San Bernardino: My City

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Photo courtesy of Sarah Bi, a student at Cajon High School.

This Op-Ed is in response to a past LA Times article entitled San Bernardino: Broken City

 

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Lou Y. Chen with a positive sign.

by Lou Y. Chen

San Bernardino is victim to many things: poverty, a drug problem, and a high crime rate. But over the past few years, it has suffered even more at the hands of something we look to for truth and reality: the press. Countless articles have been constructed detailing the city’s numerous woes, with depictions of ghastly crimes to sordid photos that portray San Bernardino as some sort of modern-day Gotham City.

They are not wrong. The crimes are real. The abject poverty in the city’s more destitute areas is real. But to portray San Bernardino as a city on the verge of self-destruction, with an inherently miserable populace that is barely scraping by with a modicum of hope—a broken city—is an unfair characterization that ignores many of the things that have made San Bernardino a beloved place in the eyes of many of its citizens.

As a born-and-bred San Bernardino citizen, I have an intimate perspective of the city that transcends sensationalist news stories. It is a perspective I share with many of the city’s youth, who range from first-generation immigrants to children with long San Bernardino bloodlines. I asked several of our city’s students to answer the following question: “Why are you thankful to have been raised in San Bernardino?” Embedded throughout this article are their responses—consider them little photos of our city contributed by our youth. They might just surprise you.

“I’ve never felt alone in this community and that is testament to its strength. I will be eternally grateful to the city and its community for giving me a foundation for success.”

The result of living in a struggling city is that its citizens will band together in order to help each other, often in remarkable ways. Nowhere is this truer than in our education system. The recent article by the LA Times, entitled “San Bernardino: Broken City,” described our schools as “subpar”—a disturbing characterization that would be hotly contested and refuted by many of our students.

“I’m eternally grateful for the janitors that see me so much after school that they remember my name and ask me how I’m doing, for the teachers that attended my father’s funeral or expressed their condolences in some other way, for the teacher who has quite literally spent hours upon hours listening to me cry about a boy. Yes, I’m positive there’s amazing school staff everywhere, and yes, I know that there are districts that are statistically held in higher regard than San Bernardino’s, but the point is that to me there was no better school system to be raised in than SBCUSD.”

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Cajon High Best Buddies.
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Lou in calculus class

Our teachers have infused their jobs with a three-dimensionality that is rare in many schools. They recognize that being an educator is not simply about ensuring that students pass a state test, but also about being a role model, a beacon of guidance, and even a friend in need. At Cajon’s Prom this year, a student and his former English teacher engaged in a breakdancing showdown that had jaws hitting the floor (the teacher won). The week before graduation, I enjoyed some yakisoba that a teacher had just made on a grill outside his classroom. And twice a year, I stop by calculus class to join a rigorous yoga session led by the students’ unusually flexible teacher. These little vignettes do not do justice to the relationships that have been fostered between teachers and students, relationships that encourage our students to aim higher, try harder, and inspire others.

“I grew up in San Bernardino, and I cannot imagine growing up anywhere else. It’s the place where I’ve developed my goals, my dreams, and my aspirations.  I have never felt that I was deprived of any opportunities. To me, living in San Bernardino is a privilege.”

Cajon's 3rd Alumni Day.
Cajon’s 3rd Alumni Day.

Despite being in a disadvantaged city, San Bernardino’s schools offer their students a plethora of unique opportunities to hone their skills, develop their passions, and achieve incredible success in the face of often overwhelming challenges. The International Baccalaureate (IB) Program at Cajon High School and Arroyo Valley High School requires students to develop an Extended Essay on a chosen topic with the help of a faculty advisor, develop impromptu commentaries on random literary passages, and design science labs from scratch. They are also required to take Theory of Knowledge, a class that has its students answer questions such as, “How do we determine if something is knowledge? How do we adequately measure the ethicality of an act?” and other questions of a similarly challenging nature. The AVID Program, which can be found at most San Bernardino high schools, is frequently cited by its students as the main reason they are now attending college. In addition, Cajon recently initiated the Cajon High Alumni Mentor Program (CHAMP), which pairs students with successful alumni who help them develop their academic/career path. These programs represent only a small fraction of school-led ventures that are designed to help our students on their journey of intellectual and social self-exploration.

