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A New Version of Me: Homeplace for Migrant Youth

By: Dare Dukes and Marlene Peralta with Nyla Collado, Nadia Feracho, David Ibarra, Richelle Placencia, Francis Junior Genao Rodriguez,  Mously Thiam, and Franchesca Thomas.




This is the second blog post in a series on how Educational Video Center cultivates “homeplace” for BIPOC youth leaders. “Homeplace” is a term originally defined by educator, activist, and writer bell hooks. While hooks defined “homeplace” as a uniquely Black site, EVC’s manifestation of homeplace embraces the heart of hooks’ definition as it encompasses the intersectional experiences of a spectrum of youth from communities that face oppression, including youth who are Black, brown, queer, trans, and working-class.


 



Testifying before the New York City Council in March 2024, Educational Video Center (EVC) youth leader Mously Thiam appeared unflappable. A recent arrival to the U.S. from Senegal, she opened her remarks with a humble apology for her broken English and poor public-speaking skills, apparently fully aware of the stereotype of the recent immigrant her audience was projecting onto her. Then, slyly moving under cover of this stereotype, the 21-year-old Mously advocated with resolute insistence for herself, for Educational Video Center and other afterschool programs, for a fully funded public education system, and, finally, for New York City’s economy.




In this moment—steady, fierce, and strategic—Mously embodied what youth leadership looks like at EVC. She appeared to be entirely aware of the dominant narrative about young people like her, and fully able to deftly step inside this narrative in order to flip it, to the benefit of herself and the communities for which she advocated. This capacity is Freirian “critical literacy” in action: Mously understood the narrative, put that narrative to use in order to invite her audience in, and leveraged it in order to advocate for her communities. And all along, right under the noses of the audience members, she rewrote the dehumanizing narrative of the shy, helpless immigrant struggling to assimilate into a story of belonging, power, and resistance. As Mously said to the City Council members that day, EVC helped her become “a new version of me.” In the framework of critical literacy, this “new version” is as much Mously’s evolved understanding of herself as it is her undoing of harmful stories others try to tell about her.


Beyond Assimilation: Engagement, Empowerment, and Celebrating Difference

Mously is just one example of the many immigrant youth who have joined EVC looking for a sense of belonging, safety, and power in their new city. For youth who have been pushed out of their home countries due to structural violence and oppression, a definition of belonging that insists on “assimilation”—an implied erasure of their ethnic and cultural uniqueness—only perpetuates a profound sense of displacement, both psychological and geographical. EVC’s approach is to lean into young people’s lived experience, encouraging them to celebrate it, articulate it, and rewrite the social narratives that undermine it. To create homeplace for migrant youth, therefore, EVC understands that a sense of belonging can only emerge if, in addition to opportunities to feel held and able to heal, migrant youth are offered opportunities to push back against the violence–both in their countries of origin and their new home—that continues to threaten their stability. At EVC, resistance is not an afterthought but a prerequisite to a sense of belonging.


Of course, one of EVC’s main tools for building critical literacy and opportunities for resistance is filmmaking. Mously worked with other recent arrivals to make a powerful film that exemplifies the balance between belonging and resistance: their film, The Grass Isn’t Always Greener, Migrants in the Workplace (2023), investigates the exploitation of migrant labor in New York City. Working on this film gave Mously and her peers the opportunity to simultaneously build community, research and ground themselves in their new home, and explore how structural challenges to their wellbeing exist across borders, both in their countries of origins and their new home. Far from encouraging assimilation, the production process empowered the young migrant filmmakers to solidify their identities as engaged and critically aware residents in their new city, residents with uniquely powerful lived experiences that can bring new awareness to structural harms happening around the world, including right here in the United States. 


(Love + Healing) x (Power + Resistance) = Belonging

Research shows that recent arrivals to the U.S. who participate in community organizing are better equipped to make sense of their identity in relation to the greater community. Moreover, the same body of research suggests that healing, learning, and social spaces like Educational Video Center provide communities of support and what Levinson calls “intimate cultures,” in his study of Mexican students in 2021,  which help young migrants to: 1) critique and dismantle negative stereotypes around migrant status that the media and political figures perpetuate; and 2) resist migration policies through community organizing. 


