By Janelle Salanga and Srishti Prabha | Special to the OBSERVER
At the start of spring break, Joy Nantongo, a junior at Inderkum High School, was at the North Natomas library. But instead of being engulfed by books, she was surrounded by a rainbow of dresses and racks of suits, where she’d settled on a dress and was excited to take it home.
“It looks like [Princess] Tiana’s dress,” she said. “It’s lime green, and very flowy.”
Nantongo’s dress was of no cost to her and her family — it came from the Sacramento Public Library’s free prom drive, held in advance of prom season, which is typically April through early June.
But Nantongo will not be attending her high school’s prom.
“It was kind of expensive, and I really don’t have that much money,” she said. Instead, she is saving her dress for another special occasion.
Though it’s beloved, prom, short for promenade, is an archaic tradition entrenched in a racist and gendered history. Dating back to the 1800s, proms were a racially segregated space. And paying for formalwear — on top of the baseline cost to go — made attending inaccessible for marginalized groups. However, as with most things that stand the test of time, it became a seminal cultural experience.
To combat the barriers to attending the high school dance, some of Sacramento’s local organizations and schools are attempting to reframe the experience by eliminating the cost of attire and attendance, allowing for self-expression and providing safe spaces for diverse identities.
Prom costs stop students from attending
At the North Natomas Library’s prom drive, 16-year-old Ashley Pyar-Ho helped over a hundred Inderkum High School students pick from a selection of high heels, chiffon dresses and suits during the two-hour event. She said for her, the free prom drive had intangible benefits outside of the free attire.
“This [experience], it’s healing in a way,” Pyar-Ho said. “I like how people feel better about themselves.”
Pyar-Ho’s thoughts underscore the celebratory coming-of-age moment in an adolescent life, and the gravity of prom attire as a declaration of identity and self-assurance. However, local organizations say that the clothes, accessories and shoes can run upwards of $100.
“Prom is something that is obviously very special, but the dresses are expensive,” said Pyar-Ho.
That’s where the Sacramento Public Library provides a community service, accepting donations of gently-used formalwear and accessories like cufflinks, ties and jewelry from January through the end of March. The library has offered the prom drive since 2012, after its Teen Advisory Board suggested the event. The service has since grown from being offered at a single library location — the North Highlands-Antelope Library — to 15 locations as of this year, including the North Natomas library.
“It’s interesting to see the donations as they’re coming through — you get to see different things coming from different areas of the community,” said Amy Little, the library’s teen services specialist.
She and her team organized events at libraries across the city to ensure the greatest number of teens were able to access the formalwear, and said this year’s giveaway was “by far the biggest prom drive giveaway that we’ve hosted.”
While people may associate books with libraries, not prom drives, Little says that libraries are uniquely positioned in the community to create safe and inclusive spaces and be an access point for goods and services.
“The library really is a community space … we also have a space for people to belong,” she explained. “In this example, it’s all about formalwear … But when it comes to the library, you can also relate to things like access to materials about gender, health care, and [more].”
Cost as a barrier to enjoying and attending prom isn’t a new phenomenon.
Little and Mina Perez, who founded local arts nonprofit Vida de Oro, both said they didn’t have the best time at their respective proms — part of that, they added, came from how expensive the event and its related costs were.
She’s familiar with the negative life outcomes that come from lack of accessibility to resources beyond “basic needs” like food, water and shelter. Her organization’s mission is to promote the arts to further cultural growth in the community.
Perez borrowed her prom dress from her sister’s closet.
“I did not have a new dress,” Perez said. “It was black with red cherries on it, which [was] not very pretty, and I felt so awful. I wish that I would have been able to pick my own dress.”
Today, she has over 3,000 new and gently-used dresses in her stockroom that she aims to make accessible to any student in California. They’re part of Vida de Oro’s free dress program, which Perez started in 2019 and runs in an effort to cultivate self-expression and reduce prom costs, thanks to donations of new dresses from Lulus.
“In today’s times, everyone is struggling. [For] parents, the last thing on their mind [is] to buy a brand new dress,” Perez said.
