February 10, 2014

Breaking A Brick Wall

by Swearer Center

Every January, 35 Brown students live together in a church in downtown Providence to explore and engage with local issues such as homelessness, healthcare, urban education, refugees, and environmental justice. Unlike many break projects that focus on direct service, Winter Break Projects focuses on investigation and collaborative learning. Here a student reflects on a day spent in the "Labor and Immigration" project.

This entire week has been so incredibly enlightening. We've explored a lot of different barriers undocumented students face from human rights to employment opportunities, but what we explored today really hit home for me: education.

We met with the executive director of Blackstone Academy, a charter school in Pawtucket. She was an incredibly engaging, passionate woman, but what really struck me was the story she told about this one student who was an immigrant, high-achieving, all-around amazing person. Come junior year, college prep time, it came out that he was undocumented. Concurrently, a class at Blackstone Academy was doing a project on immigration which led to an awakening of students coming out as undocumented.

As an immigrant myself, I identify with many of the barriers we've learned about including language and being among the first in my family to go to college. Many of the students at Blackstone Academy actually from my place of birth, Colombia. It really saddened me to realize that I've lived a parallel life to these students. We were probably raised with the same values and raised to have the same strong work ethic, only they've been barred from the opportunities I've had because of some arbitrary status.

When I was growing up, my dad would always tell me "Todo en la vida tiene solución": Everything in life has a solution. This has basically been my life philosophy ever since in tandem with "this too shall pass." Up until this point, it had been true. The more we delved into these issues though, the more I felt like I had found the first counterexample.

Social justice work, overall, I've found to have a pretty high burnout. Often times it can feel like trying to break down a brick wall with plastic cutlery. Meeting with the people we have though, has been truly inspiring. What to me would have been the first detrimental counterexample to my life philosophy, has actually motivated millions to push back in a nationwide movement for comprehensive immigration reform. A student we talked to today actually testified in front of the Board of Governors for Higher Education. The executive director of Blackstone Academy partnered with Dorcas International Institute and an immigration lawyer, going above and beyond to help meet the needs of her students. The director of the College Advising Corps plans strategically so that even in the face of uncertainty with her undocumented students, she is prepared.

Though this week was emotionally taxing, it was incredibly refreshing to be surrounded by people who are so committed to the work they were doing with such positive energy. It was really a great way to start the semester.

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