Using their voices: New American youth share their ideas for a welcoming and supportive Concord

By JAMIE L. COSTA

Monitor staff

Published: 09-18-2023 11:22 AM

Creating a welcoming space for New American and refugee youth to share their lived experiences, both good and bad, is the first step in finding a sense of belonging in the Concord community.

On Saturday morning, dozens of kids and adults in the community gathered inside the City Wide Community Center to share their thoughts and listen to others. Project S.T.O.R.Y founder Charm Emiko started the non-profit with the mission of supporting and empowering New American and refugee youth by hosting leadership events to help them develop their character and find their purpose.

“These young people here today are our future and it should be celebrated and supported that they are here and brave enough to talk about these issues and share these ideas with us,” Emiko said. “There are not very many places in our community where they have a chance or a space like this where they can come and express themselves.”

Starting off the morning’s programs, Emiko first called on the school-aged kids introduce themselves to the group and present ideas to make the community more supportive and welcoming. High school students Esha Camacho and Shanmei Zeng then led the group through a series of circle activities.

In their efforts to make the community more inclusive and break down barriers, Camacho started a volunteer dance class for New Americans while Zeng launched a club at Concord High School for students to learn about their cultural backgrounds in America, discuss real world experiences and problems they’ve faced with an eye toward possible solutions.

“This is important not only for CHS but for all schools in the district,” Zeng said. “I was shocked to learn, as a Chinese American, that people were being enslaved in California and the Western world and we were not taught about that. In our club, we talk about our cultures and backgrounds and how we want them to be presented [in education].”

Other kids, like Pratima Sharma and Keza Leanna, discussed racism they’ve experienced as students in Concord, while Ishimwe Mugisha presented his solutions to racism – more diversity in schools, better access to transportation and educating teachers.

“Racism is a big problem in our community and every day, there is a problem in our school district,” Sharma and Leanna said together as part of their presentation. “To stop this, we need to educate our peers, our youth and our teachers. Sometimes, educators don’t care about what we have to say. What is this teaching young kids when adults are the ones acting like this?”

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Joining everyone in a circle of chairs, Camacho and Zeng led the group through a series of activities focused on community bonding, teamwork building and vulnerability by asking them about their emotions when they face someone unkind, one thing they should do when they are in such a situation and something kind they’ve done in recent days.

Through the exercises, Camaco and Zeng explained that without getting to know someone, a person shouldn’t be judged or categorized based on their age, the way they look or where they come from. By doing a kind gesture for someone else, individuals can promote kindness and positive change.

At the end of the circle group, Camacho and Zeng asked for solutions and suggestions to further engage the community, promote diversity and help New American youth overcome barriers. Some suggestions included more group gatherings and listening sessions, sports tournaments, volunteering and donating, getting young people into leadership positions.

“Every person in this room has the power to help somebody or essentially change the world. It can be from one compliment, it can be from one comment, it can be a five minute conversation with someone that might change them,” Emiko said. “Even if you’re that one person, you have the power to unify everybody so that we can all come together, talk about solutions and find ways to make everyone feel good, supported and accepted.”

She ended the listening group with a quote from Alice Walker.

“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”

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