She says the ability to provide the service to her community is a way to offer anyone — regardless of how much money they may have for attire — choices for their prom experience.
In her stockroom, she sifts through a rack of lavender and pink dresses, rustling the taffeta and silk to find the price tags on the dresses. When she finds them, she shows the tags with pride, reiterating that the dresses are brand-new, clean, and most importantly, free.
“The prom is an American tradition, it’s a rite of passage,” she said. “We want to [help] include you in this, even if you just show up and sit and enjoy the company … you’re in the room, you’re not outside the door.”
However, while prom closets help, the formalwear expense is only a portion of the cost to attend prom. Though no prom cost surveys have been conducted since the pandemic began, a Yahoo survey from 2017 found $625 was the average total cost for prom in the western states, including California.
Sacramento County’s prom ticket price can range, contingent on the district, from $40 to $230.
Inderkum High School students like Pyar-Ho and Nantongo are just some of many choosing to forgo the school’s $229 prom this year, which will be held on a boat in the San Francisco harbor.
Scott Pitts, Inderkum High School’s principal, said that an estimated 65% of students will be attending the prom this year, a rate higher than any other year before. He admits that administration officials “have to keep making adjustments to maintain access to all students” and may consider further trying to subsidize the cost of prom in future years in light of the heightened price.
“When [prom on a boat cruise] first started in the early 2000s, true cost was $120,” said Pitts. “Now, we need to push [the cost] down further or find similar events.”
Pitts said the school has teams dedicated to checking in with foster and unhoused youth and students in need to ensure that prom is an accessible and inclusive event.
“We’re trying to match resources through the [Associated Student Body],” Pitts said. “We have more donations coming in from the community than we’ve had in the past that are helping us meet those needs.”
Still, the high school’s approach to prom accessibility is piecemeal, with teachers and administrators trying to identify students who require help or hope that students proactively reach out for financial support.
Hunter Thielke and Jake Tabbah, students at Laguna Creek High School, founded their organization Inspire Hope with Love to foster inclusive and comfortable spaces for their peers to access resources.
“It’s kids helping kids,” said Tabbah. “And I know kids are most comfortable when they’re getting help from another kid rather than an adult.”
Tabbah conveyed the social taboo of asking for help as a young adult. Through prom drives and needs-based asks from the community, Tabbah and Thielke said they try to bridge the gap for kids in need.
“I actually had a former classmate that came,” said Tabbah. “She was thankful because she wasn’t able to do things like this because it’s expensive and she’s a foster youth.”
Theilke added that participating in making someone else’s prom experience enjoyable was heartwarming.
“We recognized some of the dresses [from our prom drive] at our own [senior] ball, which was, honestly, pretty cool,” he said. “And they definitely looked happy and confident in what they were wearing that night.”
But Inderkum High School students Pyar-Ho and Ellie Loui said they will not get to have this moment because of the high price point.
“I’m not going to prom because it is pretty expensive,” said Loui. “We’re doing a pseudo-prom instead.”
Cost is only one of the reasons Loui, Pyar-Ho and their friends have organized their own alternative event.
“[In] a group hang, [we] could be more of ourselves around each other rather than [at] a school event,” Pyar-Ho said.
She highlights another reason that the traditional high school prom experience may not be inclusive: the environment.
“Is this the real life? Is this a fantasy?”: Reimagining prom altogether
LGBTQIA joy was on full display during Sacramento State PRIDE Center’s Rainbow Ball in early April, when attendees stepped through the titular rainbow — a balloon arch curbed around the university ballroom’s entrance — to take part in a night of dancing, board games, art, a drag show and more.
A Sacramento State graduate student DJ’ed the event for free, switching between student-requested favorites like Lady Gaga, Paramore and Spanish songs, among others, before ending the night on Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a local drag group, offered to come perform for attendees pro bono.
It was the first time the center had held its queer prom event since the pandemic started, and people came in spades. Around 200 people, in varying formality of dress, showed up for the event, which was free for anyone in the Sacramento State community and their plus ones.
