Without the free TriMet Student Pass that took Magali Bonilla to and from school and work on public transportation, it would cost her family an extra $20 a week they didn’t have.
The financial burden would mean less money for food and school supplies. The then-Madison High School sophomore had been homeless her freshman year and knew how much an small increase for rent or other expenses could put a major dent in her family’s budget.
She hoped – then waited – for word that Portland Public Schools students would receive Student Pass renewals.
At about the same time, Magali attended a meeting at school with OPAL Environmental Justice, a Portland-based organization focused on environmental and civil rights. The organization was promoting its youth program, Youth Environmental Justice Alliance, a Portland-wide leadership program that gives young people of color and low-income youth opportunities to engage and advocate on issues that matter to them.
In order to use her voice to advocate, Magali knew she’d have to overcome her shyness. In school, Magali dreaded public speaking and would find ways to avoid presenting in class. Sometimes she’d skip class altogether.
“My hands would start shaking, I would get sweaty,” Magali says.
Within OPAL’s youth alliance, Magali found a safe space to share her story about the importance of public transportation, and later about her desire for Portland Public Schools to adopt an ethnic studies curriculum. Born in Zacatecas, Mexico, Magali says she yearned for a curriculum that could empower students, teach them about people from different backgrounds, and bring them together.
The more she spoke, the more people listened, including people in power such as the mayor of Portland and the Portland Public Schools school board. She overcame the initial shock that people cared about what she had to say, and she kept on going.
“I guess I inspire people and make them think,” the 17-year-old says.
What her peers and classmates didn’t know is that during her sophomore year as she became more civically engaged, Magali and her family lost their home again. Though she had become close with other youth volunteers, she was too ashamed to tell them she was homeless. Her grades slipped because it was difficult to study while living in a homeless shelter with no privacy or peace.
The one thing that kept her grounded was volunteering.
“OPAL was the only thing that made me feel better about my situation because I had things to do and people to talk to,” Magali says. “It was a happy place to be rather than being in school or being with my family.”
Magali is being honored this month with the Jennifer Beegle Award for Youth Involvement, which highlights the positive impact youth have on their community and is in memory of Jennifer Beegle, a former member of the Multnomah Youth Commission who died in a car accident at 17. The award focuses on youth who volunteer in community-based agencies, local governments or places of worship, not for school involvement (i.e. drama club, student government).
With OPAL, Magali’s volunteer work included organizing events, making posters, discussing policy, knocking on doors for various campaigns, and developing testimony she presented before the Portland Public Schools school board, and at Portland City Hall and other OPAL events.
Her advocacy work helped produce wins. In 2016, Portland Public Schools students learned they would receive the Youth Pass again. And that same year, Portland Public Schools board members voted unanimously to offer ethnic studies classes by 2018.
As Magali became more comfortable talking about how rent increases have affected her family, she found a place in housing advocacy. Earlier this year she attended a town hall in East Portland and was one of the youngest people to testify. OPAL’s youth organizer, Jennifer Phung, took notice.
“A lot of times there aren’t a lot of young people who pay attention to housing, but she sees the connections and how a lot of families are affected,” Phung says. “It’s not just about adults, but it’s about youth and children who are going through the stress and impacts of displacement.”
Magali’s civic engagement also became a family affair.
As the oldest of three children, Magali sometimes had to bring her younger sisters, then 14 and 8, to OPAL events during her babysitting shifts. After the Orlando nightclub shooting, she brought her sisters to a vigil in Portland.
“It helps them realize that important stuff is happening in our city,” Magali says.
Now heading into her senior year at Madison High, Magali is working part time to help bring in more money to pay rent and to one day buy her own computer. Her family’s rent has gone up $100 recently so she is also bracing for another move.
Whatever comes her way next, Magali says her activism has prepared her for the challenges ahead because she knows who she is.
“It helped me become a better leader … and build up all these leadership skills,” Magali says. “It helped me feel better about being an immigrant and actually saying I’m an immigrant, and also being proud that I’m Latina. All of the obstacles I’ve gone through have helped me to become a better person.”