"My voice, my community, my world": A youth empowerment project

From Ms. Esperanza’s class I learned how to use the camera and not be shy in front of the camera. I learned many good things in the classroom. –ELL Student

As program creator and host of the Spanish language television show, Esperanza Y Su Éxito (EYSE), I have spent the last nine years developing a news magazine format that serves the Latino community in the city of Worcester, Massachusetts. EYSE is used as a vehicle for disseminating important information to this underserved community.

The 2010 U.S. Census showed that about 21 percent of the population in the city of Worcester is Latino, compared to 9.6 percent in the state of Massachusetts.1 The Latino community is substantially growing. However, Latinos keep struggling for the use of resources and information to improve their lives in the city of Worcester. There is a lack of programming that focuses on local and regional issues affecting the Latino community.

EYSE uses the medium of television to empower the Latino community. EYSE’s staff consists of the following community professionals: Anthony Ortiz, Program Director; Elis Ortiz, Assistant Director/Video Technician; Lydia Fortune, Advising Consultant; and me. We served as coordinators and as trainers last summer for a special academic training workshop for WPS’s ELL students. EYSE’s training team also functioned as technical directors and editors, using video cameras to enhance the learning environment.

The EYSE television program has always maintained the objective of identifying the most effective way to communicate important information to minority – and specifically, Latino – communities. Relying on written literature was not effective due to cultural communication styles and language barriers.

Although EYSE was unable to find or collect hard data on the value of the Latino community viewing information rather than reading it, my professional experience has led me to several conclusions. First, while collecting data for my doctoral dissertation on EYSE’s impact on Worcester’s Latino community, it was clear that a level of frustration exists between Latinos and members of the dominant community in trying to communicate with each other. My having spent years explaining school notices and materials to families informed me that Latinos and other minority and ethnic groups prefer face-to-face or visual information, rather than written.

Although many legal documents and other booklets are published in the Spanish language, the information is not getting to the Latino community in Worcester in a usable way. This is not a problem of intelligence, competence, or ability to comprehend. The problem is identifying the most effective way to connect with Latino people and using media to create a face-to-face, verbal interaction instead of reading alone in silence (Davila 2001; Gudykunst 2004).

The main purpose of EYSE is to empower the Latino and other minority communities in the city of Worcester. EYSE provides segments ranging from those based on a culturally sensitive approach to information with attention paid to cultural values and appropriate presentation style.

Using my brainchild, EYSE, Bertha-Elena Rojas from WPS visualized and recognized the unique opportunity to use the video concept as a learning tool for our ELL students. Rojas, as well as LEI Assistant Director Hilda Ramirez, envisioned a concrete way in which our ELL students could overcome their hurdles by seeing themselves conquering their fears and also as successful transformational leaders in the community. Most of our ELL students are affected by language barriers and poverty. Empowering and televising them was a remarkable way to teach the students that their voices mattered. EYSE’s training team used the cameras, lights, and different processes of listening, interviewing, writing, and role-playing to help the ELL students to be involved in their own learning practices.

EYSE programming was structured to become a catalyst for change. The entire project was founded on the basic belief that communities need to be informed and educated in order to expect social justice and exhort social change. With this knowledge in mind, WPS and LEI approached EYSE in the summer of 2014, with a vision and profound idea of empowering WPS’s ELL students. WPS professionals and LEI staff members teamed up with EYSE to create a six-week summer academic workshop that would help ELL students visualize their success.

The video cameras were instrumental in helping to promote a way in which the students could critically process information for and about themselves. This process helped the students visualize themselves as successful, empowered beings. The students’ voices were finally being heard and televised to cultivate a sense of leadership. This practice assisted the students in improving their language skills and their perceptions about themselves.

EYSE’s purpose was to link the academic program with the classroom curriculum. In this way the teachers, as well as community partners, worked together to create a synergy for the ELL students in the summer program. The training team first introduced the students to the skill of interviewing one another and learning to write down questions that they wanted to ask. Each student had five to seven minutes to take turns interviewing one another. Next, the students were encouraged to decide what group topics they would focus on for the rest of the summer sessions.

