By Feliza I. Ortiz-Licon, Ed.D., Senior Director, Education Leadership Development
Earlier this month, the country mourned the loss of “The Greatest,” boxer Muhammad Ali. News outlets and social media platforms were inundated with some of Ali’s most memorable quotes, including “the service you do for others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth.” It is this spirit of service and giving back to the community that drives many of the middle school students participating in NCLR’s youth leadership program, CASA-Cultura, Aprendizaje, Servicio, Acción (Culture, Learning, Service, Action). The goal of this service-learning program is to equip students with the necessary skills to identify genuine needs in the Latino community and address them through a two-pronged approach of academic learning and service actions.
On June 9–10, approximately 75 students and chaperones from across the country convened in San Antonio, Texas, for the Fourth Annual CASA Youth Summit. The Summit was designed to provide students with a platform to share their projects with other participants of the CASA network. This year, the Summit kicked off at the San Antonio Council Chamber with a welcome message from Mayor Ivy Taylor. The opening ceremony served to remind CASA students of the importance of civic engagement and the role of government in promoting the particular needs within the Latino community such as voter registration, homelessness, healthy living, and gun violence.
Students from Education Based Latino Outreach (EBLO), an NCLR Affiliate in Baltimore, Maryland, tackled the issue of gun violence. Although dense, and occasionally polarizing, the debate was tactfully dissected through spoken-word poetry, storytelling, and hard data. Unfortunately, two days after the CASA Youth Summit, the conversation resurfaced in the wake of the tragedy in Orlando, Florida. The Orlando massacre, the largest mass shooting in United States history, disproportionally affected both the Latino and LGBTQ communities, both of which have been focal points of CASA signature projects in previous years.
The CASA signature projects are good reminders of the importance of investing in youth; raising their cultural, social, and political awareness; and strengthening their skill sets so that Latino students can truly become agents of change in their communities. Of course, the program is also intended to engage students through relevant and exciting activities. For this reason, the CASA model emphasizes experiential learning, field trips, and exploration. In the spirit of true CASA empowerment, students attending the Youth Summit participated in a citywide scavenger hunt, which allowed them to explore San Antonio while encouraging them to go beyond their comfort zone.
Ultimately, three teams, including Affiliates Con Mi Madre from Austin, Texas; Portland, Oregon’s Latino Network; and Mexican American Council of Homestead, Florida, won the scavenger hunt and enjoyed Mexican-inspired cuisine, courtesy of NCLR. The participants left the event with a reaffirmation of the power and value of their hard work. Through their projects, the CASA students promoted awareness, learned the importance of paying it forward, and contributed to their fair share of rent for their room here on Earth.