Even the numbers, which are often held against San Bernardino, are indicative of the strength of our education system. Last year, San Bernardino’s graduation rate (79.9%) exceeded the countywide average (78.6%) for the first time. We have students scoring in the top three percent and upwards on the SAT and ACT and attaining perfect scores on the IB and AP exams. We have students entering college as sophomores, having collected over thirty credits as a result of taking advanced classes.   This year alone, we have students going to CSUs, UCs, and private schools including Loyola Marymount, Vanderbilt, Temple, Princeton, Boston U, Stanford, and Williams.

If that was not proof enough of the types of students San Bernardino is producing every year, look to our scholarship recipients. This year, Cajon had three students receive the Ronald McDonald House Charities Scholarship—the highest number of student recipients sent from a single high school in Southern California, surpassing schools from far more affluent areas. Last year, a San Gorgonio student was one of only 30 seniors nationwide to be selected as an Edison Scholar, an honor which came with $40,000 to cover her college tuition. And this year, two Cajon students received the highly-coveted Gates Millennium Scholarship, which covers their entire undergraduate and graduate education. Out of over 50,000 applicants nationwide, only 1,000 were selected to be recipients. It is very rare for a city to have two Gates Millennium Scholars, given the scholarship’s 2% selectivity, but San Bernardino did it.

CSUSB Chamber Orchestra
CSUSB Chamber Orchestra

“I am thankful to live in San Bernardino because of the nonprofits, organizations, and movements dedicated to helping community members.”

 This unbridled sense of opportunity is not only felt in our schools, but also in our community. Like many of my friends, my musical self-development was largely aided by the San Bernardino Symphony, which provided us with free concerts and workshops designed to expose us to a tableau of musical styles and tastes. The symphony itself is a working miracle, given that orchestras need sustained funding to survive. Yet it thrives due to the hard work and dedication of our community members, who realize that low-income conditions should not deprive any child of a musical experience. Children who wish to perfect their craft can join musical groups such as Symphonie Jeunesse, a community youth orchestra that has performed in venues spanning Southern California, or the CSUSB Chamber Orchestra, which recently went on tour in Los Angeles. Percussion-inclined students are encouraged to audition for San Bernardino Percussion Ensemble, which competed in the Southern California Percussion Alliance Finals this year with their acclaimed and terrifying performance, “Asylum.”

SBGN Members at the SBVC Candidate Forum.
SBGN Members at the SBVC Candidate Forum.

One of the city’s most fervent champions goes by the name of San Bernardino Generation Now, a movement dedicated to the beautification and betterment of the city—and run entirely by our youth and young adults. Walk through a disadvantaged neighborhood and you might see a visually stunning mural breathing life into an old wall. Visit a local park and you might hear the sounds of a music festival taking place. These are but a sample of the many endeavors SB Generation Now has pursued in its quest to take back the city. And these organizations I have mentioned only scratch the surface of the many groups intent on uplifting San Bernardino, one community-led venture at a time.

“What I love about San Bernardino is that our community is so diverse and a melting pot of cultures. San Bernardino has taught me that I don’t have to go to a rich and pretty school to achieve more or to be successful.”

If you are wondering about how our youth fare in the outside world after graduating from our high schools, look to our various San Bernardino alumni, who have gone on to use their Berdoo heritage as the impetus for success. We have a c/o 2012 alum who is currently the president of The Harvard Crimson, a c/o 1997 alum whose independent film, “Miss India America,” was recently released to positive reviews, and a c/o 2008 alum who drafted legislation on Capitol Hill aimed at supporting black youth in poverty. Doctors, lawyers, educators, and entrepreneurs abound. Instead of bemoaning their San Bernardino roots, they have used their experiences among our diverse populace to determine their professional and personal lifestyle. As c/o 2002 alum and New York City-based dramaturg Christina Hurtado once said to a group of students, “San Bernardino taught me how to have talk to anybody, regardless of social status. At work, I often stop and chat with the janitor, who is a good friend of mine. That same day, I’ll eat lunch with a Tony award-winning producer in a far different setting. I can do both of those things with ease, and have created wonderful relationships as a result.”