Once the students had chosen two topics and had broken into two respective groups, each day was spent with the students working on their interviewing skills. Additionally, the students learned to write questions and research their topics at home. EYSE’s training team modeled and helped the students learn to use techniques such as: (a) respectful listening; (b) how to skillfully set a collective agenda that sharpened the student perceptions of what a leader should be like within his or her environment; and (c) how to use education for civic and social justice, and social change. The students decided to focus on two main social issues as topics: global warming and world littering, and bullying in school.

One of the most exciting parts of the workshop was when EYSE trainers presented basic demonstrations to the students on how to operate the video cameras and also a brief overview about recording and capturing important events. Next, the students were able to individually experience handling the cameras and filming each other. Another highlight of the workshop involved the activities and games that they got to participate in often.

The ELL summer program provided a way for the community to build cultural and social capital. WPS, LEI, WSU, and EYSE cultivated, created, and empowered a cohort of ELL students, opening up the possibility for them to become strong leaders who could impact their community in the future.

At the end of the summer, EYSE’s advising consultant, Lydia Fortune, edited and produced a DVD for each student, as well as the community partners. This step was crucial because the ELL students had a chance to see their abilities and skills improving while also sharing this particular process with their family members. Once all the video files were completed, EYSE presented the DVDs to WCCA Channel 13 Community Television for community viewing. The ELL students were thrilled and committed to developing their skills further. They felt that the city of Worcester – and their parents – were going to be watching and supporting them in their endeavor. These students felt a great sense of pride. The summer experience gave the students a glimpse of how they can learn to take themselves more seriously and make better decisions about themselves and their future.

ELL students can capture the message of becoming leaders and can act on the message of empowerment because they can understand the visualization more easily without feeling discouraged by the language barrier. Television is a unique conveyer of visual information, since it combines the two senses of vision and hearing. While teaching this class, the crew of EYSE was focused on the message that becoming bilingual or multilingual is a strength, not a hurdle. As a facilitator, I observed how the students labeled as ELL moved slowly from detached boredom to full and active participation, growing more comfortable with speaking into the camera. They began to see the possibility of being catalysts for social change. This, in my opinion, will impact the future in the way teachers conduct the art of education. I have been so fortunate to see how one student improved his behavior and completed the course as a model student. I saw how this young man conveyed his feelings without acting out, with the possibility of being a catalyst for social change. I could see that he was able to communicate in an easier way, as well as develop an interest in cameras.

EYSE believes that empowering our ELL students is another way to create strong leaders and a stronger community. Educating our underprivileged students on civic and human rights is the essential tool in changing a whole structural system (Horton & Freire 1991). The concept of this youth empowerment project goes beyond educating young minds in the classroom to developing culturally sensitive leaders.

One of our students said, “I thought that my African accent sounds well in the camera,” as he smiled and realized that what mattered in this class were his ideas about saving the earth from being trashed by human beings. He took pride in becoming a part of the solution, not a part of the problem. Another young Latino student said, “I hope that other Latinos like me understand the importance of going to college. They can help their family and our community too.” An Iraqi student shared, “I want other girls like me to go to college so we can help stop wars from killing and hurting our family members at home.” These students were given the opportunity to overcome the negative perception about themselves and strive toward becoming leaders in their own communities.

This sense of leadership was made possible by offering ELL students an opportunity to participate in a civic process within an interesting classroom curriculum that fostered a sense of empowerment and commitment for the betterment of our diverse community.

For more information on Esperanza y Su Éxito, see http://esperanzaysuexito.webs.com.

Davila, A. 2001. Latinos, Inc.: The Marketing and Making of a People. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Gudykunst, W. B. 2004. Bridging Differences: Effective Intergroup Communication. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Horton, M., and P. Freire. 1991. We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change, edited by B. Bell, J. Gaventa, and J. Peters. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.