As much as it was a way for people to let loose, the Rainbow Ball is a way for queer and trans students, faculty and staff to re-do their prom, said Erik Ramirez, who helps manage and lead the PRIDE Center. The center also partners with the Sac LGBT Center, which puts on its own Queer Prom in October.
Gendered expectations are a component of prom inaccessibility, especially since prom has traditionally been a gendered courtship ritual. For trans and gender-nonconforming students, the dance can be a “very traumatic” experience, Ramirez said.
“You may not have gone to prom with who you really wanted to go with,” he said. “Or maybe [prom] may have forced you to come out before you wanted to, or you didn’t get to dress in the way that truly expresses who you are.”
Assembly Bill 537, which passed California’s state legislature in 1999, regulates discrimination based on sexual or gender orientation in schools. To abide by the legislation, Elk Grove Unified School District’s spokesperson Lisa Levasseur explained that schools in her district “encourage students to dress in the way that they identify” and use gender neutral language like “prom royalty’ instead of “prom king and queen.”
“Gay-Straight Alliance Clubs at all of our high schools worked really hard over the past couple of years, especially coming back from COVID, to just help students and administration be a more inclusive, welcoming school environment,” said Levasseur.
In tandem, the library, Vida de Oro and the PRIDE Center have worked to diversify accessibility to clothes through their prom drives. The PRIDE Center’s prom closet teamed up with Sac State’s student government organization, which was similarly doing a professional clothing drive.
The free closet is still running at the university, and students are still coming by to pick up clothes, Ramirez said. And the center used its advertising for the closet as a way to push back against any particular expectations for what prom dress “should” look like.
“We advertised, ‘Hey, you don’t have to go spend money on clothes,’” he said. “We were very clear that with all the advertising: ‘Formal gear or formal attire is not required. Come in whatever you’re comfortable with’ … The idea is we want our students to dress to be able to express their gender identity.”
Little, at the Sacramento Public Library, and Perez of Vida de Oro both said they strive to ensure their respective closets are a safe space for anyone to pick out clothes.
In the Vida de Oro stockroom, Perez said employees have created separate gender-neutral dressing rooms for when students come to try on formal wear.
And Little says library volunteers wear name badges with their pronouns to help create an atmosphere of openness. She recalled two specific thank yous to the library team for the prom drive events.
“Two teens who are male-presenting thanked us for the event,” she said. “They were able to get these gorgeous gowns at the library because we provided a space where they felt they could express themselves fully.”
Another component of the Rainbow Ball at Sacramento State meant to help attendees feel comfortable: A quiet, more private space, complete with materials for crafts like tiaras and board games, toward the back of the ballroom.
“Several of the students that are part of the Pride Center, that frequent that space, are openly neurodivergent,” Ramirez said.
Some neurodivergent people have heightened sensory sensitivity, which can make prom attendance complicated. But Ramirez and his team made accommodations to the event space to ensure inclusivity.
“We realized sometimes people need to get away from the crowd, or, you know, [think] ‘I may want to be at this event’, but they may not want to be all up in it,” he added.
Making modifications to the prom experience — whether they’re big, like making it cost-free, or small, like giving students the option to create the music setlist for the ball — is all “a service” to Ramirez, who also serves as director for Sacramento State’s other student equity and affinity centers.
“Especially at a time where … we’re seeing so much anti-trans legislation, anti-gay legislation where even reproductive rights are threatened, I think it’s now more than ever important that we continue to celebrate our students,” he said.
Ramirez, Perez and Little all touched on the outcome of their services: positive identity formation. Sacramento’s students like Tabbah, Theilke and Pyar-Ho — regardless of attendance — acknowledge prom as part of the American cultural experience and express the need for more accessibility, whether through cost or environment.
With those not attending prom are pushed to the fringes of a community moment, the work of organizations like Vida de Oro and Inspire Hope With Love who cultivate environments where the same students can feel supported and empowered is crucial.
Srishti Prabha is a Report For America corps member and Education Reporter in collaboration with The Sacramento Observer and CapRadio. Their focus is on K-12 education in Black communities.
Support for this Sacramento OBSERVER article was provided to Word In Black (WIB) by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. WIB is a collaborative of 10 Black-owned media that includes print and digital partners.