In traditional learning models the teacher is an authority figure who imparts knowledge to the passive student. EVC’s Freirian pedagogy shifts this power dynamic by fostering collective knowledge-building, where youth leaders and adult educators are equal partners in a process of intellectual and creative discovery. Youth determine the culture of the space and what safety looks like, the direction of the program, the content of the films they produce, and even the arc of their learning and evaluation. 


Nadia Feracho, an EVC media educator, describes how youth collectively set the culture of their workshops and creative processes. They create a “community agreement,” a list of behaviors and boundaries that together define safe, communicative, productive interactions and set boundaries around harmful words and actions. “They gain the autonomy to decide for themselves about what is a safe space and navigate that on their own. That’s something you rarely see,” she said. Youth write down their agreements, and educators help make sure the youth keep each other accountable. 


In a world where migrants can be hammered daily with harmful stories and stereotypes, these collective agreements defining safety means young people can let down their guard, begin to heal, and focus their energy less on survival and more on learning. As micro as such boundary-setting can appear to outsiders, it is the beginning of youth actively seeing and setting policies to create security in often insecure worlds. As youth gain a sense of safety and ultimately agency around the possibility of impacting their worlds, they can move their gaze outward toward and begin critiquing not just the hyper-local policies impacting their learning spaces but the macro policies and narratives harming their greater communities. 


The Fierce Urgency of Now

Providing a space where migrant youth feel safe and can thrive as learners, artists, and activists is more important than ever. 


New York City has seen a historic influx of new immigrants—more than 116,000 since April 2022. The sudden increase in population has stressed the city’s infrastructure, creating challenges in serving these families, who are primarily from Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Despite New York’s rich diversity, the reality is that migrant students are entering the most segregated education system in the country, and at a time of severe budget cuts. Even schools designed to work directly with migrant students are struggling to catch and hold these young people with all their manifold needs. Making matters worse, many city leaders have adopted inflammatory xenophobic rhetoric, with New York City’s mayor leading the charge. During this year’s city budgeting process, the mayor scapegoated the migrant population as part of a cynical strategy for unnecessarily-stringent budget cuts.


Many of these children came to the U.S. unaccompanied, without family or friends. Many are “walkers”—migrants who have made the harrowing journey on foot. And many not only walked and walked alone, but did so traversing what’s known as the Darien Gap, a treacherous and arduous land-based pathway connecting South America to Central America. 


When a young migrant arrives in New York City, she often carries conflicting internal realities. On the one hand, she is resilient, hard working, determined to succeed, and filled with joyful aspirations for her new home. On the other hand, she is in crisis, isolated, and shouldering layers of trauma. Too often, these heroic young people end up bumping into systemic barriers in New York City that parallel the structures in their home countries that pushed them to leave. 


A community of educators, after school programs, and other experts are rising up to catch these young people and clear a pathway for their success. 


System-wide the New York City Board of Education lacks resources to meet the manifold needs of these young people. Yet there are specific schools and a smattering of educators—many of whom share the lived experiences of the young migrants—who are successfully working against the stream to gather the means to help.


At the center of this community of support is the Educational Video Center (EVC). From its founding 40 years ago, EVC has designed programming to address the particular needs of all New York City public school students. In partnership with caring and expert educators and schools, EVC has pivoted to meet this wave of recent arrivals where they are, at their stories, at their traumas, and at their excitement to be in their new home. In schools throughout all five boroughs of New York City, EVC is using documentary video production as a powerful tool for engaging recent arrivals and helping them to carve out healing-centered spaces in their strange new schools to tell their stories, build community, gain confidence, and reestablish a sense of safety. 


In the last three years, EVC has doubled its Spanish-language programming offerings, evolved its curriculum, and trained and hired numerous Spanish-speaking educators, many of whom have stories that reflect those of the migrant students in their workshops. In addition, EVC continues to partner with and support public school teachers and schools that are actively and successfully centering the healing and success of migrant youth. The result is that New York City’s recent young arrivals have safe spaces to share their stories and be heard, engage with a loving community, begin the process of healing, and—one quiet story at a time—disrupt the politicians’ and media’s xenophobic narratives with first-person accounts of their struggles, accomplishments, and hopes and dreams for their new homes.


