Every Friday during the school year, a van trundles through the small towns surrounding Milbrook to pick up the members of EPIC. EPIC, which stands for Engaging People in Change, describes itself as a youth empowerment program for high school students in rural northeast Dutchess County.
The program is a ministry of Grace Church, Millbrook, and the students meet at the church to learn about and discuss the political and social issues that are important to them. Abby Nathanson, the program director, facilitates discussion. The students learn about social justice while also building skills in public speaking, meeting facilitation, event planning, and grant writing. One student, Cassie spends the drive to Grace Church returning calls for EPIC. She’s working on bringing a restorative justice workshop to EPIC for the next school year.
The students have been brought together by EPIC not just because of their interest in leadership and social justice: they are also all immigrants or the children of immigrants. Even while she facilitates their development as youth leaders, Abby also spends much of her time helping her students or their family members with immigration concerns. Many are — or know — undocumented immigrants, and all are concerned about the current political climate surrounding immigration issues.
Elizabeth, a high school senior, has family from Mexico. She notes that, “At home, my parents have never been worried, but now at dinner, they talk about what could happen. I’ve felt fear in my parents, and I’ve never felt that before.”
Cassie brings up a similar experience from within her family.
“My brother-in-law was brought over as a baby,” she says. “He was undocumented… [Now], constantly my sister is in a state of worry.”
Pola tears up slightly as she shares her family’s story. “I’m first generation,” she explains, and when Pola’s mother was pregnant with Pola’s younger brother, her mother was sent back to Guatemala, where Pola’s family is from. The family was split up. Pola’s father remained in the US, but Pola, who was in elementary school at the time, went to Guatemala with her mother.
“When I first got [to Guatemala],” recalls Pola, “I asked my mom, when can we go back to Brewster?”
It took six years before Pola and her mother and siblings were able to return and reunite with Pola’s father in the US. Though Pola’s mother spent some time in detention after returning to the US, she’s now home with her family. But Pola’s older sister remains in Guatemala, scared to return.
Pola has noticed a change in the attitudes of other students at her school since the election. “It’s been totally different,” she says, “I even get bullied on the bus sometimes.”
The fear and harassment felt among members of EPIC and their families is present throughout their community. Evelyn Garzetta, the program director of Latino Outreach, another ministry of Grace Church, Milbrook that works with migrant workers in the area sent out an email in February stating that rumors of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raids were keeping many immigrants without documentation at home, afraid even to go to the grocery store.
But EPIC’s members aren’t just concerned, they also offer an intelligent critique of the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment and policies.
“If we take away immigration,” says Cassie, “we take away our right to call ourselves a melting pot.”
Cassie, like the other students, sees anti-immigrant sentiment as “not a fear of immigrants or immigration, [but] racism,” particularly against Latinos.
To illustrate the point, Kayla, a senior, mentions an incident at her dad’s work. When a new Latino employee arrived, he was discriminated against and harassed by his fellow workers. To prevent that from happening to himself, Kayla’s father, who is Puerto Rican, told everyone he was Italian.
“I…hope for people to stop being xenophobic,” concludes Kayla.
Elizabeth agrees, saying, “This has been going on for a long time…I wish people would change their minds and opinions.”
As growing leaders, EPIC’s students are learning how to make that change happen.