Tag Archives: immigration

Girls of the Month: Old Saybrook Seniors Spark Conversation About Immigration

For the past few months, I’ve been volunteering with She’s Speaking, a local organization in Connecticut whose mission is “to educate, empower, support and inspire young women to have a voice in our society through the resources of powerful women leaders of yesterday and today.”

One of their new programs is to honor girls and young women who are making a difference in their communities and who are doing bold, brave things. I was privileged to interview 11 young ladies who were honored for their work on immigration. Read about their amazing work and accomplishments below, and check out the original article here.

She’s Speaking is thrilled to recognize eleven seniors at Old Saybrook High School who have been speaking out in their community about a controversial topic: immigration. After reading a book in their Spanish class, the group of all female students were stunned by how much they learned about immigration and immigrants themselves—and much of this new knowledge contradicted some of their prior assumptions.

“Many people come over when they’re young—as girls and boys—and they’re coming to find their mothers who left when they were really young. A lot of people think immigrants come here just to work but they also come to be with their family,” Arianna Heonis explained.

“Some immigrants are brought over as young children and they aren’t even aware that they’re not citizens until they try to apply for college,” Delilah Hallowell added.

Lucy Marinelli explained that contrary to the stereotype of an immigrant as a law-breaking criminal, she was surprised to learn that the crime rate among immigrants is significantly lower compared to American citizens. “We focused on debunking myths about immigrants,” she said.

Armed with and inspired by this new knowledge, the girls conducted additional research and consulted with experts to develop a comprehensive, facts-driven presentation about immigration in America. They considered having the author of the book that inspired their work come in to talk with other students, but decided to speak out about the issue themselves. As Holly Coppes explained, “We realized we could connect more with the school ourselves, as peers.”

The purpose of their presentation was to share facts about immigration with the community to dispel myths and misinformation. As Marinelli explained, “Immigration is a controversial issue that can be so emotional because of the political connotations. But we really wanted to make this presentation nonpolitical and stick to the facts so people could form their own opinions. We wanted to educate the community.”

And educate they did. The group not only presented to their entire high school, but also shared their work with the Board of Education, the Valley Shore Collaborative, and the Shore’s Women League. Once they started speaking out about immigration they didn’t want to stop. Although some girls admitted to having trouble with public speaking in the past, they were able to overcome that fear and felt motivated to keep speaking. As Jillian Hirst recalled, “We were all on this high after the first presentation when everyone is clapping and being supportive. That positive reaction inspired us to do it again! We presented it a few more times and were so happy to see more groups of people who were really moved by what we had to say.”

The girls also reported that since their presentation, their schoolmates seem more comfortable talking about immigration, and some students they had no idea were immigrants came to them for support. “One girl in our school was an immigrant who couldn’t get a social security number and she was about to apply to college. She was really struggling, and she was brave enough to share that with us,” Rory Dunne recounted.

“We made it a more comfortable space for people to talk,” Alexis Parker added.

Although this group of girls learned much about the immigration issue, the biggest lesson they learned was about the importance of speaking out about topics you believe in, even when it’s not easy to do. As Marinelli explained, “You learn the best in uncomfortable situations.” Maggie Smith added: “You should take every opportunity you get to step outside of your comfort zone because you can grow so much.”

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She’s Speaking congratulates this group of senior girls for their accomplishment and for their courage to speak out in their community and share their knowledge with others.

Thank you to Patty Marshall, Amy Claffey, and the Old Saybrook High School for making this article possible.

Full list of students involved in the immigration project/presentation:
Holly Coppes
Rory Dunne
Delilah Hallowell
Arianna Heonis
Jillian Hirst
Lucy Marinelli
Alexis Parker
Mia Reed
Maggie Smith
Erin Stangel
Heather Uphold

Generation Protest: In the Wake of Trump’s Election, a New Wave of Political Activists Rises Across the State

This article was originally published in Connecticut Magazine’s March issue. It is available online here.

Donald Trump’s election and his subsequent actions as president have spawned a wave of political dissent across the U.S. and abroad. The day after Trump’s inauguration, millions of women and male allies marched in cities all over the country and the world, protesting Trump’s treatment of women and sending the message that women’s rights are human rights. After Trump issued an executive order banning refugees and travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries, groups of citizens denounced the move in demonstrations outside capitol buildings and at airports across the nation.

Acts of political dissent are happening in Connecticut, too, where the Hartford Women’s March drew 10,000 participants and hundreds rallied at Bradley International Airport to protest Trump’s travel ban. And while the participants of these protests and marches have included people of all ages, many of them are youthful citizens — millennials and members of the younger Generation Z. In fact, some media outlets are already giving a new name to these political activists: Generation Protest.

Connecticut members of Generation Protest have a reason to be disaffected — 63 percent of them voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton in November’s election, compared to only 30 percent of voters under age 35 who voted for Republican Trump. Many of them say Trump’s shocking victory was a “wake-up call” to be more politically active than they might have been previously.

Brenna Doyle, 31, operations coordinator for NARAL Pro-Choice Connecticut, says the fear she felt after Trump’s election is what motivated her to get more involved with politics. “After the election, I feared for those who would be immediately affected and whose lives would be put in danger by this new regime,” the Vernon resident says. “That’s what drives me to keep showing up, to stay involved, and to not back down.”

