An interview with Sheylin De Leon, Oakland HOPS Youth Advocate


APHA 2022 Policy Action Institute.

Pear in Mind: A Blog in the Public Interest


Oakland HOPS (Healthy Options at Point of Sale) is changing Oakland’s checkout lanes and promoting youth advocacy. Changing the types of foods seen in checkout lanes brings generational impact to Oakland resident’ s health. The HOPS Youth Advocates are currently working with Oakland City Council to bring forth a healthy checkout ordinance.

Tell us a bit about yourself!

Sheylin: My name is Sheylin de Leon. I have lived in Oakland for most of my life. I’m currently a first generation Latina student at San Francisco State University. I’m an Oakland HOPS Youth Advocate.
What first got you interested in HOPS and the field of public health?

Sheylin: I was first introduced to HOPS in my junior year of high school by a friend. Honestly, I didn't know much about food justice or any work around that at the beginning, but I was interested in helping out my community and bettering the health of our community.

How long have you been working with HOPS since you started? Can you tell us some more about the cause and the work that you do as a Youth Advocate for HOPS?

Sheylin: I’m now about to enter my sophomore year of college, [so now 3 years.] There [have been] different phases of HOPS. In the beginning, we were doing a lot of community outreach, and we were going to schools, interviewing people through Zoom and doing personal interviews through phone calls just to get deeper insight into what people experience first hand at checkout and what they would like to see more of. That is something important when going into learning more about public health - looking at things through an intersectional lens and seeing how we can provide more opportunities for people, make healthier foods accessible to our community, and bring more equity.

Of the phases of HOPS, the second one is outreach. Was there anyone super notable that you met or an organization you worked with that was really unforgettable.

Sheylin: We met with most of the council members from Oakland and something that was unforgettable is how supportive the council members were towards the ordinance, and how ready they were to hop on the train and support our cause. A notable organization we talked to was Mandela Market, a store that provides fresh produce and healthier options in their area of Oakland. It’s an example of what I would like to see distributed throughout all parts of Oakland. It’s something that stood out to me.

You’ve mentioned how HOPS is food justice and it’s going to bring change and improvement to people who live in Oakland. Can you describe Oakland’s food landscape, or do you have personal experiences that you would like to share?

Sheylin: During the first phase of HOPS we conducted store assessments, in which our team was split into different groups and we went to different types of stores all around Oakland. We collected data on the types of things they sold at checkout. Something I noticed was that it’s very common to see unhealthy products at checkout and majority of the products at the checkout were in that category.

Another thing I noticed was that deeper into my community, because I live in East Oakland (lower-income area), there were more liquor stores and more fast food places in the area. It’s a problem that is very common in other neighborhoods of East Oakland. It’s really interesting because it looks different in all areas of Oakland. In downtown Oakland and the Lakeshore area (higher-income area), there are more grocery stores available and in closer distance to the people that live in that area. That was such a big difference from the area that I live in and the communities I've been around.

You recently presented to the American Public Health Association. What did you present there?

Sheylin: I talked more about my work with food insecurity and how I’ve worked with other youth advocates in addressing this issue. Along with this, I discussed how adults can better support youth-led advocacy projects because I know that’s something that was lacking when working with HOPS over the years. There were times when funding wasn’t available for us and we had to stop, taking gaps in the work we were doing. It affected the momentum we had.

Speaking of other youth advocate’s projects, what other projects have you been involved in that influence your work in public health?

Sheylin: When the pandemic first hit, everyone was locked in quarantine, but after a while, I began exploring my neighborhood more. I got to meet people from Canticle Farm, which is a non-profit organization that focuses on food justice and food sovereignty. In this program, I spent a lot of time distributing fresh produce and making it more accessible for my community, even for me. During that time, it was hard for my family as well, and having those resources available and easily accessible definitely helped us. It’s something I would like to see in many other neighborhoods that are unaware of the food desert they might be living in.

How can adults better support youth advocates?

Sheylin: Youth voices are extremely powerful and acknowledging all the work and time [we] put in is very important. Funding is just one of the many ways adults can work on to better support the youth.

What was the most difficult part of this work?

Sheylin: I would say being patient. Just having patience. When we were doing interviews with stores, being on the phone and hoping the store owner would stick around to listen to you for a second, and believe that what you’re trying to do is actually helpful. Having older adults believe in your work and support you, I feel like was a big one. As well as even council members, like what we’re going through right now, waiting and waiting. The ball is in their court, to let us know what the next steps are.

How did the COVID 19 pandemic affect your experience with HOPS?

Sheylin: I would say it was a little bit difficult because during the first phase I was able to meet my teammates and work with them in person and just build a stronger connection with them than over Zoom. I’ve never met any of [this current group of youth advocates] and that’s crazy! Not being able to build a relationship with my teammates and getting to learn more about them in a deeper way was hard. Also, it took away a bit of motivation. Sitting down and staring at a screen was draining, especially because it was something we all had to get used to, even for school.

With all this experience in public health and with Oakland HOPS, what do you plan to do in the future?

Sheylin: I don’t have a straightforward answer for this. Right now, I’m not 100% sure on what I want to pursue or what pathway I want to go down. I do know that wherever I’m at, I want to help people and better my community in any shape, way, or form I can.

What’s a final thought you would leave to any youth reading this? What’s your message to the youth?

Sheylin: To never forget how powerful your voice and your actions are in your community. I would never have expected myself to be here and creating opportunities for those who don’t have them. Value your work - I struggle with imposter syndrome, and the feeling that I can’t do something and I’m not capable of doing something is constantly eating me. Never forget the youth are super powerful and [we] are capable of making big impactful changes in their communities. Even seeing my other youth advocates and team, I’m so shocked by the amazing work we’ve been doing the last couple of years.

Will you be continuing to work with HOPS in the upcoming year?

Sheylin: I’ve been here since the beginning of it, and I’ll be here until the finish!