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A Day in the Volunteer Life: Anacostia Watershed Society

An innovative, environmentally-friendly workout idea: cleaning up a garbage-bag-worth of cigarette butts. A single butt only weighs about 1 gram, but once you pick up hundreds of them, they start to add up to some serious bicep strengthening. That’s how I celebrated Earth Day 2019 with the Anacostia Watershed Society on April 13th.

As a fellow with Catalogue for Philanthropy, I have the honor of working with and learning about over 400 locally-based nonprofits in the Greater Washington Region. So when my school’s community service committee asked me to arrange a volunteer opportunity for myself and other American University students for Earth Day, I knew where to look. Time to join the #Trashtag Challenge!

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Anacostia Watershed Society’s annual event engages nearly 2000 volunteers for 44 sites around the Anacostia River. My site’s neighborhood in Anacostia was not directly next to the river but in the river’s wider watershed area; whenever it rains, all of the trash in the residential area flows into the river, hurting wildlife and the ecosystem.

Fellow volunteers and I met at We Act Radio Station, a hip local institution and de facto community center. I sat among piles of books from their ongoing book drive. We were welcomed by Stacy and Aroni, two friendly and enthusiastic Anacostia Watershed Society staff members and our team leaders for the day. They gave us gloves to protect our hands, picker-uppers to prevent back strain, and matching t-shirts to look cool and groovy.

It was a beautiful Saturday morning to go for a stroll and pick up garbage. We made a circle around several blocks, carrying a blue bag for recyclables and a white bag for general trash. About 70% of what I picked up were cigarette butts. In public discourse, we acknowledge how cigarettes choke our bodies, but not enough about how they choke the environment too. What made me saddest were butts littered on the ground not 3 feet away from public trash cans.
It was rewarding work. Quite a few residents stopped to thank us and a few even added some trash to my bag. I was pleased too by how social it was; the steady and relaxing pace of our walk through the neighborhood easily facilitated conversations with new and interesting people. Our crew even had a beauty queen! If you want to meet new people, explore a new neighborhood, and make a difference in the environment, I strongly recommend signing up for clean up events. There’s no better way to celebrate the new springtime weather with friends than going and picking up a bag of butts.

 

Written by Nancy Erickson, Nonprofit Programs Fellow at the Catalogue for Philanthropy

Independent Movie Theatres are the Stuff Community is Made Of

I’ve always loved movies. I come by it almost genetically. My father taught film production at various universities during my childhood, and I grew up on a steady diet of indie, niche, and foreign films: The Last Unicorn and The Point probably being the two most memorable and most watched in our household.

But it was in Argentina, on an academic research grant, that I fell in love with film. Not “movies,” but film itself as a medium.

I went to Argentina with a single, albeit complex question: how does a society heal from trauma on a massive scale? Argentina suffered a brutal military dictatorship from 1976 until 1983, during which time over 30,000 “leftist rebels” were “disappeared” by the regime. In 2007, when I was doing my research, the nation was still grappling with the fallout. For a while after my arrival, I posed that single question to everyone I met, and at first the answer surprised me, until I’d gotten the answer so many times it couldn’t be coincidence. Most Argentines I spoke to directed me to a single film: La historia oficial (The Official Story).

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La historia oficial tells the story of Alicia, a high school history teacher who is leading a comfortable life with her husband, Roberto, a businessman with ties to the military, and their adopted daughter. When Alicia begins to wonder about the identity of her daughter’s birth parents, she finds herself suspecting that she may be the child of people abducted or killed by the government. She is faced with an impossible choice: live knowing her child is missed by her real family or give up the thing she loves most in the world.

The film came out as Argentines were first learning that, during the dictatorship, children had been abducted from rebel parents and given as rewards to those loyal to the regime. As a country, they were struggling to cope politically and legally with the issue. But the film gave the country a glimpse into the individual, personal heartbreak obscured by the headlines: that real mothers, both biological and adoptive, were being faced with a no-win scenario. And in making the political personal, the film kick-started a national healing process.

