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Reflections on the BFS Puerto Rico Solidarity Immersion Experience

 

Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in September 2017, a natural disaster that brought new challenges to the island and shed light on the political mistreatment as well as the civil and economic inequities that have resulted from five centuries of colonialism. In the days after Hurricane Maria made landfall, Brooklyn Friends faculty, students, and families across divisions shared their connections to Puerto Rico in an effort to empower, engage, and educate our community about the plight of over 3 million fellow U.S. citizens on the island. In line with our school’s approach to service learning and civic engagement we followed the lead of Puerto Rican families in the BFS community as we organized our collective response. Building on those partnerships, we then collaborated to offer an opportunity for a group of BFS students to travel to Puerto Rico for a Solidarity Immersion Experience this summer.

In December 2017, the BFS Office of Service Learning & Civic Engagement accepted applications from 8th-11th graders interested in participating in the Puerto Rico Solidarity Immersion Experience. Chaperoned by Creativity Activity Service (C.A.S.) Coordinator Noel Quiñones and faculty members Verónica Rodriguez-Torres and Razi Abdur-Rahman, 15 BFS students headed to Puerto Rico from June 17th-June 22nd. Student participants included rising 9th graders Tate Beech, Lily Boyd, and Sophia Sanz, and returning Upper Schoolers Aria Komoroff, Mira Belkin Sessler, Sasha Imbleau, Laila O’Neal, Jaylen McHayle, Maya Holtham, Minerva Macarrulla, Bella Gonzalez, Ema Ball-Storrow, Karen Sanchez, Charles Campbell, and Lili Massac. Everyone was encouraged to attend the BFS “Solidarity in the Skies: Creativity Activity & Service (C.A.S.) with Puerto Rico” event in April and they were required to participate in two full-day preparation sessions leading up to the Experience in June. Participants also committed to sustained advocacy for Puerto Rico upon their return. 

Drawing on the BFS solidarity immersion model developed in 2014 with our partners in New Orleans, students visited Puerto Rico with the goal of learning more about the culture and context, connecting with local community organizers, and better understanding the parallel struggles in Puerto Rico and New York City. Students participated in an orientation and dialogue on solidarity and anti-racist youth organizing, toured the capital of San Juan, visited with elected leaders, policymakers, and scholars, heard stories of people who survived the recent hurricanes, and partnered with community organizers to learn about and support the work they are doing. In preparation, students learned about the historical context and organizing efforts in Puerto Rico before, during, and after the hurricanes. Delving into the concepts of C.A.R.E. – community, accountability, reciprocity, and equity – students learned to break down barriers and mobilize around the parallel struggles of Puerto Rico and their own communities, working in solidarity with those most affected by the inequities in both Puerto Rico and New York.

Our BFS efforts blossomed through our collaboration with Teens4PR, a Brooklyn-based organization founded and led by Brooklyn Friends community members with a commitment to helping Puerto Rico rebuild after Hurricanes Maria and Irma. Teens4PR promotes love and solidarity among stateside teens – Puerto Rican or not – towards Puerto Rico and the people of Puerto Rico. In her capacity as Teens4PR co-founder, BFS parent Salomé Galib connected us with our primary community partner in Puerto Rico, Para La Naturaleza (PLN). PLN is an organization that protects lands of high ecological value. They are dedicated to creating a sustainable future for the island where its children can grow up in habitable cities, swim in the clear waters of their rivers, and feed themselves off the land. They encourage people to take responsibility for our natural resources while pushing forward public policy for their protection. PLN has worked for over forty-three years with organizations and individuals committed to conservation. The partnership between BFS Puerto Rico Solidarity Immersion experience organizers and leaders from Teens4PR and Para La Naturaleza was a beautiful example of collaborative visioning, planning, and implementation of a powerful learning experience for everyone involved.

 

Lead Chaperone, Noel Quiñones, shared his reflections on how the group of BFS students and chaperones not only met amazing people and had fun, but also gained a new understanding of what it means to be in solidarity with other communities – learning, supporting, and growing with them:

