Five years ago, the big headlines were about gangs forming in our schools, about fights between black and Latino students. I live about a mile from Chapel Hill High School, in North Carolina, USA. The choice seemed clear – pay for private school, install an alarm system, and hide in the basement – or be part of a solution.
I decided to be part of a solution. I had volunteered with Latino organizations for several years, so I expanded my work to include Latino youth. After we got to know each other, the youth members and I discussed several ideas for ways they could engage their peers in improving the community. We came up with Pa’lante – an organization whose name in English means “Let’s Roll!” – in which Latino youth learn how to become productive, successful leaders.
When we started Pa’lante, I had no idea what I would discover. I had no idea that hundreds of Latino families in our community live in dilapidated trailer parks filled with prostitutes and drug dealers, many of them right in the middle of town. I had no idea many wonderful opportunities for youth were closed to immigrants – and that American-born Latino youth were often reluctant enter into activities where their friends were not welcome. I had no idea that an innocent online perusal of the local newspaper could stop you cold when you came across reader comments asserting that you and your family were criminals, responsible for all of America’s problems, and that killing you would be appropriate.
I’ve learned through my work with Pa’lante that parents and other caring adults are absolutely essential to helping teens succeed in school. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Hispanic students are three times more likely to drop out of high school than non-Hispanic white students. The North Carolina Society of Latino Professionals looked at the problem here and found that Latino teens drop out of school not only when they are doing poorly academically, but also when they do not feel they are part of the community.
In the last few years, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City School system has made great strides in serving these youths academically. But when the teens leave the school building, where do they belong?
According to our youth members, the most important thing that Pa’lante provides is a place where they feel comfortable and at home. But almost without realizing it, by participating in Pa’lante, they’ve also learned how to make themselves at home all over town. Every Friday afternoon on WCOM in Carrboro, the youth interview guests about local programs and resources their families can use. Working with other non-profits, they engage the Latino community in local traditions, helping imbue them with a Latino flavor. They talk about their travels to museums, universities and state parks, introducing their peers and families to North Carolina’s wonderful resources. And whenever I visit one of our high schools, the welcome I receive from the Latino students makes it clear that Pa’lante has inspired many of them to appreciate their heritage while persevering in their new culture.
Pa’lante youth have come to learn that their success depends on their individual contribution. Guests who visit a Pa’lante event or participate in a radio interview, always leave impressed with the youths’ commitment, courage and creativity, and eager to work with them again.
Just as parents must let go of their children to allow them to fully realize themselves, I must let go of the director position to allow new leaders to emerge and take the organization to the next level. We’ve already begun this process with small steps, forming subcommittees of youths and mentors to handle certain tasks such as member recruitment, and collaborating with other organizations that can provide resources and advice. The process is continuing as we define the director’s job and seek funds to fill the position. I plan to stay involved behind the scenes, but I’m looking forward to seeing where the new drivers will go.
Students from different ethnic backgrounds are getting along much better in school today, thanks to many individuals who decided to be part of the solution. We have to keep going. I urge you to become a partner in advocacy, and help make our community a place where all youth feel they belong.
If you would like to join in Pa’lante’s efforts, please contact Laura Wenzel at 919 619-1023 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Written by Laura Wenzel