What made me fall in love with film was understanding that it is so much more than entertainment or even education. Film is, to my mind, the most visceral way to tell stories, and humans need to tell stories. It’s how we understand ourselves, our families, our communities, and ultimately, our entire society. Stories define our nation, our religious traditions, and even our most intimate unit: the family. Those stories tell us who we are.

While I have been, from my youth, a great believer in the power of film, after my time in Argentina, I see it as a vital necessity to any community.

But film in the U.S. today has a problem. Our media is evermore mediated, and the stories that need to be told aren’t getting out there. Six companies own almost all media: and that’s not just film, that’s news, television, online portals, and more. The barometer they use on funding film projects is what will make the most money, not what stories need to be told. So they put their faith in what they know: the same old directors and regurgitated plotlines. And since the studios hold all the cards, they can charge gigantic licensing fees, ask for 90 or 100% of a theater’s ticket sales, and even take a cut of concessions sales. The only way to survive in that context is to be a giant corporation with pull of your own, and even then to survive, the multiplexes charge prices so high that film is becoming increasingly out of reach for the average American (whose income is decreasing).

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That’s why, in 2015, when I met Dr. Caitlin McGrath, I was immediately hooked on her vision to turn the Old Greenbelt Theatre into a nonprofit, arthouse cinema. Revitalize this a historic gem of a theater by: showing films that make people think; creating a space where the community can come together to digest, unpack, and process these films; and do everything possible to make these films accessible to everyone?regardless of age, income, or ability. It’s what every community needs, and we are beyond lucky to have this resource in Prince George’s County.

The Old Greenbelt Theatre is run as a nonprofit because we are mission-driven, not profit-driven. As a nonprofit, we can solicit the support of our community so that when we lose money showing a film (which we regularly do since studios can demand such a deep cut of our profits) we can still exist to screen more films that our community wants or needs to see. If we were worried about a wide profit margin, we wouldn’t have brought you Transit, If Beale Street Could Talk, Boy Erased or even First Man.

Independent movie theaters are closing down all across the country. They can’t compete in a corporate world that is cannibalizing the very locales that show their films. But there are important movies being made that need to be seen and not on a smartphone (as much as I applaud Netflix and Amazon for picking up the mantle of independent filmmaking). Film is at its most powerful when witnessed in community.

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That’s what we’re doing here at the Old Greenbelt Theatre. As a nonprofit, we bring you films from screenwriters and directors outside the mainstream. We provide a place to experience these films in community, and I truly do mean experience, because we follow up so many of our screenings with guest speakers and Q&A sessions. It doesn’t pay to do guest speakers. It’s something we do because it’s important.

We’re a nonprofit because we serve a vital role in our community. We aren’t providing bread or shelter, that’s very true. But in many ways, we are creating a safe haven. A place where people of all walks of life can come, see themselves on the big screen, and have their experience understood by the community. We’re helping tell the stories our community needs to hear, and stories are the very stuff of which community is made.

By Kelly McLaughlin, Director of Marketing & Development, Friends of Greenbelt Theatre

What I’ve Learned from 7 Months of Serving Homeless and Housing-Insecure Women in DC

AVODAHGRAs I finished my senior year at Wesleyan University, one of the things I was most afraid of for my post-grad life was losing the environment in which everyone is eager to share the learning process with their friends and peers. The desire to preserve that, and the importance of my Jewish communities and experiences to me, is what led me to Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps.

Avodah is based on studying the issues and approaches of our own service work as a way to navigate the centuries-old question central to Jewish life that is: how do Jews meet our obligation to serve? To do this, my fellow 23 Avodah Corps Members in DC and I are placed at leading anti-poverty organizations across the District – where we gain hands-on work experience and learn about the root causes and effects of poverty in this country. We work with individuals facing challenges related to healthcare access, food insecurity, housing insecurity, our immigration and refugee systems, and much more, as we also consider how to best organize the Jewish community toward a more just and equitable future.

For the past seven months, I’ve been serving as a program associate at N Street Village. N Street Village empowers homeless and low-income women in Washington, D.C. to claim their highest quality of life by offering a broad spectrum of services, housing, and advocacy in an atmosphere of dignity and respect.