I am a third generation Puerto Rican from and living in New York City and after Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated the island I knew I had to do something. I had not been back to Puerto Rico in five years, the last time I visited I came to celebrate Christmas with my family in San Sebastian. In many ways this Experience was unlike anything I had ever felt before because I was returning to my grandparents’ homeland with a purpose that could be considered familial but in a sense went beyond mere blood relation. I was returning to learn from and connect with an island I did not know and I had previously felt would never want to know or accept me. Yet the same island had raised my grandparents and taught my parents what it meant to be caring, proud, and community-oriented people. Nothing could have prepared me for the profound effect this Experience had on me. My goal was to provide an Experience that would shape the lives of my students but as always, the same became true for myself. I was reminded of what it truly means to show you love others rather than just saying it, reminded of how all of us are connected by a shared bond, see others prosper alongside us, and most important I was reminded of the power of grassroots community organizing to both bring about change and love for all people. As teachers we can get so caught up in providing learning opportunities for others, that we don’t realize we are learning as well. In the coordination of the Puerto Rico Solidarity Immersion Experience I learned so much about myself and my people, and only weeks after our return can I acknowledge that I was a student as well, in awe of Puerto Rico and the dozens of amazing, talented, dedicated, and powerhouse people we met.

Each day was packed with programming from 6AM to 10PM. Para La Naturaleza brought to bear their decades of experience coordinating environmental educational programming, teaching us about both the needs of the island prior to Hurricanes Irma and Maria and after. We learned about different ecosystems, the plants and animals that were affected and the ways in which people across the island are still without their basic needs. We worked on local farms, harvesting yuca, as well as planting new trees in the ecological devastation of the Hurricanes. We participated in discussions on solar energy, tree restoration, water filtration, habitat recovery, and maintaining ecosystems.

Yet all of this work gained a new meaning as students ate, traveled, learned from, danced with, and became friends with the group of Para La Naturaleza’s young leaders. To have our students work with young people their age from the island was the most significant aspect of this program, because there is nothing stronger than having young people learn from each other and push the boundaries of what they believe is possible at their age. These young leaders who were growing experts in environmental sustainability, both taught our students what they knew about the island and also shared their experiences of being Puerto Rican. I will never forget our closing circle where each student, both from BFS and PLN, shared just how much they grew to know and build with each other and their tearful goodbyes as we headed off to the airport.

When we were not with the PLN leaders, we were connecting with Puerto Ricans in various different sectors of the island to gain perspective on their lives and their passions. This ranged from a talk with the senator of the island, Eduardo Bhatia, on post-Maria clean water initiatives, a workshop on anti-austerity activism with University of Puerto Rico alumnus Ana Portnoy Brimmer, to participating in a community poetry open mic with the Poets Passage, to diving into the history of race and racism on the island with Colectivo Ilé, to visiting the art gallery of the famous Samuel Lind in Loiza and speaking with him about his work. Students were exposed to an immense spectrum of experiences, people, and perspectives, all in an attempt to have them build on their understanding of what it means to be in solidarity rather than contribute to toxic narratives of swooping in to help individuals they had never met before. Each night we closed with a reflection meeting, where students wrote in their journals about the day’s events and shared their perspectives on how the Experience was unfolding. These were enlightening meetings, where our identities and our backgrounds came to bear and where we pushed each other to interrogate our lived experiences as U.S. Americans and as individuals from a private school in New York City. These conversations were not easy, often leaving in the reality of painful truths that Puerto Rico will not recover for years and that we must, at times, take a step back and reflect on our purpose for wanting to help rather than jumping head first into service learning work. Yet I have to commend our students for their dedication to examining themselves and their privileges as we moved to continue our work. And I am profoundly grateful for the support and participation of chaperones Razi Abdur-Rahman and Verónica Rodriguez. Both Puerto Ricans who had grown up on the island, their flexibility, love, and knowledge permeated the entire Experience, often offering their personal experiences of the island with our students to add context and meaning to our work.

Everyone we met shared their story, made us feel at home, and told us directly the ways in which we could support them as U.S. Americans stateside. We farmed, planted, chanted, kayaked, danced, argued, learned, challenged, re-evaluated, loved, and grew together, both with each other and the people we met who became a part of our journey. If I have any mission as an educator, it is to teach my students to be compassionate and critical, to engage in reciprocal relationships, and to build a world that provides justice and equity for all. I believe we came closer to that mission during our six days in Puerto Rico.

Our students, chaperones, and planning team are excited to continue supporting the island upon our return to BFS in September, with the knowledge that this work is ongoing yet confident in our ability to effectuate change through community and relationship building.”

