Youth Arts Group members learn from each other

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By Gittel Evangelist


CORNWALL-ON-HUDSON – They gather around a large table draped in serapes, eating pepperoni pizza and sharing about the highs and lows of their week. Maddox has won first place in his school track meet. Guillermo has done well on a science test. Elizabeth is celebrating her birthday that day. Some share in English, others in Spanish. Eighteen-year-old Celeste translates in both languages for the group. Every Friday evening, these teenage leaders participate in the Youth Arts Group, one of a handful of Youth Empowerment Programs offered by Rural & Migrant Ministry, Inc., at locations in the Hudson Valley, Sullivan County, Long Island and Western New York. In the midst of the national conversation on the plight of rural workers, migrant families and unaccompanied minors, RMM is working to make a difference for those who have found their way to New York State, said the Rev. Richard Witt, Executive Director. YAG, as the Youth Arts Group is known for short, is modeled on participatory education, in which members learn from each other through discussion and activities. The group has been moderated for nearly 20 years by Andres Chamorro, an artist, activist and educator who is a native of Ecuador. YAG members work on large-scale art projects aimed at bringing about social change. Currently, they have been creating a mural called “Freedom of Voice,” with each teen working on a section that addresses their individual experiences and concerns. Portions of the mural include depictions of sexual abuse, LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, war and violence, racism, and favoritism by teachers, for example. Chamorro also arranges for visitors to speak with the teens about topics relevant to their lives, such as a presentation on preparing for college, led by RMM staff member Ana Mendez-Vasquez. Recently, Armando Torres-Garcia, an immigration reporter for ABCNews, came to talk with the teens – not in search of a story or even for sourcing purposes, he said, but merely “to connect with them and to learn.” Like many of the YAG participants, Garcia is also undocumented. He spoke of the importance of following one’s passion in life, as he had followed his passion for journalism. Asking open-ended questions, Garcia elicited a discussion about fact-checking news sources and info-literacy. On another evening, Chamorro asked the group members to use their phones to look up news events of the past week and share their thoughts. Some talked about the tornadoes in Arkansas or former President Donald Trump’s indictment on criminal charges. Soon, discussion shifted to the latest in a seemingly endless spate of school shootings, this one in Nashville that left three children and three school workers dead. “Let’s take a moment,” Chamorro said. “How do you feel about this? Is this normal? Do you feel safe going back to school?” The teens discussed their feelings at length, with several agreeing school shootings happen so frequently, it no longer shocks them. They spoke about security lapses at their schools and a sense of impending dread that it could happen to them next. “If you have a magic wand, what would you like to change?” Chamorro asked. “Imagine there are no limitations. What do you want to happen?” Kiara, 16, suggested that schools provide an escape route for the students. Johana, 17, wished she could eliminate hatred and people wanting to harm others. Celeste wanted psychological help for those who’ve been traumatized, and Elizabeth,18, hoped for an end to the bullying that often prompts students to resort to violence. “What can we say about guns?” Chamorro asked the teens. “What can be done about this problem?” Again, the group members expressed their frustration – at the gun manufacturers, the gun lobby, and the government. “If we had more gun regulations, we wouldn’t have as many shootings,” Maddox, 15, said. “It’s very controversial how we feel about guns… Maybe gun companies don’t care who the customer is as long as they get their money.” “It’s important to talk and to analyze the problem,” Chamorro said afterward. “I can easily tell them what the problem is, but the important thing is that they think for themselves. We have to ask ourselves, ‘What kind of leaders do we want to create?’ Ultimately, Chamorro said, the aim is to get at the systemic roots of the issues that all of RMM’s programs address. “We want them to understand that we are all part of a system, and to understand how we affect other countries, other systems,” he said. “Through discussion and analysis, they begin to understand that, ‘My opinion is important.’”

Gittel Evangelist is Communications Coordinator for Rural & Migrant Ministry, Inc. Reach her at