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Before I started Avodah, I was worried that my position and responsibilities would be too far removed from the macro-level social justice that I had spent most of college thinking about and cultivating my skills toward; I was nervous that I would not only miss reading, writing, and critically thinking about social justice in these ways, but that I wouldn’t be qualified for the direct service work that our clients needed me to do. Within the first few months I definitely faced a steep learning curve, but have also since found that I continue to learn more than I could have ever imagined about the lived experiences at the heart of the issues that I care about. This has been due in part to all of the training and learning opportunities that my placement provides its staff – especially its Avodah Corps Members and social work interns.

One of the areas of learning that has profoundly impacted me this year is trauma-informed care. Trauma informed care is a holistic approach to providing services, based in an understanding of and responsiveness to the impact of trauma. What fascinates me about this framework is that trauma-informed care is more about changing systems than providing brief interventions to navigate traumatic experiences: it’s more about how a person who has experienced homelessness feels in a space that is intended to provide care, rather than about agencies checking off boxes of predetermined treatment requirements.

Learning and exploring the principles of trauma-informed care has helped me imagine concrete ways in which the choices that I make at work can be empowering for clients, even when challenges within the systems can be endlessly disempowering for them. Having an understanding of this holistic approach to care, I’m able to better recognize symptoms of mental health instability as related to the traumatic experiences of homelessness and being deprived of basic human needs. Most importantly, this framework helps me as a staff person to focus on the sheer resilience at the core of human responses to stress and crisis, reduce the shame and stigma associated by homelessness and/or other crises, and ideally, help survivors feel respected, connected, and hopeful about their recovery.

Though I describe trauma-informed care as systemic, and at its core it is all about a widespread change to social work and the standards behind providing services, where it really manifests are the personal experiences I have with clients and my coworkers. In the fall, our N Street Village CEO wrote a letter to the organization’s staff in the wake of multiple acts of white supremacist violence – from the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh to the murders of Maurice Stallard and Vickie Lee Jones in Louisville, Kentucky. She wrote that in our work at N Street Village, “every day we have multiple invitations to challenge our implicit biases and to seek interpersonal justice. We are invited to acknowledge our well-worn habits of mind which automatically see an ‘other’ — and instead to exercise new habits of heart which see our commonality and which instinctively reach for connection.”

Having experienced this work for the past seven months, and getting to see its impact, I’m so grateful to my workplace and to Avodah as a whole for bringing the interpersonal connections to the foreground in my understanding of justice. I can only hope that through the rest of the year and beyond, my fellow Corps members and I never stop finding ways to fold that interpersonal justice into greater action and movements for progress.

 

About the Author:

Sammi Aibinder is an Avodah Jewish Service Corps Member. She currently works as a program associate at N Street Village, which empowers homeless and low-income women in Washington, D.C. Ms. Aibinder is a graduate of Wesleyan University.

 

Young Artists of America: Local Student Performers Go Beyond the Stage with New Grant

One of Catalogue for Philanthropy’s 2018-19 Best Nonprofits, Young Artists of America(YAA), has launched a new initiative thanks to a grant from Greater Washington Community Foundation’s Donors InVesting in the Arts (DIVAS) Fund. This initiative will run in tandem with YAA’s preparation for their spring production of Les Miserable–which will feature over 300 students and a full orchestra–on March 16th at the Music Center at Strathmore.

First combined rehearsal for Les Miserables at Youth Artists of America

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Titled after one of the most rousing songs in the score, YAA’s “Hear the People Sing!” project will examine the themes in Les Miserables to inspire students to make connections between the social challenges in Victor Hugo’s time and those in today’s world. Whereas young people during the French Revolution saw injustice between populations and classes and decided to take action through insurgencies, this project will empower YAA students to use non-violent means to identify the injustices seen both in Les Miserables‘ and in modern time, including immigration, class inequity, gender-based oppression, and imperfect justice. Peaceful methods of engagement and dialogue will be modeled by teachers and encouraged throughout the musical theatre rehearsal process, as well as throughout the social media component of the project.