Following the experience, Anamar Carrión-Silva from Para La Naturaleza wrote:

“On behalf of Para la Naturaleza, thank you so much for sharing with us your feedback about your students’ experiences. We are thrilled to hear that they not only enjoyed their time with us but that they were able to learn about the important environmental conservation and post-hurricane recovery work being done on the Island by communities and nonprofits like ours. We thank all the parents for trusting us with your kids. We also thank Natania, Noel, Razi,Verónica, and all the other leaders involved in this project. And most importantly, we thank Salomé for bringing us all together. This would not have been possible without her leadership and support. We do hope that the kids left with transformational lifelong lessons and that we see you again very soon!

The following reflections were also shared by BFS students, chaperones, and parents:

Minerva Macarrulla, BFS Class of 2019: “One of the things that surprised me most about this experience was the amount of time we spent learning about nature. The student leaders and outside speakers gave us presentations on the wildlife in the surrounding forest, astronomy, bioluminescence, and the effect of light pollution on our perception of the night sky. Aside from spending part of one day helping out a farm and another planting/transporting trees for Para la Naturaleza, we spent time immersed in nature by taking a nighttime walk to see bioluminescent water (sadly it had just rained so we couldn’t see any of the bioluminescence), taking another nature walk at night to see various bugs and animals, going on an educational hike through a rainforest called El Yunque that ended in leisure time by/in a river, and getting the chance to observe parts of the night sky through a telescope. The emphasis that the program placed on appreciating nature made me think a lot about the importance of access to, and understanding of, nature. For example, I heard Lili, another student, comment that immersion in nature had had the effect of strengthening her motivation to be sustainable back home… Lili’s comment made me consider the continuous effects our immersion in nature could have on the service we as individuals do for the planet. I perceived an underlying purpose of the program to be encouraging and empowering us all to keep nature in mind in our own lives, as we are all more likely to care about something that we’ve seen with our own eyes (especially when those views were actually the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen!!)…Most groups Para la Naturaleza works with, unlike ours, aren’t comprised of hand-picked participants with previous education on social justice and service learning, I hope that more groups in the future will get the chance to understand the interconnecting issues that the program addresses and be able/willing to take fuller advantage of the program Para la Naturaleza offers. Supplemented by our prior learning, I found the workshop a truly positive experience and I hope that many more people will participate in the future!”

Razi Abdur-Rahman, chaperone: “Overall, I felt like this was an amazing experience/immersion for the students. The Partnership with Para La Naturaleza was invaluable. Their ability to transport our entire group to every event that was scheduled was a godsend. It allowed the chaperones to step back, observe and interact with the students. The hands-on farming was great in the way of physically engaging the students and forming lasting impressions of the trip-both the Yabucoa and Cabezas nursery work was perfectly suited. The eco-kayak tour was another physically pleasing highlight. The Old San Juan field trip was another highlight as then students took in architecture, culture, arts and cuisine. Other highlights were the Bomba workshop, Samuel Lind’s studio, El Yunque Rain Forest and the stargazing. I think that attempting to tackle issues of race/racism is challenging within the Puerto Rican setting when viewed through a mainland-U.S. lens. Noel facilitated a great debriefing and I hope that it was helpful for the students. Though preparing them beforehand and exploring the differences in racial history in the Caribbean might be helpful, it will still remain a challenge as certain perceptions of race/racism in Puerto Rico differ from movements in the mainland U.S.”

Mary Beech, BFS parent: “I wanted to thank you all for initiating,  planning and executing such a fantastic experience for the BFS students.  Tate raved about the experience, and when asked to share her highlights spoke for 45 mins. I think everything was a highlight! (although planting yuca definitely topped the list!) I did not fully absorb before she departed the number of experiences you all had planned for the students in PR.  Such breadth and variety – really something for everyone. Tate was truly enlightened in so many areas. As a white teenager in an upper class household, Tate is aware of her privilege and the inequity that exists here in Brooklyn and around the world. Experiences such as this week not only show her further the challenges that face so many, but also show her how taking action feels, and the difference it can make. As well as the importance of getting to know people as people, and taking time to truly see what is going on around her. I can only imagine that planning a trip like this was a tremendous amount of work on top of everything else.  Thank you so much. It was the experience of a lifetime for Tate and we are so grateful she had the opportunity.”

Ambereen Sleemi, BFS parent: “I had the opportunity to speak to the 10th graders in November about the immediate medical needs in Puerto Rico based on my experience as a physician for International Medical Response. I loved seeing all of them in San Juan at the dinner talk with my friend, Dra. Matos, a local PR physician who helped to coordinate the island-wide medical response. They were so engaged and asked insightful questions about the residual healthcare needs of Puerto Ricans. I look forward to seeing how this experience translates into continued engagement with Puerto Rico in the upcoming years.”