South Kern Sol’s Executive Director Inspires Youth to Lift Up Their Voices and Dream Big
Elizabeth Sanchez, South Kern Sol
For as long as she can remember, Reyna Olaguez has always had a passion to better her community with the power of her voice.
From being the peacekeeper and resolving fights between her nine brothers and sisters when she was young, to creating public service announcements during her first job after college, she has always believed in the importance of using her words to advocate for social justice.
“Ever since I was smaller, I have always been the communicator of the family,” she said.
After years of hard work in advocating for change, Olaguez, 35, is now the executive director of South Kern Sol, a youth media platform in Kern County that shines a light on health and social justice disparities within the community.
“With South Kern Sol, I feel that we are empowering the community and residents and young people to lift up their voice,” Olaguez said. “We are changing our communities in a healthy way.”
Since Olaguez took the role as executive director in 2013, she has led scores of kids as young as 12 through a program that emphasizes elevating youth voices and shining a light on health disparities in the communities where they live.
The organization has scrappy roots.
In its earliest days, editorial meetings were held in Olaguez’s living room. Later, a group of her student reporters called a cramped office in the Lamont Boys and Girls Club their newsroom. It was large enough for about two people to sit back-to-back.
Despite that, Olaguez always pushed her reporters to create change in their communities and preached to them that no matter how insignificant they may feel, their voices mattered.
“Reyna, and all of my peers at South Kern Sol gave me the mentorship, encouragement and support to do things I never would have imagined myself doing,” said Randy Villegas, a former youth reporter and current UC Santa Cruz graduate student. His stories at South Kern Sol helped spread awareness of disparities in the number of honors and advanced placement programs offered at lower income schools in Arvin and East Bakersfield.
“South Kern Sol gave me a voice and a platform to speak up about the issues that many youth in my community were afraid to speak up about,” Villegas said.
Through South Kern Sol’s storytelling, one youth reporter received funding for sidewalks in her community. Another convinced a school district to address its bullying problem by holding anti-bullying rallies.
“Our stories have made change in our community,” Olaguez said. “Every story we write, it’s for a reason. We want to build a healthier community.”
Her inspiration for improving her community came from her father, who wanted a better life for his family. Olaguez was just one-year-old when her family emigrated from Durango, Mexico to Modesto, Ca.
Her father got a job in 1997 as a truck driver in Shafter, and it wasn’t long after that he started his own trucking company in Bakersfield.
At just 16 years old, Olaguez began managing her father’s business. After graduating from South High, she took on more duties for the company.
Then in 2001, through the College Assistance Migrant Program, she began attending Cal State Bakersfield, where she juggled being a full-time student, and a full-time employee at her father’s business. She recalls trying to focus on school but sometimes had to leave in the middle of class to answer work calls.
“I was trying to make my dad’s business better,” she said.
That didn’t stop her from finishing school. She graduated from CSUB in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in Political Science, inspiring her to pursue a career in media.
“That was one of the four powers in the First Amendment,” she said. “It was a way for me to change the community. I realized I didn’t have to be an elected official to do that.”
She landed a job as the community outreach director at Radio Campesina, where she helped develop PSAs addressing the different issues affecting Kern County, such as immigration and health equity.
“I felt so proud. People started to hear me,” she said. “I really spoke from my heart when I was writing (for Radio Campesina).”
After she left Radio Campesina, she worked a variety of jobs. She worked at a TV station, for a senator and as the crime prevention specialist for the Sheriff’s activities league, where she developed an art program for at-risk kids.
It was when Olaguez was working for the U.S. Census Bureau in Kern County that she realized she wanted to pursue a Master’s degree. She graduated from CSUB two years later with a master’s degree in public administration with a focus on nonprofit management.
After graduation, she was offered a job with South Kern Sol, and has enjoyed working for the organization ever since.
She began reporting stories, building relationships and mentoring youth reporters.
“Reyna was always there to support us whenever we needed it, but she also allowed us to take on leadership roles, and invited us to be a part of critical conversations,” said Villegas. “Committing her work to youth voice and youth empowerment, she knew that bringing youth into these critical conversations was vital.”
Olaguez has always believed in the importance of uplifting youth voices. She believes it is important to listen to the issues that the youth face today.
“Reyna empowered us to report on the issues and stories that we believed in, often highlighting the importance of elevating issues that would go under reported by mainstream media, or the lack of youth voice in these stories,” Villegas said. “Since I joined South Kern Sol, Reyna has been one of my biggest mentors and influences to pursue all of my goals.”
Through South Kern Sol, Olaguez hopes to create a safe space for the youth reporters. She wants the reporters to build confidence through the program and grow as professionals.
“I really believe in inspiring young people to dream big,” she said. “If they follow their hearts, they will get what they want.”