Specifically, YAA artistic staff will lead student group reflection and social media journaling, primarily via Instagram posts. YAA staff will also create and post a “students voices” video of final lessons learned that will be made available on their YouTube channel, and an edited version displayed on screen before the performance to enable audience members to participate with as well. Community members can follow along with the project by searching #HearthePeopleSingYAA and #WhoAmIYAA on social media platforms.

“It is YAA’s hope that this project will deepen students’ understanding of the material we are performing, as well as spark additional dialogue among their peers about contemporary issues,” says YAA’s Artistic Director, Rolando Sanz. “We are incredibly grateful to The Community Foundation’s DIVAS.”

The final production on March 16th will take place at 3pm and tickets are on sale now. What will make this performance artistically unique will be the scope of this student collaboration, including a full 60-piece youth symphonic orchestra, Seneca Valley High School Chorus of 150, and 80 singers/dancers/actors from YAACompany and YAAjunior. www.yaa.org/spring-production.

 

The After-School All-Stars at Deloitte

Earlier this month, middle school students from John Hayden Johnson and Charles Hart took a field trip to the Deloitte office in Arlington, VA. This excursion was just one of many unique opportunities made possible by the After-School All-Stars Washington DC, a local charity that provides free after-school programs for low-income middle school students. The trip to Deloitte was part of the Career Exploration Opportunities Initiative, a program focused on exposing students to attainable and attractive career paths that they may not have been aware of, otherwise.

As the middle schoolers arrived at the Arlington office, they weren’t sure what to expect. They wanted to know, “What does it mean to be a consultant?” Because many of the students were (like most Americans) unfamiliar with Deloitte, they were eager to hear more about the company from the perspective of dedicated staff members. They were greeted by Maddie Devine, a Deloitte Business Technology Analyst who also graciously serves as the Event Lead for the After-School All-Stars. After a dinner provided by the company, students were given a full tour of the facility that included a breakdown of every department. Deloitte staff members spoke about their current projects, and the students were introduced to the newly renovated Deloitte Digital Studio.

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The tour culminated in a group activity where students were split into teams and presented with a mock case study, in which they had the opportunity to play the role of ‘Deloitte consultant’ for a notable client: Coca-Cola. The student groups had impassioned dialogues, and then submitted proposals on how Coke might expand its reach in global markets. Then, the groups had the opportunity to pitch their ideas to a few Deloitte staffers. Ranging from athlete endorsements, door-to-door product delivery services, new flavors, and even Coke-sponsored disaster-relief shelters in the developing world, the students’ ideas were amazingly creative and comprehensive. This exercise was impactful: it encouraged the students to be resourceful, to think outside the box, and it served as a wonderful conceptualization of what it means to work for an organization like Deloitte. All at once, the group understood what it means to be a consultant!

After-School All-Stars DC is privileged to have Jared Townshend, a Deloitte staff member, as an advisory board member. Jared acts as the official sponsor for ASAS DC within Deloitte, and is the Managing Director for the company within the Government and Public Services team. Together with Maddie, Jared sent the All Stars off in style with parting gifts, courtesy of Deloitte. Staffers posed for a photo with the group, and passed out hot cocoa as students left. The ASAS DC partnership with Deloitte has been characterized by the warmth and hospitality the students experienced on their field trip, and it is greatly appreciated.

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This trip to Deloitte exposed the All Star students to a career path worth aspiring to. The students left the office full of excitement, expressing admiration for the dynamic work that the consultants take on to meet client-needs. The students all saw themselves serving in similar roles in future careers, and said they’d be proud to work for the organization.

As always, ASAS DC will continue to provide these events to the students we serve. In this way, we will work to expand their worldview, increase their self-esteem, and help them understand the kind of success they are capable of achieving.

 

Lucky Dog Animal Rescue: My Story

People often ask me how I got involved in dog rescue. The story is surprising, even to me. Dog rescue was not something I had planned on doing, and was not something I grew up wanting to do. I fell into it while living in DC because I was lonely – I wanted a friend, even if that friend had four legs instead of two.

I found Sparky after a lot of googling. His photo showed him trotting along with a pink ball in his mouth. His bio said he loved playing fetch and soccer with his family. It was love at first sight (at least, for me).