Young recent arrivals in EVC programs have made powerful films about their migration stories that have moved and enlightened audiences, including city elected officials and educators. And they’ve also made documentaries that reflect how they already consider the U.S. their home and are eager to participate in the most important civic debates. These films have covered topics such as the American Dream, abuse of social media, climate change, xenophobia, and exploitation of migrant labor.



Seeing Themselves in Their Educators 

Research shows that when young people have just one teacher who shares their lived experience they are significantly more likely to graduate high school. Because of this, and because EVC young people have asked for it, EVC actively recruits, trains, and hires educators of color, many of whom have lived experiences as migrants and recent arrivals.


 “I am an immigrant myself, and I can relate to their experiences,” said David Ibarra, a Spanish-speaking media educator who was trained in EVC’s Credible Educator program. David, who was a teacher's assistant in his native Ecuador, said he values the different approach EVC takes towards teaching, following an educational model that centers youth culture where there is no hierarchy between students and teachers. He has seen how this approach makes EVC a safe space for immigrant youth to thrive. “Treating students as equals with no judgment is so important to build a connection. You build trust,” he said, and “when you create trust they do better.” 



Joining the Resistance

EVC meets migrant youth where they are, at their lived experiences, languages, and identities. They are encouraged to use research, community engagement, and film production to challenge systems of oppression to redefine their own stories and the communities around them.


The EVC approach is particularly useful for helping young people from many different backgrounds find community and ground themselves in a homeplace. Each young person comes with their own experiences and understandings of structural oppression. Many come looking for the American Dream and are surprised to find structural challenges in their new home that look a lot like the structural challenges that pushed them out of their home countries. 


“When I first arrived, I expected New York to be the perfect city,” Mously explained. “But being in this program, meeting other students, has helped me pay attention to the issues around me and how I can watch out for my community.” 


Others, like Nyla Collado, the daughter of Puerto Rican and Dominican parents are made well aware of systemic oppressions at an early age. Having a very difficult time navigating high school during the pandemic was an eye-opening experience. She described being treated as a number rather than as an individual because of the system. “I know that there are teachers and people inside the system who care, but the system itself doesn’t care about specific people. It cares about test scores,” she explained.


Both Mously and Nyla got to learn from each other’s experiences as they worked together on The Grass Isn’t Always Greener, one of the many films where students connected the immigrant experience to life here in New York. They have also produced films about xenophobia and the American Dream, among other pressing issues. Spanish speakers are encouraged to produce films in their own language. But most importantly they have all learned from each other's experiences, overcoming language and cultural barriers, through working together on films.


Validating each other and accepting feedback is one of the mantras in the program. The sense of collaboration, collective resistance, and care for each other drives them to contribute to changing their communities. That’s the case of Francis Junior Genao Rodriguez, a Dominican immigrant, who helped produce the film In My Mind or In The Other Eyes (2023) about body dysmorphia together with Richelle Placencia, also Dominican. “It’s an experience I will never forget,” he shared with excitement. He wrote and performed a rap song in Spanish for the film with a message for young women to love themselves. “I like to make music. I also play instruments, so when I made this music and people listened and liked it, it made me really happy.” 



Franchesca Thomas, whose family comes from Honduras, said she has grown equally passionate about films and about issues affecting immigrants. She was a producer on the film The Grass isn’t Always Greener. “It was hard for my parents because, as immigrants, it’s hard to be accepted and find jobs,” she said, sharing how her own father faced hostility at work for being an immigrant. “They should respect immigrants because they are humans too.” 


Before coming to EVC, Frachesca had never seen films made by young people like her. “It’s a great experience. We see things differently because we are young and we want adults to take action.” She had the opportunity to go to Albany to promote the film The Grass isn’t Always Greener. She felt scared, but she was still willing to work to change people’s minds thanks to what she’s learned at EVC. 



Learning from each other, caring about their issues and collaborating together in raising awareness about them has created a bond between this group of students, despite coming from different countries, different communities. Their common language is the passion to produce films about issues affecting them and their growing immigrant community in a space where they feel safe.

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