Through the generosity of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, WriteBoston hosted its first ever youth conference: Looking Back & Looking Forward: Writing to Defend Democracy. This student-led and student-centered event was held on Saturday, September 30, 2017, at the Bruce C. Bolling Building in Roxbury for approximately 50 Boston teenagers, educators, parents, and community members.

The full-day event consisted of immersive student-led workshops, participatory art and writing projects, “pop-up magazine” performances by teens, and a resource fair of community partners.

Student-led workshops:

  • Immigration 101: Led by Clinton Nguyen, senior at O’Bryant High School, and Celina Barrios-Millner, immigrant integration fellow at the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Advancement. This workshop offered a resource-rich deep-dive into student immigrant rights and pathways to higher education for undocumented students.
  • Combating Hate Crimes: Led by Rose Koumbassa, junior at Cristo Rey High School, and Carlos Rojas, project director of Youth on Board. This workshop focused on how stereotypes set a foundation of discrimination and hate crimes in our schools and communities, and how young people can identify, report, and respond to hate crimes.
  • Journalism in a ‘Fake News’ Era: Led by Kelly Thai, senior at O’Bryant High School, Carla Gualdron, program director of Teens in Print, and a panel of professors and journalists: Dan Kennedy of WGBH’s Beat the Press, Cara Solomon of the website Everyday Boston, and Evelyn Martinez of Madison Park High School, a Boston public school. This workshop provided tools for identifying reliable sources of news and included a Q&A panel.

Participatory art & writing: Teens were invited to decorate a paper mache globe and chair with responses to the prompts, “What is one thing you would change about the world today?” and “Who is one person, living or dead, you would want to sit down with and have a conversation?” The paper mache sculptures will be displayed in the the Bruce C. Bolling Building in Roxbury.

“Pop-up magazine” performances: Four teens shared their stories in live multimedia performances.

  • Grace Higgins, senior at Ursuline Academy, performed her original poem “Black Coffee” (excerpt below) accompanied by a reel of news clips from the past year.

mornings filled with such strong tension
that I buy black coffee.
and wince as I gulp it down
so I can try to blame my stomach’s queasiness
on something other than the morning news

  • Kenneth Bufford, senior at Marblehead High School, combined pre-taped interviews with immigrant youth from Haiti, Albania, Jamaica, and Russia alongside a live monologue to report on the importance of expanding the immigrant narrative outside of Latinx Americans.
  • Gabriella Diplan-Lopez, junior at Roxbury Prep High School, recited a moving “Break-Up Letter to America” to the instrumentals of Adele’s “Someone Like You.”
  • Elebetel Assefa, senior at O’Bryant High School, performed a monologue on her experience immigrating to the U.S. shortly after the election of the first African-American president and what that meant growing up, interspersed with audio clips of Barack Obama.

Resource fair with community partners: Area youth-serving organizations shared opportunities for teens. Partners included Samaritans, Inc., YW Boston Youth Leadership Initiative, Boston Alliance of Gay Lesbian Bisexual & Transgender Youth, EmersonWrites, and Boston Student Advisory Council.

Sarah Poulter, WriteBoston executive director, said the event was seized by teens as an opportunity to “write their own narrative, speak back to power.” In the Boston Globe’s coverage of the event, “High school students dissect immigration, hate crimes and fake news at youth-led conference,” youth facilitators shared their goals and the topics covered in the workshops they led.

“I’d like to put the emphasis on the youth aspect of this youth conference. The future relies upon the youth. They are going to be the ones who step up once the adults step down.”
– Clinton Nguyen, Immigration 101 youth facilitator

An educator who attended with a group of students shared her response to the day:

“Just wanted to say thanks again for such an awesome event! My girls kept talking about how much fun they had and I think it was really empowering for them to see so many older students doing really important, impressive work — they were inspired!”
– Siri Carr, teacher at Match Middle School

Next steps
To provide young people with clear next steps and authentic mechanisms for sharing their concerns, we will dedicate the December 2017 Teens in Print newspaper as a “special edition” built around their experience and takeaways at the conference. Writing from the workshops will be published in the newspaper, and Teens in Print staff will be following up with teachers to provide in-classroom support for students who would like to build off of the writing and conversations that began at the conference. Over the next month, we will be working with students and teachers on crafting longer-form articles in order to expand the opportunity of authentic publication to even more teens.