by Barbara Cervone and Cathryn Berger Kaye

BOYLE HEIGHTS, CA—What can high school students in an urban neighborhood on the East Side of Los Angeles learn from young people almost 10,000 miles away, in a rural village in Tanzania? Plenty.

A transformative experience began for a group of Roosevelt High School teenagers when collaborative teacher Steve Mereu at the School of Law and Government suggested to two of his teaching colleagues that they introduce their senior classes to In Our Village: Kambi Ya Simba through the Eyes of Its Youth, a photo essay book in which East African youth documented their everyday lives—and then create their own book.

Mereu, teachers Jeff Matsumura and Monica Yoo and their students were joining an extraordinary grass-roots movement of teachers and students across the globe to show their communities—from Philadelphia to the smallest village in Japan, from Estonia’s capital city to the small town of Albion, New York—from the perspective of young people.

A journey

“I can’t simply call our project an ‘experience,’ because that’s not an accurate description,” said Ruby, a Boyle Heights student. “It’s been a journey.”

Last November, Mereu, Yoo, and Matsumura asked more than a 100 senior students what stories and images their own “In Our Village” book might contain. What does daily life in Boyle Heights look, feel, and sound like?


Who are its people, where do they come from, what do they do for work, what brings them joy? From where do residents draw their sense of community and cultural pride? What makes Boyle Heights unique?

The youth settled on a list of topics at once personal and exhaustive—from the history of Boyle Heights to wall murals; from gang violence to street vendors.

Then the students, spread across eight classes, dug in. “With a strong sense of community and cultural pride, and the conviction to leave a written legacy, our seniors started their maiden voyage into the unknown world of publishing,” the three teachers wrote in their preface to the book. “In small groups they took ownership of specific topics and began exploring, researching, drafting, and photographing their individual chapters.”

The students learned—and brandished—perseverance. Writing each chapter required multiple drafts, with six students acting as peer editors. Another team of students took the photographs, all in one month. A third group took responsibility for the book’s layout.  The students completed their 100-page book in seven months.

Along the way, they discovered depth in their community and themselves. “We wrote this book to educate others about where we come from, but we never expected to obtain a better understanding of ourselves,” said Stephanie.


In Our Global Village: Local Action, Global Connections

“Today, Boyle Heights is what it is thanks to all the ethnicities and their religions an cultures. . . . Brooklyn Street, once the heart of the Jewish community, is now called Cesar Chavez/ Today, the Hispanics who walk the sidewalks of Cesar Chavez have similar reasons for being here and similar dreams as the Jews of a century ago.”

Featured book: Boyle Heights, USA

In Our Global Village: Local Action, Global Connections