Alicia Hernandez Strong, who identifies as black, Latina and Muslim and is a Muslim community organizer, says the people she works with are “scared, very scared.” The 20-year-old activist from New Britain works to educate the Muslim community about political issues. She says that while many Muslims opposed Trump, they were shocked by his travel ban. “I think Trump was very underestimated and people didn’t expect him to keep his campaign promises,” Strong says. “So it’s waking more people up. I have people emailing and messaging me asking how they can support Muslims and resist Trump’s policies.”

Others say they are resisting Trump’s policies because they are antithetical to their core values and what young people today care about. Dorian Lockett, 32, a black man and president of Connecticut Young Democrats, says Trump’s refugee ban and his call to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico demonstrate that the president does not reflect Lockett’s values. Lockett calls Trump’s policies “attacks” on what makes America great. “Trump’s attacks on what makes this country great is what has re-energized me; his lack of understanding that our diversity is our strength and by knowing and understanding our neighbors is how we make our country safer,” the East Hartford resident says.

Thirty-two-year-old State Rep. James Albis, D-East Haven, says he has been struck by the number of young people who have come to him since the election asking how they can get involved in politics. Albis, who is the deputy majority leader of the Connecticut General Assembly, believes much of this inspiration is coming from young people’s sharp disagreement with Trump’s policies and what he stands for: “I think young people want to engage politically right now because they see proposed policies and recent executive orders that are the opposite of what they want — an increasingly connected global society that works together to solve major problems affecting us all, like climate change. The drum of progress is now muted.”

While protests may get the lion’s share of media attention, young people in Connecticut aren’t just holding up signs in the streets. They’re also engaging in what might be thought of as old-fashioned activism, like calling their representatives. Indeed, Christina Cerillo, 27, of Branford, says that since the election, she’s “never called my representatives more in my life!” Cerillo also started a social media-based group called Feminist Connecticut, which aims to be a central location for local news that is specific to women and women’s issues. The group also publicizes feminist events across the state. For Cerillo, part of her activism is rooted in a desire to bring people together. “My main focus with Feminist Connecticut post-election is to make sure that Connecticut’s women and their allies know that they are not alone, and that there are many ways to get involved and stand up and be counted in a political climate that really just wants all dissenters to sit down and shut up,” she says.

Cerillo draws her strength and energy from her connections with other activists fighting for the same causes. “Personally, I find it very comforting to see folks out and protesting, calling, gathering and fighting for our country.”

For some young activists, Trump’s policies have had a very personal effect. Eric Cruz Lopez, 21, of Bridgeport, is an undocumented immigrant who came to the U.S. with his family at age 7 from Oaxaca, Mexico. Lopez is a student at the University of Connecticut, where he studies secondary math education, and hopes to one day teach algebra and geometry at the high school level. Lopez is an organizer for CT Students for a Dream, a group that advocates for the rights and interests of undocumented students in Connecticut. Lopez says Trump’s election has made people like himself realize that his rights are not guaranteed. “This election has activated people who wouldn’t otherwise get involved,” he says. “People who have thought that things were OK are now beginning to realize that our communities are under attack. The blatant attacks on our community have awakened people’s political consciousness.”

While Lopez says he is encouraged so many young people have mobilized against Trump’s policies, he hopes this wave of activism continues long term so that “solid, concrete and sustainable wins” on immigration issues are possible.

Rep. Josh Elliott, 32, D-Hamden, also hopes the wave of activism is here to stay. “I am hopeful that a new generation of people will become aware that being engaged is not like a week-long diet fad,” he says.

He speculates that Trump’s administration will roll back civil liberties “just enough to get a wave of active participants who will take these next four years as a lesson.”

But not all younger Connecticut residents have been swept up in the anti-Trump wave of resistance. As of this writing, the Connecticut Young Republicans Facebook page had 649 “likes,” which is half the number of the Connecticut Young Democrats, but still shows sizeable support. And Connecticut Right to Life, an anti-abortion advocacy group, reportedly sent five buses to the March for Life event in Washington in late January.

John Waite, president of Connecticut Right to Life, says many of the participants were young. Waite told the Hartford Courant that seeing the passion of young people is what inspires him. “Seeing all those kids down there so on fire for this issue, it energizes you for the whole year,” he says.

Other younger Trump supporters don’t feel it’s necessary to attend counter protests and believe Trump won’t be swayed by the demands of the left. For this Trump faithful, the strategy is “wait and see” and hope that Americans will give Trump an opportunity to prove himself before they write him off. A Trump supporter in his early 30s who declined to be named in this article said, “I think that everyone deserves a chance. Trump might be the one thing this country needs to pull itself out of the hole that past presidents have put us in.”

Some could argue that it is not so much Trump’s election, but the characteristics of millennials and Generation Z themselves that have sparked this surge of political activism. In this sense, Trump’s election provided the context for generations already known for their brazen confidence and belief they can solve the world’s problems by figuring out innovative and new solutions. And the ubiquitous use of technology among these generations has also made it easier to connect with each other, communicate and organize.

But perhaps more than anything, it is the unabashed trust in themselves that drives Generation Protest. For Lopez, it is the confidence that he is doing the right thing that makes him fearless. “I want to do this and I will fight for this because I am undocumented, unafraid and unapologetic about my status, my class, my race and my vision,” he says.