Embracing culture and roots: How UnidosUS Affiliate Sociedad Latina develops the next generation of changemakers
Talking to changemaker Everett Baez, it is easy to hear the impact UnidosUS Affiliate Sociedad Latina has had on him: “It allowed me to embrace my culture.”
Since middle school, Everett has been part of this organization, participating in their Quien Soy Yo program, a key component of their efforts to develop young Latinx leaders.
Now a biology major in college, Everett started his journey of leadership by becoming a youth community organizer at Sociedad Latina, and then entering their music program. He wanted to feel more connected to his Hispanic roots, and Sociedad Latina was the place to do it.
By Stephanie Presch and Beatriz Paniego-Béjar, Content Specialists, UnidosUS
The 2019 UnidosUS Family Strengthening Awardee, Sociedad Latina, is a pillar of the Latino community in Boston, as they have been serving from their headquarters in Roxbury, Massachusetts, for the past 50 years. Sociedad Latina has the distinction of being the oldest Latino-serving organization in its area, it is also one of the few local organizations where Latino youth can access culturally relevant programs. This is particularly the case for Latino youth living in the United States who, like Everett, want to learn about their Hispanic roots: “Juan taught me the history of Hispanic music, and opened my eyes and my interest to music,” Everett says of Juan Maldonado, program director at Sociedad Latina.
Everett wanted to learn how to play guitar and the bass to make is father proud: his dad is a bachatero—he sings and plays the guitar. Thanks to Sociedad Latina, Everett is now not only able to play the guitar, but he also feels more connected with his culture and his family.
Sociedad Latina sees it as their mission to create a generation of Latino leaders who are “confident, competent, self-sustaining, and proud of their cultural heritage.” By fusing art with civics, Sociedad Latina provides a space for Latinx youth to connect with their culture, while also learning about how to become a changemaker in their area. And from distributing flyers, to doing presentations in the community, to speaking with his city council, that’s exactly what this student has become: a changemaker thanks to Sociedad Latina’s support on “how to speak out and how to speak in public,” Everett explains.
Because of this UnidosUS Affiliate, Everett saw the chance of reaching out for new opportunities, and he became a youth leader ambassador for Sociedad Latina, attending last year’s UnidosUS’s Changemakers Summit in Washington, DC.
“I’m not alone in this”
“Sociedad Latina helped me have the courage to speak for my community, to have a voice,” Everett says, and the 2019 Changemakers Summit showed him that he’s not alone in this fight: “Going to DC last year brought to scale the scope of Sociedad Latina’s work. The Changemakers Summit helped me realize how big that vision is and how other people are doing it.”
The UnidosUS Changemakers Summit, which will take place March 23–25 this year, brings together aspiring activists and community leaders committed to advocating for Latinos. The Summit trains attendees on advocacy skills in Washington, DC, and ends with a visit to Capitol Hill to meet with their members of Congress.
Everett was impressed with the whole event, from how professional it looked, to the setup, to the speakers, and the connections he was able to make with youth leaders like himself from all over the country. He loved seeing the diversity, “people with different backgrounds, from different places that share the same goal,” he says. “It is definitely worth going if you like to learn how important it is for is for us to use our voice.”
Poised for leadership
Sociedad Latina, along with the Coalition of Schools Educating Boys of Color, Boston Student Advisory Council, and Mission Hill Youth Collaborative, work locally to develop the leadership skills of the youth who live in their neighborhoods.
As part of that development, youth at the organization have been connected to Latinx leaders on a national level. For example, in May 2018, UnidosUS President and CEO Janet Murguía met with youth at Sociedad Latina. During her meeting, Murguía heard concerns over the lack of affordable housing, the prevalence of racism, and the gun violence that affected the neighborhood.
Throughout the discussion, students praised Sociedad Latina for giving them a place to learn and grow that was shielded from the outside world.
As Murguía left, the students realized that they had the tools to create change in their communities. “It was inspiring to have her here,” Everett shares. “She us made see that we can keep fighting and keep reaching high. She was an example of what we can be and made me see that we can become whatever we set our mind to.” Everett has taken that lesson with him in his next step after high school, and he’s now in college studying biology because he wants to become a surgeon to help people. “Sociedad Latina is assisting me figure out the next steps on transferring to med school: it’s part of being an alumni.”
Everett sounds hopeful. The learning he’s gotten at Sociedad Latina, the opportunity of meeting and speaking with Murguía, the experience of attending the Changemakers Summit, made him realize his potential and see a bright future ahead. Everett shares all his experiences with his family, and “they really like it because they have a voice but they can’t use it, so they look at me to be the voice for them: it makes them happy, it gives them that hope,” he describes.
The Quien Soy Yo project is not only geared toward providing Latinx youth with leadership skills, but it also takes into account the unique experiences of immigrant and English learner (ELs) youth so that the program is accessible to all in the community.
For example, more than 65% of the youth that Sociedad Latina interacts with through their programs are ELs. The program staff take this fact into account, and are both trained on best practices for ELs, and facilitate the program in both English and Spanish.
Many young people in the community have also experienced some form of trauma due to immigration status, whether their own or someone in their family’s. The Quien Soy Yo program also takes these experiences into account, and utilizes culture and history to enable Latinx youth to see these aspects of their identity as a source of strength. Eighty-five percent of youth in the programs feel more pride in their culture, just as Everett expresses.
“Sociedad Latina is home for many Boston youth,” Juan Maldonado explains. “A home where youth are embraced holistically and challenged to overcome obstacles with hard work and dedication. We form authentic relationships with our youth by helping them explore their heritage, discover their identity, voice, and develop their creative minds.”
Everett exemplifies how youth can develop into changemakers. As Maldonado puts it: “Our youth are the leaders; they are the teachers and we the adults are learning.”