Last month, four students in our arts and activism program traveled to the nation’s capital for The Summit for America’s Youth.
The summit, hosted by the Boys and Girls Club of America, gives young people a chance to connect with elected officials and advocate for issues that are important to them. Midge Caparosa, program director for arts initiatives at Children’s Aid, is working with students who want to change the culture of gun violence in East Harlem.
The students, Emily Taveras, 13; Celine Valdez, 14; Amir Nina, 15; Josiah Johnson, 15; and youth counselor Asher Rodriguez, 19; spent four days in Washington, where they attended workshops and training sessions to learn how to be effective advocates. Students perfected their elevator speeches before meeting with elected officials and also learned how to build relationships in their communities for grassroots organizing.
To fully understand the impact of gun violence in their community, the students did extensive research. They reached out to politicians and local community leaders in order to identify victims of shootings in the area in the last 20 years.
They identified 43 people who had been shot in East Harlem since 2002. Of the 43 victims, 38 were under 25 years old. Many of the shooters were youth as well. The students mapped out where the shootings occurred in chronological order, using bullet shaped-push pins to represent those who died and red pins for the injured. Photos of those affected were included to personalize the events.
“We wanted people to really understand,” Amir said. “They see that people die but no one puts a name to [the victims]. We’re desensitized to it. If you hear a shot outside your building we don’t think, ‘It could happen to me.’ We think, ‘I guess it’s happened again.’”
The boards were on display at the conference, and members from other BGCA chapters were able to interact with them. While they were nervous to talk about their art project on the way to D.C., the students stepped up when asked questions about their project – “Gun Free Gen Z.” They also received a "Project of Excellence Award" for their presentation.
“They had so much to say when they knew people were listening, and I think that gave them hope that there can be some kind of change and they can help make that change,” Midge said.
After presenting their project, the students met with aides from the offices of Representatives Ritchie Torres and Adriano Espaillat and Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand.
Amir said these meetings, along with a trip to the Smithsonian, were the highlight of the trip. During their talks, the students advocated for the passage of the School Anti-Violence Education Act. Sponsored by New York State Senator Jamaal T. Bailey, the bill would fund anti-violence education programs in public schools across the city.
Midge is now working with students to create large-scale portraits of the 40 victims. The initiative is a continuation of a project she first introduced in 2021 to pay tribute to victims of hate crimes.
Each student will decorate a square using markers and colored pencils, and the individual squares will be put together to create a collaborative piece of art. Once the portraits are completed, the group will host a communal vigil to honor the victims and will invite members of the larger East Harlem community to participate, including the elected officials they made connections with at the conference.
“A lot of people who kill or are killed are underage,” Amir said. “If we stop the problem before it becomes a problem, we can all feel safer. The entire experience of talking to senators and meeting with people who are advocating for the same problems that you are, it makes it more real. It feels like an actual goal that you can reach.