhoods, including Bayview-Hunters Point and Visitacion Valley.

Cecilia can identify with many of the marginalized young people she represents. “I come from a family where we don’t really have much. We don’t live in the best place – I live in the projects,” she said.

As part of the commission, Cecilia advises the Board of Supervisors and the Mayor on several issue areas, including immigration, employment and the rights of children with incarcerated parents. Cecilia is familiar with the latter issue on a personal level — when she was 14 years old, her stepfather was arrested and imprisoned.

Soon she began to see she had few protections and supports as a child of an incarcerated parent. She met others in similar situations — young people who, like her, felt alone and left out of the process. “They had issues visiting their parents and other things they didn’t have that they felt they should have,” Cecilia said. “That was my initial motivation. I was like, ‘We should have these rights and we do not.” Along with encountering visitation challenges, Cecilia points out that young people with incarcerated family often deal with social stigma at school and in their communities.

She wanted to do something about it, so after graduating high school Cecilia got involved with Project WHAT!, an organization that works with children of incarcerated parents to push for policy changes. One of her chief successes was helping pass San Francisco Police Department General Order 7.04, which requires police officers to take steps to minimize disruption before making an arrest where a child is present. She also worked on a resolution for the San Francisco Unified School District to provide more staff training, curriculum and services to support children with incarcerated parents.

“It felt great to see a policy I have advocated for with other fellow Project WHAT! members actually become a policy,” Cecilia said. “…We hope San Francisco can be an example for other cities and the country as a whole.”

Cecilia’s efforts with Project WHAT! led her to the city’s Youth Commission. She’s now in her second year serving on the commission and halfway through her junior year at San Francisco State University, where she juggles her advocacy work alongside her studies.

“She has a direct impact on the issues she feels passionate about or that have affected her throughout her life,” said Maritza Salinas, High School & Postsecondary Program Manager at the San Francisco Education Fund. “We are looking for scholars who want to give back to their community after achieving their academic goals, and Cecilia has accomplished this before even graduating.”

Cecilia’s major is civil engineering — a focus she said is rooted in her constant search for home.

“I always moved from place to place, so I’ve always been fascinated [by the idea of] designing my own house,” Cecilia said. “That’s always been my goal. So I’m really interested in that and how buildings are built in general.”

Like her policy work, Cecilia said she wants to focus her career on the needs of the community. “In engineering you need to know what the community wants – you need to know what the people want – because at the end of the day you’re doing things for them. It’s for them, not for you.”

As she pursues her education and career, she said the Maisin Scholar Award has helped by removing financial barriers. “Like when I needed books, especially because all of my lower major core classes, like physics, those books were like $400. I still have my calculus book; it was like $300.”

She’s also benefited from the college and career counseling services. “Just having Maritza as a mentor has been so great,” Cecilia said. “I feel like I’ve known her all my life… I think having a mentor is very helpful.”

Cecilia emphasizes that without getting a seat at the table, young people risk feeling hopeless and dejected.

“Being a youth is so hard, because you don’t really have power,” Cecilia said. “And policy just takes a while. Sometimes it doesn’t even go through. It doesn’t even happen, and that’s sad. But things are possible. I’ve always had this thing where I shouldn’t give up, because there are always possibilities for everything.”

(Photo credit: Justin Braithwaile)

The Maisin Scholar Award is funded by the Alexander M. and June L. Maisin Foundation.