Sparky - Formatted 2Sparky was living in Richmond, and it wasn’t important to me that there were rescues to be found in my own backyard. Sparky was it – my dog. But after coordinating a time to pick Sparky up, I began to have second thoughts: was I really up for caring for a living being? I couldn’t even keep plants alive.

Sparky was clearly overwhelmed when I first picked him up. His tail was tucked, and he was shaking with nerves. If I had known then what I know now, I may have not moved forward with the rescue. Nervous Sparky deserved better than a first-time dog owner: he needed someone who knew what they were doing, or maybe someone who had other dogs to give him confidence. But he got me.

I loaded Sparky, along with his pink ball, dog food, and crate, into my car and drove back to DC. Despite Sparky’s nervousness and my own hesitations, I was getting excited. Sparky and I would have a great time together. We could go on hikes and walks. We’d play fetch. It would be perfect.

Nothing is ever perfect.

For the first 24 hours, we went on multiple long walks, but he didn’t pee. Not once. I called the Rescue frantically, asking if something was wrong with him. They told me to “Just wait. He’ll pee when he’s ready.” Well, he did. On my carpet. Standing next to me.

Later, I decided to take Sparky to a dog park. We were playing fetch and bonding a little, until a car nearby backfired and Sparky bolted. He ran all the way home-crossing two streets with traffic–with me crying the whole way behind him.

After some time had passed, I was ready to give up. My relationship with Sparky was characterized by things I had not anticipated: I was sneezing at home, I had to get up earlier and stay up later, and I was running home at lunch and running back to the office. Everything was different.

Different was scaring me.

Not long after I brought Sparky home, I sat on the floor and called my mom. Trying desperately to hold it together, I told her that I had failed: I wasn’t able to care for the dog, I just couldn’t do it. My mom listened to my litany of troubles. Then, she asked: “Where is Sparky?”

I told her, “He is lying down across from me. He is staring at me. I think he knows I failed.”

“No,” she said, “he is telling you he needs you.”

When I looked back at Sparky, I saw an animal who needed me as much as I needed him. Who, like me, was afraid of “different”, but who, with me, could learn to love it. After some time together, I began to feel Sparky’s unconditional love for me, too.

And that started my journey into rescue.

- Mirah Horowitz
Founder and Executive Director – Lucky Dog Animal Rescue

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All About Community: Encore’s Healthy Play Initiative

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In the spirit of community, sharing, and giving, we want you to hear from four of our teaching artists that work with “the Healthy Play Initiative” (HPI), a program created in 2016 to partner with the Arlington Food Assistance Center (AFAC) to provide enriching creative play for the children of families experiencing food insecurity in Arlington. Read on to find out– from those closest to the program — just what makes HPI so special.

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Mara Stewart, Teaching Artist:“HPI is one of my favorite classes to teach. I feel like I always leave with a smile and a new experience. It has taught me so much about communication. Even when we can’t speak the same language, we are able to create a positive experience and learn from one and another. For most of the kids, this is their first time in a classroom setting. Healthy play focuses on engaging and dynamic activities. We sing, we dance, we color, we play outside, and we learn about healthy food choices. We focus on transitioning from one activity to the next, sharing and expressing ourselves. This program helps us meet kids in the community that we otherwise might not ever get to know. It is an amazing experience to see these children week after week and watch them grow. The first day we meet a child, they often don’t participate or speak- and after a few weeks they blossom. They are engaged, singing, and are excited to come to HPI, and to me–that is the best part.”

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Caolan Eder, Arts Apprentice:“To me, HPI is all about community. The children who participate get a chance to play together in a safe setting and make new friends, learning to cooperate in a group as they prepare for the structured environment of school. The program also helps with communication skills. Many of the children live in non-English-speaking homes and struggle to connect with people outside of their families, so finding new ways of interacting really expands their worlds. I remember well how one child’s whole face lit up when she and I discovered that we spoke a common language and could explain ourselves to each other. The parents and caregivers build community through HPI, as well. In addition to giving them a breather from the responsibilities that come with raising a family, the program allows adults to form a network of people with shared experiences.”

