As a young teacher in Watts, Jonathan Malagon learned to lock down his classroom in case of trouble. There was plenty of it. Malagon sealed the doors when violence erupted on the grounds of Jordan High School or threatened to spill onto campus from neighboring streets.
“So many things happened,” says Malagon, who taught history and English as a second language. In his first year on the job, two of his ninth-graders were killed in off-campus incidents. “I don’t think anyone who didn’t grow up in the community could understand what happened in that school.”
Nearly a decade later, Malagon has left teaching and his Southern California roots. But those at-risk students are never very far from his thoughts as he pursues concurrent master’s degrees from the School of Public Health and the Department of City and Regional Planning.
Malagon wants underserved neighborhoods to become healthier places to live. His goals are far-reaching—from combating epidemics of obesity and diabetes to improving high school graduation rates and economic opportunity. It’s a mission that speaks to his background as the son of Mexican immigrants and a first-generation college graduate. It’s also what brought him to Berkeley last fall, and why he was awarded a Kaiser Permanente Public Health Scholarship.
His three-year program is exploring the connection between the “built environment”—everything from schools and parks to homes and workplaces—and the wellness of its residents. “Place really matters,” says Malagon, who earned his bachelor’s and master of education degrees from UCLA. “A lot of health outcomes are related to what exists or doesn’t exist in communities.”
By invigorating troubled neighborhoods with safe streets and creating better access to fresh food, open space and jobs, Malagon believes local populations can reverse the inequities that undermine personal health and the quality of life overall.
“I really see it as a systems issue and not an individual issue,” he says. “Change needs to happen across different domains.” Central to that strategy are improvements charted and led by community members themselves.
At Berkeley, Malagon has hit the ground running.Initially planning to seek a public health degree alone, he soon added city planning to his academic plate. The combination of disciplines, he concluded, would give him grounding in economic development and community infrastructure and operations, along with a firm grasp for how living conditions, income, and other social determinants impact health.
Off campus, Malagon recently joined a statewide project addressing the mounting crisis facing boys and men of color (BMoC). The initiative, headed by the State Assembly Select Committee on the Status of Boys and Men of Color, aims to break the cycle of poverty, violence, and disadvantage that disproportionately besets this demographic. Among their grim realities, boys and men of color are far more likely to drop out of high school, lack health care, and lose their life to homicide than their white counterparts.
As a research fellow for PolicyLink, an Oakland-based research and action organization, Malagon helped draft an action plan for the Select Committee. The plan offers multiple interventions in the areas of education, health, employment, juvenile justice, and youth development.
Hundreds of youth and community leaders, service providers, and others testified on the plight of BMoC at a series of public hearings held throughout California in recent months. Among many calls for change were those for more school-based health clinics, expanded job training, and less punitive alternatives to school suspensions and expulsions.
“Kids and parents aren’t failing. Our systems are failing these communities,” says Malagon, who has been reviewing the testimony and summarizing its recommendations.
California can reach out to this vulnerable group in spite of the state’s monumental budget woes, says PolicyLink deputy director Rubén Lizardo. Rather than spending more money, many of the BMoC proposals involve allocating it differently, Lizardo notes. The state, for instance, spends some $9,800 a year on each public school student compared to almost $225,000 annually for each detainee in the juvenile justice system.
For Malagon, the BMoC project has a deep resonance. “It is really speaking to who I am and what I want to do,” he says.
Along with losing two young males to violence as a first-year teacher, Malagon witnessed the daily hardships facing underserved students and their families.
“I’d have kids tell me, ‘I don’t feel safe even walking to school,’” Malagon says. In his role as his school’s English language coordinator, Malagon found multiple immigrant families cramped in the same living quarters—and saw the futility of encouraging parents to find a quiet place for their children to study.
Perhaps most discouraging of all was the dropout rate. Of 1,000 students who started at his school in the ninth grade, only 300 graduated. Fewer than half were boys. “What happened to those kids?” Malagon asks. Answering his own question, Malagon realizes many were driven from school by crushing adversity.
Malagon knows firsthand how hardships can dismantle an educational quest. In the late 1990s, he almost flunked out of UCLA. His machinist father was unemployed at the time and Malagon, a community-college transfer student, was juggling three part-time jobs to help out. Commuting to campus from his family’s San Gabriel Valley home sometimes took two hours. “It became a challenge to focus on school, “says Malagon. Unable to complete his finals, he discovered he’d been dismissed.
As one of a small number of Latinos at a large institution, Malagon didn’t know where to turn for support from someone who would understand his situation. “I was really seeing the impact that race and class play in education,” he says. Too ashamed to tell his parents, he pretended he was still in school.
Malagon credits a student-run retention center at UCLA with guiding him back. The peer counseling group got him on his feet academically and inspired him to support other students of color. “This was my entry into looking at equity,” says Malagon. During his senior year, he became director of the very organization that had been his lifeline.
Teaching was a logical next step. Malagon was determined to work with students of color in inner-city schools.
Along with its many challenges, Malagon’s classroom experience had its bright spots too. A community garden project was one of them. At Wilson High School, a predominately Latino school in East Los Angeles, Malagon’s students were researching the characteristics of low-, middle-, and high-income communities. That got them to thinking about their access to fresh food. Through field trips and surveys, they compared the food offerings in their working-class neighborhood to those in more affluent Pasadena. With a dearth of sources of fresh fruits and vegetables nearby, the students decided to grow their own food.
An empty plot of school land blossomed into a community garden where students planted vegetables and herbs native to their cultures. In addition to being a source of healthy food, the garden “became a space for learning,” says Malagon. “We changed that space from blight to a positive space for the community.”
Another outgrowth of the garden was evidence that such participatory action research projects could make a difference. “We can definitely affect where we live and what exists in the communities where we live,” says Malagon.
At Berkeley, he’s finding many who share that view.