Since its inception, LAYC has been a place where we embrace the cultural identities and histories of each individual who walks through our doors. Over the years, we have grown from a small grassroots organization to a regional network of youth centers, school-based programs, and charter schools embracing the idea that young people who maintain their sense of self and identify, grounded in their cultural heritage, can and will build a bright future for themselves and their families.
A brief look back as we think about building the future: in the late ’60s there began to be a noticeable immigrant community in Washington, DC. The first immigrants to DC were primarily from the Caribbean nations including Panama, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico – they came, like many immigrants, searching for economic, educational, and social opportunities in a new land. As some time went on as a result of civil unrest in Central America, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, many more children, youth, and families came to Washington fleeing war and poverty from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. This newcomer wave had many of the characteristics of a refugee; however, they were not given refugee status. These young people arrived to our area suffering war trauma, family loss, and other challenges as they began their new life in this region.
Since that time, there has been a steady stream of new immigrants; and, as the early families settled in, their children and their children’s children have called the Washington region home. Most recently, while our world is experiencing a tragic refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe, it was only a few short months ago that our newspapers were filled with stories and photos of Central American children, youth, and families leaving their countries for the United States trying to reunite with a family member who may have arrived some time ago.
It was in response to this history that the seeds for LAYC were planted in 1968. The community of newcomers from Latin American nations was growing, and our young leaders at that time knew the young people were looking for a home away from home. LAYC was designed to support youth and families with their educational, employment, and social needs. In addition, the Center was designed to build bridges between their new life and the one left behind, but not forgotten.
In the early years, youth came to the Center wanting to learn English, engage in fun and social events and look for work as they sought a welcoming home, new friends, and support as they began their new lives. As the needs of the Latino youth and families changed, LAYC’s programs and activities adjusted to respond to their needs. And today, as in the past, we welcome all youth, Latino, Afro-Latino, and African American. We have youth from over 50 countries walking through our doors every year. Walk into any LAYC site and see walls covered in colorful murals, paintings, and art depicting Latin American heroes, scenic landmarks, and more. You will hear youth recite poems about their abuelas (grandmothers) who gave them the values that they hold dearly onto today.
All year, LAYC staff encourage young people to become informed, engaged, and thoughtful members of civil society. Specifically, during Hispanic Heritage Month, LAYC will host a series of events for youth, their families, and the community to come together and celebrate. In addition to our annual cultural celebration, we will host a screening of the documentary Risers about young immigrants with a complementary art exhibit by LAYC youth, a free legal clinic for DACA (the President’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), and a voter registration drive.
Despite all of the contributions of our nation’s Latino community, a new report by the Migration Policy Institute reviews the lasting scars of growing up in an anti-immigrant environment, “immigrant children recognize discrimination from peers and teachers at least by middle childhood (around age 8), and at the institutional or societal level by adolescence. Discrimination affects the psychological well-being of immigrant children, their academic outcomes, and their social relationships. At LAYC, we have fought anti-immigrant sentiment locally and nationally for nearly 50 years, as we offer youth a safe haven to be themselves, build their self-confidence, and shape their identities with positive experiences.
We recognize that our nation’s future depends on our ability to educate all of our children and place them on a career and educational pathway to success. How we educate all of our children and youth today, is the best indicator of how we will fare as a nation and world leader in the future. LAYC understands that education for all youth is key to our nation’s future. We must ensure that our youth stay in high school and graduate. If they have dropped out of school, they need to re-engage in a GED or alternative high school program. Following high school, it is critical that they move on to a community or four-year college or a vocational track that offers an opportunity for advancement. Most importantly, we must provide the supports they need to graduate from these post-secondary programs. Young people who do not finish college are often loaded up with debt and limited career opportunity. LAYC’s college access programs not only help young people get into college, but makes sure that they successfully graduate.
The good news is that college admission rates among Hispanics has gone up. From 1996 to 2012, college enrollment among Hispanics ages 18 to 24 more than tripled (240% increase), outpacing increases among blacks (72%) and whites (12%). The challenging news is that we still have much work to do to make sure these students graduate and obtain their degrees. In 2012, Hispanics accounted for just 9% of young adults (ages 25 to 29) with Bachelor’s degrees.
I am confident that there is a community of bright, energetic, compassionate young Latino youth ready to lead and serve. I have seen the many success stories of Latinos in our region who are building the future. Whether they are teachers, journalists, chefs, or lawyers, they are working to give back to the country that has given them so much. Grounded in their culture and actively engaged in civic life, our nation’s Latinos will continue to play a key role in our nation’s prosperity.