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Madaline Langston, Education Programs Manager:“HPI has made me more patient. Most of the children that I have had the pleasure of serving are learning English and are trying to do their very best. In the classroom, we focus on listening, focus, and engaging students’ motor skills. HPI is a way to provide social interaction with peers. They learn how to make friends. When I first meet most of our HPI participants, I’ve noticed that they usually only interact with their families or friends. I recall one young boy who had just arrived from Peru and did not speak English. I used my cell phone to translate Spanish to him and he smiled and then slowly pronounced Spanish words to me and I spoke to him in English. So cute and funny at the same time. From that point on, he came to the classes with a smile on his face.”

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Alana Gibson, Arts Apprentice:“ I’ve become more attentive to the children as people and not just children who are unaware of their surroundings and circumstances. HPI is such a meaningful program because, for the most part, this is the only exposure to English speakers that the children get if they don’t go to classes. It’s also meaningful to Encore because it makes us more culturally aware and understanding, which helps us standout in the region and theater community. A few weeks ago, at the Arlington Mill location, we had a pair of siblings that came in because they didn’t have school. Mara, the lead teacher, told me that just a year ago, these siblings spoke almost no English. I was completely shocked because if she hadn’t told me that, I would have never known. So I’m sure that them coming to the program in combination with their language class helped with this amazing feat! In the classroom, I try to focus on being caring, but also keeping some structure. Most of the children are in the house all week with a parent so I want them to have a chance to run around, but I also want to start to help them get the understanding of how a classroom would work at a real preschool. I’m hopeful that HPI plays a real role in preparing these kids for school as they grow older.”

It’s through the generous support of our donors that we are able to bring programs like “the Healthy Play Initiative” to our community here in Arlington. We believe that this type of outreach and engagement is essential for our mission of bringing “Theatre by kids, for kids” to all types of children and families. The empathy, problem solving, and creativity born in the classroom extends far beyond remaining active in the arts–the skills gained through theatre education can last a lifetime.

Shout Mouse Press – Education: A Dream without Borders

“This is the story of how I got out of a hole.”

This is the opening line of an incredible story written and illustrated by Erminia, a young immigrant from El Salvador. At fifteen, Erminia’s mother gave her a stark choice: stay with the family but endure a life of poverty, violence, and a bleak future, or embark on a dangerous journey alone to America in pursuit of a good education and a better life.

Despite her love for her family, Erminia decided her only choice was to leave El Salvador so she could further her education. She spent five days in a detention center in Mexico but persisted. She walked for three days and two nights across the desert– in her socks, with one small bottle of water. After several weeks, she managed to cross the Rio Grande and find her way to the United States.

As Erminia explains, “I want people to understand that we are here because we are fighting for education, for opportunity. We are not criminals. In reality, I’m here fighting for my dreams.”

When Erminia asked her immigration lawyer what she could do to compensate for her services, the lawyer answered with a challenge: become a lawyer herself. Erminia has taken this to heart and is currently a freshman in college, studying to become an immigration lawyer so she can help others find their way out of their own “holes.”

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I met Erminia a few weeks ago at our launch event for Voces sin Fronteras (Voices without Borders) — a remarkable book written and illustrated in graphic novel form by sixteen teenage immigrants from Latin America. Proceeds from the book sales support a scholarship fund for Latino youth immigrants.

Amidst today’s highly charged debate on immigration, this book provides a rare chance to hear directly from youth who are often in the headlines but whose stories aren’t told in full. This collaboration between young people from the Latin American Youth Center (LAYC) in Washington, D.C. and Shout Mouse Press, a nonprofit writing program and publishing house dedicated to amplifying unheard voices, has produced a powerful collection of stories about family, loss, ambition, and change that provide a much-needed human connection to the immigration crisis. These moving personal accounts challenge us and inspire greater empathy for the individuals who leave everything behind for an education.

As Erminia, Rosa, and Sebastian — three of these courageous authors — shared their stories in the back corner of a DC bookstore, my eyes welled up with tears more than once as I listened to the hardships and heartache they endured in search of a better life in this country.

