What comes to mind when you hear the word “leader”? Someone high up on a pedestal? Super-confident? Everything comes easy to them? Well, meet two seventeen-year-old emerging leaders of SOMCAN and its youth group YOHANA, who blow away those stereotypes. 

When Ramon Bonifacio and Kaitlyn Evangelista hear that SOMCAN staff see them as emerging leaders, they laugh.

Ramon says, “To be honest, it’s really hard for me to learn something new. I feel I have this disability. I can't actually read a whole line out loud in public because there's that anxiety.” Yet, despite these feelings, Ramon had the courage to speak at a large City Hall meeting during the Budget Justice Coalition campaign: “I talked to the supervisors,” he says with a little laugh, “about our YOHANA campaign for Pedestrian Night Safety. We're also trying to file for lights made for people walking, not for the cars, because everyone is scared to walk at night on those dark streets.”  

How did Ramon find the courage to speak out in public? First: “Everything we do in YOHANA is to challenge ourself to be a better leader. Even though they (SOMCAN staff) think we're leaders, there's still that need for us to grow.” Second, YOHANA members support and empathize with each other. Throughout their joint interview, as Ramon or Kaitlyn was talking, the other person would intently listen, saying “yeah, yeah” in the background.

Although they are two proud Fil-Ams, they have very different background stories and took different paths to YOHANA and to the dedication they share.

Ramon came to the U.S. as an immigrant: “When I came in 2012, I didn’t know English, so it was hard to communicate with other people. I would just go to school, go home, do my homework, sleep, and go to school. I was in the English language development program, so all the people were immigrants, mostly from Mexico and Asia. We didn’t know anyone. We had to force ourselves to come out of our comfort zone just to ask, ‘what's your name?’ or simple stuff like that. So for a whole year you don’t have any friends.”

“It was really hard... trying to challenge myself to see the possibilities of what good things could happen to me.” – Ramon

“In seventh grade, we made our own Filipino club. Every day we would try to explore San Francisco and have adventures. We went to all the libraries.  It was life-changing. It was really hard in the beginning trying to challenge myself to see the possibilities of what good things could happen to me.”

Now at Mission High School, Ramon continues to challenge himself: “I talk to the new Mexican kids and hear their stories about coming here. It was really worse than what I had to go through. One of them got stabbed, and many of them got physically hurt coming here. And that's why they're happy right now. Hearing the stories of all those struggles made my story seem fine. It is really hard for me to listen to their stories, but it’s also really inspiring.”

Kaitlyn is American-born and empathizes with her parents: “I was born and raised in San Francisco in the Tenderloin. I would see the struggles that my parents would go through. They came from the Philippines where they had really good jobs. My mom would tell me the story of how she worked in a very nice office in the Philippines. She was an accountant, really smart and good at math, and now she's not able to practice those skills, so it's thrown away, because now she's a caregiver."

If Ramon must meet the challenge of being a stranger in a strange land, Kaitlyn meets the challenge of never fitting in: “My parents never really wanted me to learn Tagalog. They wanted me to go the American way, because they wanted me to be successful. But at the same time, it hurts me because I can understand Tagalog and kind of speak it, but not fluently like Ramon.  So I find it hard to fit in. When I speak English, I sometimes have a Filipino accent. When I try to speak Tagalog, I have an English accent. I don't really know where I stand.”

We might imagine “leaders” to be happy high school insiders, but Kaitlyn, a student at the prestigious Lowell High School, also blows away this stereotype: “I really don't like Lowell,” she confides.   

“I'm really brown compared to a lot of the Asians, so I feel I don't really belong in this place. The way they treat me, people think that I don't really care about school, that I don’t have the capabilities to study hard or get a good grade. There are even encounters with my teachers, when they try to call me out in class because they think I'm not paying attention. And then the only choice I have is to put them in their place and say, I am paying attention, and this is what you just said."

