The Power of Voices

I’m often guilty of trying to be a social justice warrior from the comfort of my couch: re-tweeting and posting hashtags about #RepresentationMatters, a #SeatAtTheTable and #PayingItForward. Then, I got the opportunity to be part of the core team that plans and executes The Broad Center’s Forum 2020, an event that brings together our alumni, the change-makers of public education, and a powerful platform for direct social justice.

I’ve committed my entire adult life to serving in the public education world. Most of that time was spent in the service of our most vulnerable students. The majority of our kids lived in poverty, just one zip code away from Skid Row. Our kids came from unstable homes, dilapidated housing and places where gun violence is so prevalent that lockdowns are the norm. A large number of our students and their families were undocumented and lived in fear of deportation. I remember enrolling a brother and sister that traveled from Central America. They were detained as unaccompanied minors at our southern border to be later claimed by an uncle. Their uncle brought them to my school and the siblings were completely silent. Thinking there was a language barrier, I spoke to them in Spanish. Still, they were silent. Whatever happened to those children was so traumatizing that they would not speak. The students I served carried unspeakable trauma.

My own story is like my former students. Finding herself in the desperation of extreme poverty, my mother decided to bring my two younger brothers and me to the United States and give us a chance. I was six years old when my brothers and I crossed the border with a coyote (a human-trafficker). I was told to remain silent, no matter what happened. The flashlight of the immigration officer blinding me as he questioned me were part of my nightmares for a long time. But I remained silent. When we arrived at the coyote’s house, a heaviness overwhelmed me as I felt the responsibility of caring for my brothers. A couple of weeks later, I was enrolled in first grade and expected to move on and assimilate. I never spoke of the trauma I carry because no one bothered to ask. The difference between my former students and me is that I am now an adult with access to a powerful platform that can give them a voice.

When it came time for TBC to brainstorm programming for Forum 2020, the voices of my former students and my six-year-old self were present. I felt a compelling need to discuss the trauma carried by our students. I wanted to represent the voices of the students living in fear of being deported or losing a parent to deportation. Being acutely aware of what it feels like to be separated from my parent at a young age made me think about the almost 70,000 children who experienced this in the last two years. It was my first time being part of the core Forum team and the introvert in me wanted to stay in the background and learn and support where I could. But that wasn’t the just thing to do. Working at The Broad Center for over three years has taught me to look at everything through the lens of diversity, equity and inclusion. That translates to looking at everything through a lens of justice.

Putting my discomfort aside and being part of a very supportive team, I proposed that we develop sessions on student trauma and how to protect and serve immigrant and refugee students. As a result, a breakout session about student trauma was designed for school system CEOs and superintendents. Superintendents are the ultimate change-makers and if anyone could give voice to thousands of students carrying childhood trauma, they can.

A second breakout session came together to educate all of our alumni on how to support, protect and advocate for our immigrant and refugee students. Through some supportive network members, I was connected to the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), who are currently on the front lines leading the fight for the children separated from their parents at our southern border. They agreed to make the trip to California and participate in our session. In the process, I learned about ImmSchools, an organization whose mission is to create immigrant-friendly schools by providing professional development workshops to school leaders and their teams. Lastly, we needed to represent the voices of refugee students. My TBC colleague, Hanifa Farooq, remembered a previous colleague who was now a principal at a school that serves refugee students. Through Hanifa, we invited Fugees Academy, who educate and serve refugee children who are survivors of wars. For the first time in TBC Forum history, we livestreamed this session because the learnings needed to be shared beyond the room. It was powerful and over 2,000 people watched.

However, the session that impacted me the most was what became known as Youth and Justice: Cultivating Our Leaders. This session was completely led by two 16-year old students – Jair Solis and Isha Clarke. They are the reason we all do the work we do. Jair is an immigrant-rights advocate working closely with the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights L.A. (CHIRLA) and Isha is an environmental justice warrior from Oakland Unified School District. Kathia Garcia, the youth organizer from CHIRLA’s student program, was part of the panel showing us how to support student voices without overshadowing their leadership. My colleague, Natalie Martin, beautifully facilitated the session. The network members in attendance cried, cheered for and gave a standing ovation to the student leaders. It was incredibly powerful and moving to have been a part of designing a session that gave a voice, a forum, to our young leaders.

My personal identity markers were a loud influence on me using my voice to help curate the programming of Forum 2020. I was given a #SeatAtTheTable and I did not waste it. #RepresentationMatters and it made a difference. It is my responsibility to use the privilege I have to #PayItForward because at crucial times in my life, I was given opportunities that have made me the person I am today.

Photo: Maria Razo (second from left) enjoying TBC’s Forum 2020 along with just a few of the many team members who helped plan and execute the event.

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