Finding Voice: How Art Empowers Civic Engagement in Refugee & Immigrant Youth

This is the first story about work coming from the PLACE (People, Land, Arts, Culture and Engagement) Initiative of the Tucson Pima Arts Council. Read Executive Director Roberto Bedoya’s introduction here, and a profile of Stories That Soar! here.

The literacy and multimedia arts program Finding Voice has worked with over 500 refugee and immigrant youth from over 35 countries, all students in ELD classes at Tucson’s Catalina Magnet High School. In the program, students develop their literacy and second-language skills by researching, photographing, writing, and speaking out about critical social issues in their lives and communities. Julie Kasper, an ELD/English teacher, and photographer, educator, and activist Josh Schachter founded Finding Voice. Since the program’s beginning in 2006, students have used writing and multimedia projects to explore their own lives, communities, and heritage. In this way, Finding Voice simultaneously helps students better understand Tucson and U.S. society and maintain a strong connection to their own culture and family.

Each year students select a different civic issue (mental health, discrimination, deforestation, etc.) to examine and address creatively. Specific outcomes and audiences for the work vary depending on the issue addressed and the students’ particular project goals. In the program’s first year, for example, students explored the theme of “Home” through photographs and essays, which were exhibited in the office gallery of a Tucson City Council member. Overwhelming support for this work by the public and media led us to explore how we could more intentionally connect our students’ voices and work with broader audiences. In 2008, with support from the offices of Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and Congressman Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), Finding Voice shared the students’ work through an exhibition in the U.S. Senate. Six students traveled to Washington, D.C., to share their artwork and present policy recommendations regarding refugees and immigrants at a congressional briefing in the U.S. House of Representatives.

In subsequent years, students have tackled issues of health, war, immigration, and gun violence through photography, poetry, personal essay, theater, and digital storytelling. Their work has been shared in a variety of formats, from issue-based community dialogues to bus stop art installations to printed publications. Finding Voice has seen year after year that through the integration of the literacy development, artmaking, and community research and action projects, students become poised, confident, and able to speak with others about their lives. As Nepalese student Dawazam Magar said, “I found my voice, my feeling, my true self.”

As mentors, Kasper and Schachter see a direct connection between language development and civic engagement. Immigrants or refugees who learn to use the dominant language in the place they live have greater potential to become social change agents. This is the main reason why Finding Voice does this work — to support the development of a critically thinking, articulate, engaged citizenry. And it is especially why Finding Voice works with student populations who are generally disenfranchised because of language barriers, immigration status, poverty, racism, and related factors.

Photography, writing, and digital storytelling offer different ways for students to access and develop their voices. For many students, taking photographs helps them prioritize what matters and then motivates them to develop their writing. Often students with limited language skills are drawn to photography and other visual arts with which they can express themselves without feeling confined by and self-conscious of their English abilities. As Somali student Hamida Abdi articulated, “I feel comfortable taking pictures so people can visualize my thoughts.” Different creative processes and art forms resonate with and inspire students differently.

The process of seeing, composing, and visual storytelling requires students to “dig in” to their own experience to note specific details, but also to “step back” in order to capture how an experience fits within a larger context. Documentary photography cannot be done solely in a classroom, so the process of walking through one’s neighborhood with a camera literally provides them with a new lens through which to view both the familiar and the unfamiliar. This exploratory process and the resulting images not only provide an opportunity for introspection but also a vehicle to educate others about community issues that matter most to them.

These experiences make classroom learning feel “real” and relevant, which is often absent from our educational system. Students develop a deeper understanding of their own identity and heritage as well as confidence in their own voice—all of which creates a foundation from which they can participate in other forms of civic engagement.

With three years (2010–2013) of PLACE funding, Finding Voice has been able to build on its early successes to connect students with several concrete civic experiences:

  • Students collaborated with the International Rescue Committee to document challenges facing refugee youth and their families. To address these challenges, the team created a citywide Refugee Youth Coalition (RYC), which is still operating three years later.
  • Students collaborated with the University of Arizona’s Drachman Institute to create and implement a landscape architecture plan to make their Catalina Magnet High School’s outdoor spaces more livable and “green.”
  • Students worked with a regional visioning process called Imagine Greater Tucson to ensure refugee and immigrant voices were not forgotten. As part of this effort, students shared their impressions of Tucson through photography and writing on large-scale posters that were exhibited in the main hall of the Park Place shopping mall. Displaying their work so publicly helped the students feel seen and heard. ?As student Lizbeth Sanchez from Mexico said, “I used to think that because I’m really young no one was going to listen to my ideas.”
  • Finding Voice produced the 170-page book The Cover Is Not the Book, featuring extensive personal essays, family photographs, and portraits of identity produced by the students. It is now being circulated through Tucson’s public library system.
  • Students created digital stories about their lives and cultural heritage, which were screened at a community-wide event.
  • Students produced lino-cut social justice posters based?on extensive research and writing on select social and environmental issues. Their research included conversations with over 30 community experts on such topics as gun violence, immigration, the economics of drug dealing, sexual assault, pollution, and many others.

Through the process of writing, photographing, researching community issues, speaking with others, and experimenting with art forms such as theater, printmaking, and digital storytelling, students uncover the connections between their own identities and experiences and those of others. They gain confidence and learn that engaging with civic issues is not an impossible task, but one that benefits from their presence and participation. They begin to see that by lending their voices, their ideas, and their creations to important community discussions, they uplift not only themselves but also those around them. While the challenges of the work and the education system often overwhelm us, Finding Voice students are a constant reminder that there is light even in the shadows, and that Finding Voice projects allow that light to emerge.