Their quest for a better life that hinged upon the opportunity for a quality education has borne fruit. Erminia, Rosa, and Sebastian are all currently enrolled in college, pursuing their dreams of becoming a lawyer, a doctor, and a graphic designer.

I am the daughter of Chinese immigrants. My father left Taiwan with a few dollars in his pocket and journeyed in a cramped freighter for 52 days to further his education in America. His story is not uncommon, as the desire to educate children for a brighter future is universal. Immigrants from all corners of the globe uproot their lives and leave everything behind with this simple goal in mind.

As former UK Prime Minister and Education Commission Chair Gordon Brown has said: “Potential is best developed, talents best unleashed, and dreams best fulfilled at the point a child and teacher are brought together. Most of all, it is education — our ability to plan and prepare for the future — that gives us hope.”

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Providing this hope to the world’s children should not require the sacrifices that Erminia and countless others have made. What my own children take for granted — a free, quality education — should not be a matter of life or death for so many others.

Today, more than 260 million children are not in school. If the world does not wake up to this tragedy, by 2030, half of the world’s young people — 825 million — will be unprepared for the workplace of the future. We must recognize the full human and economic costs of an uneducated populace, and find the will in developing and donor countries alike to prioritize and increase the funding of education.

Children should not have to choose between their families and an education. They should not have to risk their lives and walk across the desert without shoes to get a place in a decent school. The world must recognize education as a human right, a civil right, and an economic imperative — and act accordingly.

The hopes and dreams sparked by educating hungry young minds know no bounds. As Rosa, the young immigrant from Guatemala studying to be a doctor, writes:

“No matter where you start from, those who dream of the impossible can achieve the unthinkable.”

Lana Wong is the Community Impact and Partnerships Director at Shout Mouse Press.

Mikva Challenge DC: Project Soapbox

In a place like Washington DC, when people think of power and politics, they think of the President, Congress, CEOs, or lobbying chiefs, but Mikva Challenge DC is on a mission to reshape that perception. Mikva DC exists to enhance the expertise and power of young people to create change, and to inform both local and national policy making. Modeled after the successful civic engagement programming developed for youth in Chicago, Mikva Challenge DC develops youth to be empowered, informed, and active citizens who will promote a just and equitable society.

One way Mikva DC students ‘do civics’ is by speaking out on how to address issues in their communities via an annual citywide speech competition called Project Soapbox. This past December, students took to the stage to speak about a range of deeply important topics, like mental health support, LGBTQ discrimination, racism & xenophobia, food deserts, and homelessness.

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One of this year’s competition winners, Nehemiah Jackson, enthralled the room when he proclaimed from his soapbox:

“When I grow up, I want to put an end to this nonsense. I believe that police officers need a punishment for brutality. My solution is for police to have better training on how to deal with the public. Better and longer training would help police understand that people might have mental illnesses or might be nervous when stopped by police. During training police learn state laws, criminal investigations, patrol procedures, firearms training, traffic control, defensive driving, self defense, first aid, and computer skills. But something they don’t learn is how to help people with mental illnesses. Something they don’t learn is how to deal with scared citizens, something they don’t learn is how to handle their own anger. Also, how about we can create non-deadly weapons that don’t kill. It seems to me if you can send Rovers to Mars, have cars that drive themselves, then why can’t we make weapons that don’t kill?”

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After experiencing a day of these incredible speeches, one student remarked: “I am not done in this fight. There are others struggling like I am and our challenges united us. I feel inspired seeing my peers use their stories and identities to fight for change.”

It was not just students and the Mikva DC staff who felt the power in the room. As Jenny Abamu of our local NPR station, WAMU, said: “Though there is only one winner, students didn’t treat the event like a contest. They encouraged each other – judges listened and responded to some impassioned performances by noting resources for students dealing with crises. Many students said they wanted to raise awareness. In this way, they were already winners.”

Mikva Challenge DC’s credo is that young people who do civics will help make the nation become its very best democratic self. And who can argue against that when you hear, see, and experience the vision and power of DC youth for yourself?

