I, Too, Am America – what does this phrase mean in relation to the Illuminated Cities Project (ICP)? In order to better understand this concept, we asked our former and current team members to tell us what their roles are or have been with ICP and how they would like to be remembered as a part of America’s fabric. Throughout the summer, you will hear their voices. Below is the story of one of our 2013 Youth-Fellows.
What is Your Illuminated Identity? My name is Edgar Najera and I am currently a senior at Pan American International High School. Last year, I was a 2013 Youth-Fellow with Illuminated, and I am continuing to help as an intern during the summer 2014 NYC Program.
How do you want to be remembered as a part of America’s fabric?
As an immigrant from a poor background myself, I have gained insight on what dreamers experience as they chase their goals and how they continue fighting against the odds despite their economic circumstances. The idea of migrating to the United States was very popular in my former community. People were constantly arguing that the only way to overcome poverty was to travel to another land that would offer more opportunities to those who sought prosperity. I strongly shared this belief and I knew that if I stopped being complacent in a place that barely provided me with food and shelter, I would eventually gain access to a whole new world of opportunities. However, when I moved to the famous “land of opportunity,” I realized that my fight was far from over. The community I moved to, the South Bronx, was not the beautiful place I had envisioned. I found myself in the same poor conditions I had always lived in. But, despite the fact that I moved to one of the most impoverished congressional districts in America, I did not feel discouraged; in fact, I was happy. I think I was meant to come to the Bronx so that I could learn a valuable life lesson: if someone does not do anything to help their own community, then who will? Last summer, as I finished my third year in high school, the opportunity to discover my community and all the problems it faces came to me through a global non-profit organization called the Illuminated Cities Project. This organization focuses on giving the youth the tools to help them revitalize their communities. As I worked for this organization I felt that for the first time I fought for a noble cause, the revitalization of a community in need.
Truthfully, I had never felt so proud of myself as a person. Besides being involved in an organization that motivated me to be more confident and to develop my aptitude as a speaking voice for the youth and for the poor, I knew the work I was doing was something that would benefit many immigrants who also yearned for a better life for themselves and their families. During my time in the Illuminated Cities, I co-designed and led a community tour, which helped me hone my leadership skills. I also had the opportunity to face my fear of speaking in front of an audience and my abilities as a public speaker improved dramatically. During our final event I not only shared a personal story with an audience of nearly 100 people, but I also spoke on a panel of students from across the United States to share my experiences as a student from the South Bronx. Moreover, I co-organized a tour of an artistic monument dedicated to the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci. The tour was meant to lead others through the investigation of whether art can unite as well as revitalize a marginalized community.
The time I spent working towards the goal of helping my community made me realize that I am not the only immigrant who came to America chasing big dreams. Being in Illuminated Cities opened my eyes, allowing me to see how students like me have been working their way through many obstacles to move to a new community with the hopes of finding a better environment with more sophisticated academic resources for personal and intellectual growth. While I helped my community, I was overcome by a feeling of satisfaction and belonging. In that moment I realized that I wanted to become a history teacher, to lead students through the journey of their communities’ history such that they could use it to build a brighter future. I believe that every single teacher has their own way to impact the world; some motivate others to keep moving forward, others can show the youth how intellect can be used to unmask the myths that those with power wield to control others. I myself strive to be an individual like this. I want to become someone who inspires immigrant youth to unleash the massive potential that they possess and, in turn, to share it with their communities as a source of empowerment and growth.