New America

New America

By: Maya Osterman, Lead Facilitator 

With our current political climate, I find myself constantly questioning am I doing enough. I wonder if I am complacent. Why do I not feel anger like others? I am conflicted and saddened…nervous even. Am I doing everything I can including using my privilege to advocate and elevate the voices of the unheard?

Many days I feel like I am definitely not doing enough but on days when I lead Mirror Image Arts’ programs, I always leave grounded in the fact that we are doing real grassroots work. We are, creating space for young people to feel empowered in their own ability to use their voice and actions to make change in their lives and the lives of their community.

One of our newest endeavors has been working with the New America School in Aurora. The mission of The New America Schools is, to empower new immigrants, English language learners, and academically underserved students with the educational tools and support they need to maximize their potential, succeed and live the American dream.

More and more we find ourselves working with students who have immigrated to America with their families in search of a better life. The demographic of our New America program consists of a largely Latino/Latina population and recent Somali immigrants. Our Somali immigrant participants are all female and all wear hijabs. This past week’s program session, we started unpacking what bullying looks like in the their lives; whether it is something they have partaken in either as the person doing the bullying, the person being bullied, or the person witnessing the bullying (Bystander). I gave each group a few minutes to share their stories of bullying. I, then, asked them to pick one story to present to the rest of the class through a style of theatre called Image Theatre – participants create a still picture using their bodies/faces to tell a story.

All three images told a different story of what it is like to be a Muslim female who wears a hijab in America: the uncomfortable and angry person who tries to pull off her hijab, a more modern Muslim judging her for still wearing a hijab even after moving to America, and the push and pull from inside and outside perspectives around who a Muslim woman wearing a hijab should be. As we processed these images one of the girls expressed that this was the first time she had talked about her hijab and her fears now living in this country with anyone outside of her immediate friends and very close family. The other two girls expressed it was the same for them. I asked them what it was like to share these experiences with the group. They all said at first it was really scary but that they were relieved and happy to be able to share their feelings outside of their homes, they had not realized how much they wanted to talk about it with other people.

I turned to everyone else in the group and asked them what it was like to hear these stories, and then have to place themselves in these images with women wearing hijabs. The participants who had to play the characters in the story participating in the bullying behavior said it was really hard to have to play that role especially because they had to look into the eyes of the individual they were putting down. They all agreed that they did not fully understand what it meant to be a Muslim woman in America until doing this exercise…that they were surprised by how this activity made them feel.

We later moved into an activity where each participant wrote an I Am poem.  It is a self-reflective poem about who they are as a person: what personal accomplishments and character strengths they feel proud of, what their hopes and dreams are, and how they see themselves fitting into the world around them. The idea behind the poem is that we first need to feel confident and courageous in who we are before we are able to feel brave enough to stand up for ourselves or for someone else. They, then, divided into two smaller groups and had to transform their I Am poem into a We Are poem to emphasize the community they all want to be a part of. They were asked to repeat one line at the beginning and at the end of the poem. Their repeated lines were: 

We are Strong. We are Equal.