Providing student leaders with critical thinking, research and presentation skills.

The Angelo del Toro Puerto Rican/Hispanic Youth Leadership Institute seeks to empower the next generation of Latino/Hispanic student leaders. Students who are nominated for the program attend regional training sessions throughout the school year to prepare for a marquee 3-day Leadership Institute in March.

For five years, LCI supported PR/HYLI in two ways. We ensured that regional training session content aligned to standards, built students’ leadership capacity and deepened their thinking and skills. We also designed and led a team- and skills-building project for the 200+ students who attend the weekend Institute. All projects were designed to be authentic, impactful and relevant, providing students with critical skills and leadership experience to inspire them and help them grow into their potential.

Our March 2017 Saturday event centered on empowering students to use the arts to effect change in their community and in the world. Students preselected one of three artistic media: visual arts, songwriting, and dance. Upon arrival, they brainstormed significant issues that impacted their community and own lives and selected the themes that would be further explored

Using the Arts to Build Community in a Time of Political Change

The conference center room looked as if an arts and crafts supply store had burst inside it. Colored paper, scissors, glue sticks, and newspaper lay scattered around every square foot. There was a loud hum of activity – roughly seventy-five Hispanic-American high school students from all over New York State were sitting here, focused intensely on their artwork. Within three hours, the seventy-five students would combine their art to create one cohesive mural, focused on exploring themes of discrimination, adaptation, and inequality.

Three girls, Anjelica, Laura, and Mariana, sat with their heads close together, talking ,cutting, and gluing. Like many of the students here, they were discussing the current political climate in the United States and were considerably anxious about the rhetoric used by our current President about Latino immigrants.

“People think we’re criminals, drug addicts, rapists, and we don’t contribute anything,” Mariana reflected as she sketched a face with pencil on a piece of paper. The other two agreed. They pondered how to characterize this problem in their art while also showing the more positive sides of being Latino.

The three students also struggled with the idea that they weren’t “good enough” at art to create something worthwhile to contribute to the mural. 

“I used to be really into art,” Laura recalled, “but then when I got older I got self-conscious about it. I feel like my [artwork] is really childish.” She also worried that her English wasn’t strong enough for her to present her ideas in front of all the conference attendees. 

Mariana and Anjelica responded by suggesting “We could do the English version [of our presentation], and you could do the Spanish version!” Laura enthusiastically agreed, and they returned to the question of what they wanted to create for the mural, focusing on “adaptation.” 

All three girls wanted to use visual art to show the challenge of being caught between two cultures, two languages, and two sets of expectations. After a short period of brainstorming, each had an idea they were happy with. 

Mariana decided: “My face is going to have a lot of little faces in it, with different skin tones and different nationalities, to show that I can be many things and not perfectly fit into what people expect of me.”

Anjelica opted for something different: “My face is going to have an inner face to show how I am en casa [at home] and an outer face to show how I am afuera [outside in the world].”

Laura’s idea was inspired by the Argentinian flag pin on her backpack: “My face is going to be made of a lot of little squares representing the colors of flags of Spanish speaking countries. Because we come from many different places, but we are one.”

After forty-five minutes of cutting, gluing, and drawing, all the students including the three young women were ready to place their artwork on the mural backdrop to create one cohesive piece of art. The students pondered, debated, and moved pieces around, explaining their thinking to each other. At last, by 5pm it was finished and ready to be displayed.

cohesive piece of art

All two-hundred and fifty of the students and delegation leaders attending the PR/HYLI conference gathered around the artwork, so that they could listen to three student representatives present the framework and meaning behind the mural’s different components. Afterwards, they left anonymous post-its on their artwork, reflecting on how it had made them think and feel. Below are some of the more poignant examples:

“I really liked the stereotype section because I face some of those same stereotypes every single day. I like how it made me not feel alone because other people, sadly, suffer the same fate.”

“Powerful! The art resonates within you and inspires you to educate others about it.”

“Somos muchos pero todos unidos somos uno – The Latino community is the largest minority and knowing we can come together shows we can make a change.”

“This makes me proud of being who I am because it proves that even through the darkness and negativity we are strong and can make beauty of it.”

At the closing of the conference, a student stood up to say: “Out of the four years I’ve been doing this conference, this year I’ve made the most friendships with people from all over New York State. This felt magical. I wish this could happen all over the country… we are a family.”

Another student added: “All the people trying to say how Latinos are bad and illegals and add nothing to this country… I wish they could be here tonight. To see how strong we are, how much all of us can accomplish in just one day.”

In this current moment of political upheaval in the United States, educators and school leaders are wondering how to best support students of color and immigrant students. The community building, creativity, collaboration, and empowerment that students took part in at the 2017 New York State PR/HYLI conference are one powerful answer to that question.

(All names are pseudonyms)