La Cocina VA: Eliminating the Barriers to Better Futures

On any given night when you go to a restaurant in the DC metro area, take a quick look at who is preparing your meals, cleaning your tables, or maintaining the restaurant’s facilities. There is a high probability that those individuals are of Hispanic descent. That is because the U.S. restaurant industry is comprised of roughly 2.3 million foreign-born workers. According to the findings of a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census data, U.S. eating and drinking establishments in 2014 employed more foreign-born workers than almost any other industry, second only to the construction sector. One of the biggest challenges for many of these workers is the lack of relevant training and limited English proficiency. This often leaves them stuck in dead-end work with very little room to grow financially. It’s quite a contrast to imagine the trendy vibrant front-end of some DC restaurants versus the ‘back of the house’ where folks are putting in long hours of hard work in the kitchen unable to earn enough to support their families.

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La Cocina VA has seen the dire need to confront this challenge for the workforce in the food and hospitality industry. Since its founding in 2014, La Cocina VA has harnessed the power of food to transform lives and create change for the low-income communities in the Washington D.C. region. We are a nonprofit organization that generates workforce and economic development opportunities for unemployed immigrants, minorities, low-income individuals, and veterans. We provide structured training that helps these individuals obtain real living wage jobs in the food and hospitality industry where they can create a career and become financially independent. At the same time, we are looking to the future of a growing industry, where there’s a huge gap for skilled, motivated, and dependable workers.

During our 4 years of operation, over 100 La Cocina VA graduates have completed the organization’s bilingual culinary training program. Moreover, 85% of those graduates have been placed in steady jobs within the restaurant and hospitality industries. Our vocational and technical training program provides students with instruction in the culinary arts, English language skills, industry certification, and a paid internship that often results in a full-time job.

Consider Karina Herrera, who is presently a line cook at a Hyatt Regency Hotel in the D.C. area. She is a shining example of the program’s success. Five years ago, desperate to find a way to take care of her three young children, she came to La Cocina VA and enrolled in our bilingual culinary program. She currently earns $22/hr and has enrolled in a college culinary arts program subsidized by her employer with the goal of becoming an executive chef. Like most La Cocina VA participants, Karina has overcome extreme hardships.”It’s been a huge help having a bilingual program like this,” Herrera said. “My English has improved a lot and La Cocina VA has given me financial independence. It’s an excellent investment in a better future for me and my kids.”

Before joining La Cocina VA’s training program, 70% of our students were unemployed and 30% were under-employed. Over 90% of our training participants have been women from challenging circumstances, survivors of domestic abuse, human trafficking, chronic unemployment and/or poverty who have now obtained financial independence through our unique training programs.

Our work uplifts those often left behind by our economy–individuals full of potential and capable of incredible transformation when they are provided the appropriate resources and opportunities. There is enormous capacity within our local communities that has gone untapped for far too long.

While La Cocina VA’s roots have been to work closely with the Hispanic community, La Cocina VA is now expanding its programs aggressively in 2019 to serve even more immigrant and minority communities, refugees, and veterans. We are also increasing our efforts to support and train entrepreneurs to create their own small culinary businesses.

As part of a recently announced partnership with Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing (APAH), we will establish the Zero Barriers Training and Entrepreneurship Center (TEC). TEC will be a new 5,000 square foot facility designed to offer services, resources, and support to help eliminate the many barriers our clients face, such as access to child care, financial advice, and counseling. The new facility will also include a culinary small business incubator, a catering service, and a community cafe. TEC will be located in Gilliam Place, APAH’s new affordable housing development in the vibrant Columbia Pike corridor in Arlington, Virginia. La Cocina VA expects to open TEC in late 2019. Through our capital campaign, we have already raised $1.6M of our $2.5M fundraising goal for the construction of the Zero Barriers Training and Entrepreneurship Center, and we are working to raise the remaining amount by the spring of 2019.

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We aim to continue to tap into this undiscovered pool of talent, entrepreneurs, and leaders that exist within our communities, all while helping to solve social issues like unemployment, lack of access to entrepreneurship opportunities, and food insecurity. What are we waiting for? The time to make a change is now.

To learn more about our work and how you can get involved, please contact our CEO Patricia Funegra at patyfunegra@lacocinava.org or visit our website at www.lacocinava.org.