Story by Julia DiGiacomo
Immigrant and refugee professionals from a wide variety of backgrounds came together in a virtual space this winter to share their experiences and insight with eager young minds at the 2020 DREAM Iowa Virtual Youth Leadership Summit. The event took place this past November after being postponed from March due to the COVID-19 crisis. However, it almost didn’t happen at all.
When DREAM Iowa was forced to go virtual last fall, founder Mónica Reyes chose to bring on individuals skilled in videography and photography to fill the needs of the organization. RISE AmeriCorps members Israel Lopez and Ben Moeller were a perfect fit and made the leadership summit project a priority. Since it would take place entirely online, they began preparation right away, collaborating to revive the annual gathering of young immigrants and community leaders from across the state.
Originally scheduled to be in-person, this year’s event took on a much different look as it went virtual for the first time. The summit was completely free of charge and open to middle school through college aged youth.
Programming included presentations, performances, and training sessions from teachers, engineers, attorneys, and other occupations. All of the professional participants come from immigrant and refugee communities. DREAM Iowa awarded several $500 and $1,000 scholarships to high school and college students and raffled off prizes for the younger students.
The summit has three primary goals in service of immigrant and refugee youth: create access to immigrant and refugee professionals, expand career opportunities, and award financial aid for higher education. These goals help to drive DREAM Iowa’s mission of building intergenerational wealth for immigrant Iowans.
DREAM Iowa founder Mónica Reyes understood that many young immigrants never have the chance to interact with professionals in fields such as engineering or law. Establishing those relationships became a focus for the annual event. In addition, the summit aims to expand horizons for immigrant youth by connecting them to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education and careers.
Reyes also knows how difficult it is for young people to afford higher education, as she faced significant obstacles in paying for college herself. She worked multiple jobs and took on student loan debt just so she could pursue her career interests. When Mónica saw the critical need for financial aid to support immigrant youth, she started a scholarship fund specifically for young immigrants in her community. The fund became a key component of DREAM Iowa’s innovative leadership summit.
The summit began in 2016 as a way to encourage civic engagement among immigrant and refugee communities. Immigrant youth were trained on how to participate in the Iowa Caucus, and they then built important leadership skills when they taught their family and friends to caucus as well.
In 2017 the summit shifted its focus to increasing access to higher education and creating new career opportunities for immigrant youth. Reyes envisioned this new initiative as a place where immigrant and refugee professionals would share their stories about breaking barriers and achieving lifelong dreams. “Young immigrants can see themselves in those stories,” says Reyes. In this way, the team at DREAM Iowa truly lives up to its name.
Story by Julia DiGiacomo
From dance to painting to puppet-making, ArtForce Iowa’s weekly workshops are helping young people across Iowa heal through creativity. By combining discussions about mental health with hands-on art sessions, youth from underserved populations are learning to express themselves while building resiliency.
The non-profit organization’s workshops benefit refugees, immigrants, and first-generation Americans who are survivors of violence and crime. Adolescents involved in the juvenile or family court systems are another focus. The young artists, aged 12-19, participate in weekly virtual calls where RISE AmeriCorps members create a safe space to discuss emotions and set art-making goals.
Yvette Zaród Hermann, ArtForce Iowa’s arts outreach educator, says the team has been able to head-off mental health crises by either being there for the young artists or alerting others about emergencies. One workshop participant, who will remain anonymous, has benefitted from the extra support amidst her own crisis. Hermann says she suffers from self-harm and other severe mental health issues, which has placed her in a treatment facility away from home. Her father speaks an obscure dialect from the Burma, Thailand region which has made communication about his daughter’s recovery nearly impossible. Throughout the turmoil, she now has an arts community to confide in as well as an outlet for self-expression.
“She’s able to just draw with us and tell us everything that’s going on.” Hermann says. “It’s amazing for all of us because we all feel so grateful that we’re able to reach someone who the system has been trying to stuff down the cracks.”
The RISE AmeriCorps members are responsible for planning and facilitating the art workshops around social-emotional goals and trauma-informed practices. Hermann says the members write a mental health-related question of the day to foster discussion. An art therapist also works with the organization to help design certain interventions. For example, individuals who have experienced severe trauma are encouraged to use messy, free-form materials during their art sessions to avoid restrictions and promote healing.
After each workshop, the AmeriCorps members meet up and decide which students are in need of extra help in any way. Through this work, Hermann says the AmeriCorps members are learning the basics of case management in a loving, supportive way.
This year’s RISE AmeriCorps teams have especially resonated with the young people due to their age and understanding of social justice principles. Youth leadership has always been a goal in ArtForce Iowa’s eight years of existence. But Hermann says this year that vision has been realized. All four RISE AmeriCorps members are 19 - 22 years old and two members were previously students in Art Force Iowa’s programs.
“They come with their whole hearts and I think it’s really opened up the possibilities for our work.” Hermann says. “We’re able to learn more about young people’s lives when there are young people leading and there are less adults in the room.”