“...people think that I don't really care about school, that I don’t have the capabilities to study hard or get a good grade.” – Kaitlyn

Like Ramon, Kaitlyn finds reserves of courage in herself where others might succumb to defeat.  She explains: “I'm just doing Lowell for my mom. She's an immigrant. She just wants the best for her kid– for me– and I'm just trying to tell her, I can do this. I'll do this for you, because I want you to know that you're not working your butt off for nothing.”

Kaitlyn and Ramon look forward to the end of high school. Kaitlyn: “Even though I don't like Lowell, I know that when I’m done with that school, I'm going to be so proud of myself. And when everybody is trying to tell me that I can't do it, I’ll say, look what I just did! I just graduated. I can't wait for that.” Ramon, who has been listening with big sympathy, reassures her: “You've got one year and out of this.”

They have happier stories about the different paths they took to discovering YOHANA. 

In 2016, Ramon was an intern at Land is Life, a program of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission for which SOMCAN does summer youth workshops. “So my friend told me about SOMCAN having this internship and you gonna get paid. I’m like, ok, gonna get paid, so why not? I applied and got in. The first day I heard a lot of people talking about ‘Oh! YOHANA, YOHANA, YOHANA’. And I’m like, who is YOHANA? At my first meeting, we just had fun and talked about what YOHANA is.  What sparked my interest was: Oh! they're also talking about helping the community, making it better, and that’s something I want to do. I'm also experiencing those struggles and issues in the SOMA community.”

Kaitlyn had a different, but equally uplifting first experience. In 2017, YOHANA had their back-to-school Ignite Open Mic event (see somcan.org/ignite-anniversary). “I really wanted to go and check it out because I had been a summer intern at Lyric, where I really learned more about my sexual identity, and worked on an event for LGBTQQ+ and their allies, but after the summer, I didn't really have anything to do, so I went to that Ignite Open Mic. And I remember sitting in the crowd and just seeing them enjoy and just be happy and dance, and they're just having so much fun! And I was just sitting there: Wow! I want to be in that. I started going to the meetings. It was just a new place for me to hang out with people but at the same time they were doing something I love: social justice work.”

Ramon sums up YOHANA: “Most of the people are immigrants and Fil-Ams. Their history has been taken away from them, so it's a space for them to consider as a second home and for them to learn the issues that are happening in the community. Then they can make the neighborhood a better place for those who are also experiencing the same struggles."

“In everything, we move as a group.” - Kaitlyn

Kaitlyn also describes YOHANA as both personally comforting and socially challenging: “Sometimes I feel I have so many struggles to go through, so one thing I can do is go to YOHANA where the staff and my peers are all going to be there for me. Also, it's a space to grow as leaders. We're still trying to build and grow as leaders. We always try to go about everything as a collective.  Even when it comes to making decisions, we ask each other, do we want to do this or not? In everything, we move as a group.”

At this point in the interview, Ramon and Kaitlyn demonstrate this by finishing each other’s sentences:

Ramon:  “And we succeed as a group, or we could fail as a group. It's all good.”

Kaitlyn: “Me and Ramon are facilitating the Land is Life internship, with Kuya Ray as the staff facilitator.  How did I forget about that? That was a really big step for us.”

Ramon: “It's really a big opportunity for us to step up some of our skills.”

One challenging skill is public speaking. During the Budget Justice Coalition Campaign in June, when Ramon advocated for youth funding at the City Hall meeting, Kaitlyn spoke at the rally.

“Yeah, I did. Ha! I was really nervous because I didn't think there was going to be that many people. But at the same time, everything that I said was coming from the heart, because I appreciate YOHANA so much, how it has impacted my life and made me grow as a person.”

“At the rally, I was explaining that when you're funding the youth, it's like growing a plant. It’s an investment. You’re growing a plant because you're watering it, you're maintaining it, you give it the sun.  And it starts from a small stem, and then it grows, and it blooms into the plant that it's supposed to be. It has all the leaves, and the fruits, and the seeds. And that's kind of us. We're all individually growing as leaders, but at the same time we're together in YOHANA. Yeah, that's how I see it.”

Brandon Balidio