 “Living in San Bernardino has taught me to do more with less, to achieve when the odds are against you, and to succeed when no one believes in you. I have seen this city experience so much triumph these past four years –triumph that for some reason is never publicized, but occurs on a daily basis. San Bernardino is the underdog, and I can’t wait to see it succeed.”

Over the past several years, San Bernardino has become the unwilling target of sweeping generalizations propagated by the media. These unfortunate generalizations often take the form of words such as “ghetto,” “gritty,” “hopeless,” and “broken.” Yet to label San Bernardino in such a hasty and uninformed manner is to unfairly cast aspersions on the city’s populace, especially our youth, who are working tirelessly to bring honor to the city through individual achievement and strive to help each other along the way. It is very easy to look at San Bernardino as one looks at a sore-ridden leper, sneer, and walk away. People do that all the time. But it takes courage to look beyond the graffiti and gunshots and truly understand the heart of San Bernardino, a heart that pulsates due to the efforts of its citizens. And it takes even more guts to step forward and join the movement to give promise to a better and brighter San Bernardino.

Four years ago, I was driving through San Bernardino with my mother. After passing by a particularly unsavory part of town, I turned to her and said, “I can’t wait to get out of this awful place.” She then smiled and said, “You say that now, but San Bernardino has made you the person you are today. Someday, you’ll be grateful for all the experiences it’s given you and the people you’ve met along the way.”

For a long time, I didn’t understand her. But four years later, I do. It’s been a journey filled with ups and downs, laughter and tears, success and failure. But above all, it’s been a transformative journey, one that has changed how I view the world. Not a day goes by that I am not inspired by something or someone, or amazed by the sheer tenacity of our community. Not a day goes by that I am not proud to be a product of San Bernardino.

San Bernardino is not a broken city. Broken cities don’t have a younger generation hell-bent on communal success. Broken cities don’t have a public school system determined to equip students with the skills and opportunities needed to survive and thrive in the real world. Broken cities don’t have people who treat their citizenship as a badge of honor, rather than a mark of shame.

I won’t tell you what kind of city San Bernardino is. I’ll leave that up to you. But before you make your final judgment, I hope you can make the effort to understand the city through our experiences.   I hope you can set aside all the misconceptions and bias that have clouded our reputation over the years. And I hope you can see San Bernardino as it really is, with all its imperfections and problems and successes and inspirations.

Because if you do, the view can be truly beautiful.

If you’d like to contact Lou his email is chenchats1@gmail.com

Lou graduated from Cajon High School in 2015 and is currently a freshman in college.

8 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you, Lou Chen, for so eloquently enumerating so many things that are going on in San Bernardino–things that the many in the media have failed to notice. You and your peers are the future of San Bernardino, and that future looks bright indeed! Thank you!

  2. The future of San Bernardino and California is in good hands with students like Lou Chen. Thank you for your optimism and articulate writing, Lou.

  3. Lou,

    Thanks for the smart and heartfelt testimony to San Bernardino. I’m the editor of the Los Angeles Times’ series on San Bernardino, and I, too, grew up in Berdoo, where I attended grade school, junior high and high school (San G) and put in some excellent time at Cal State. San Bernardino provided me with a great childhood and I could go on for hours about all that I love about the place. I hope you recognize that reporter Joe Mozingo, photographer Francine Orr and videographer Liz Baylen are showing sincere concern in their ongoing focus on the city. In my view, it’s a sign of respect that they are shedding light on San Bernardino’s problems so that people who care deeply can help to solve them.

  4. I was raised in San Bernardino and while it has some good points, it’s negatives are blatantly apparent. I respect your opinion because those are the experiences you dealt with but I have more first hand experience with the negative side, from family members murdered and a biased government to teachers who are given free range because of their status.

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