Two dozen teenagers gathered in a Sequoia High School classroom one Saturday last February to explore the emotional impacts of being undocumented. Many in the classroom were themselves undocumented; others had undocumented friends and family.
The discussion was part of an annual conference sponsored by Sequoia's student-run Dream Club and attended by more than 125 teens from as far away as Marin and Watsonville. It was a rare opportunity for these students to feel safe talking openly about topics that are normally avoided, due to stigma and legal risks, but still highly relevant to navigating the uniquely difficult territories they inhabit.
The Dream Club draws its name from the term "Dreamers," commonly used to refer to undocumented young people who have grown up in this country. The term derives from a bill in Congress known as the Dream Act (for "Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act"), which was never enacted but would have granted legal status and a path to citizenship for many of these youth. The label is now embraced by undocumented youth nationwide as defining them not by the limits of their status but by the dreams they have for their future.
Led by three Dream Club student-members, the classroom group first was invited to create a series of lists, starting with "common stereotypes." Participants volunteered labels routinely attached to them, or their undocumented family and friends, including beaners, aliens, illegals, job stealers, donkeys, gangsters, troublemakers, dumb, thief, lazy, border hoppers and unable to succeed.
The words went up on a whiteboard, and together the students reflected on how the words made them feel.
The emotional effects made up another list and included offended, furious, disrespected, outraged, angry, feel bad about myself, taken aback, de-motivating and discouraging.
Day-to-day stresses also were named. The top two: fears of police and deportation. Following those were: doing well in school, getting enough money for college, finding a good job, how hard parents have to work, family problems, not living up to expectations, overcrowded apartments and pressures on older siblings.
Students also listed and discussed healthy and unhealthy ways to cope with these stresses.
Later, a short music video provoked emotional reactions from several students. The film told the story of an arrest of an undocumented mother and her infant daughter trying to cross the Mexican border and the eventual reunion years later of the mother and daughter with the father, who had been living and working in the U.S. during their separation.
"This video made me cry because it is so sad that people get separated from their families. It's so sad that ... one law, one piece of paper can just take it all away and make your life harder," one student said. "Even as a baby, as a little kid, you don't know what's going on, you don't know what being undocumented is, what being illegal is, and it's just really sad that people have to go through this."
Recounted another: "I have family members who have died crossing the border. ... It really hurts, just seeing this."
A third student offered: "The way I relate to this video is that I want to fight for undocumented students' rights ... because a lot of people are scared to fight, because they think that they're going to get deported, but I'm not scared of that. ... (Even if I was deported), at least I'm expressing my voice; I'm fighting for the rights of others (as well as myself). ... Some people think if you're undocumented, you don't have a voice ... but you do have a voice, you should use it."
A Dream Club leader told the group: "I know students can feel very alone in their experience, but just remind yourself that you're not alone; you're never alone. No matter your situation, there's going to be ways to find support from other people."
The Dream Club sponsors this annual February conference to build awareness, connection and confidence and to guide undocumented youth towards resources that will help them get to college and beyond.
The Dream Club will hold its 2016 conference on Feb. 27 (see details below).
Sequoia High School's Dream Club began seven years ago as a result of painful disappointments experienced by several undocumented seniors when their long-held plans to attend four-year colleges were derailed due to lack of funding, according to Dream Club teacher-adviser Jane Slater.
"These were students that had done really well and were accepted at four-year colleges but weren't able to go because they didn't qualify for financial aid," Slater said.
The students' frustration led to brainstorming in Slater's classroom about the idea of forming the Dream Club to raise awareness about the challenges faced by undocumented students and the need for more private scholarship money to make up for the absence of public aid. With Slater's encouragement, that idea soon translated into action.
"We started the club and ended up with about 15 students participating. Then and to this day, about half of the group is documented and about half is undocumented," Slater said.
The first couple of years the club raised only about $400, mostly passing a basket at faculty meetings.
Since then, the Dream Club has grown and matured into a well-supported and recognized community presence, providing inspiration to Dreamers and their allies at Sequoia and throughout the Bay Area. The club currently has about 25 active members who meet weekly.
For the second year in a row, the club has raised more than $15,000 in scholarship donations, and last spring it awarded $27,000 to 11 students over four years, which is a "core incentive to keep raising money," Slater said.
When the club started, Slater guided students towards making connections in the wider community as well as within the school. This strategy eventually paid off, as relationships solidified with the Boys and Girls Club, Canada College, the Fair Oaks Community Center, Redwood City 2020 and local nonprofit agencies. Leveraging this base of support, in 2010 the club initiated its first annual November fund-raising dinner, "Making Dreams Come True."
Last November's dinner attracted more than 200 attendees from school and community, raising more than $7,000, Slater said. Additional funds received during the year typically have stemmed from connections made at the dinner events, including invitations for student speakers at other community events, churches and conferences.
As club members engage in these activities, they gain impressive public speaking, organizational and leadership skills, Slater said. For most members, it is their primary extracurricular activity, requiring a large commitment of time.
"One of the things we started to do at the first dinner is to have the students tell their stories because I think that is ultimately the most effective way of (1) raising awareness and (2) raising money," Slater said.
At the dinner students have also presented videos produced about their personal journeys and created other forms of expressive art to get their messages across, such as spoken word poetry and posters displaying darkened profiles with what they call "six-word memoirs" printed across them, including:
"Huge country yet still no room"
"Lost, looking for the welcome sign"
"Fearful I come, successful I am"
"15 years apart, a bittersweet reunion"
"Afraid my mom will be deported"
"My visa expired, not my dreams"
"Outsider for now, leader for later"
They also use their art to create notecards and other products for sale.
"Anything we can do to fund-raise," Slater said. "We try to be as public as we can."
In past years, a local church has invited Dream Club members to tell their stories during services honoring Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Last year parishioners donated more than $4,700 for Dream Club scholarships following the students' presentations.
Any undocumented Sequoia senior is eligible to apply for a Dream Club scholarship, and all who apply receive something, Slater said. Those who participate actively in the club's activities receive the most.
"Every year we have been able to give a bigger amount, and last year we gave some multi-year scholarships since it's often more difficult to get scholarships to cover the sophomore-senior years."
Three years ago, Dream Club students decided to add another annual event -- an all-day educational conference for Bay Area undocumented students and their allies held in February -- with costs covered by local grants and supporters. This year's free conference for Dreamers and their allies on Feb. 27features speakers, break-out sessions, workshops and expressive-art activities on topics of special interest to Dreamers, including the importance of college and how to pay for it; the emotional challenges of growing up undocumented; how to create a supportive school environment; telling your story; and immigration law.
One of the conference's break-out sessions last year focused on creating supportive school environments for Dreamers. Students from several different schools traveling to Sequoia discussed how to form and sustain their own Dream Club, as well as other ways of fostering a Dreamer-friendly school climate.
High school clubs dedicated to supporting Dreamers, it turns out, are relatively rare. When Sequoia's club formed, Slater knew of no other, but last year she said Dream Clubs were forming in San Lorenzo and Oakland. Pajaro Valley High School also has a fledgling club, inspired by Pajaro students' attendance at Sequoia's annual conference, according to several Pajaro students at the conference last February.
Finding this type of support is important to Dreamers. One Dream Club discussion leader explained that a vicious emotional cycle for undocumented youth can be created starting with anxiety and moving to fear, depression and shame. These feelings come, she explained, from being different from others, not belonging, and thinking that "I can't do anything because I am undocumented." The Dream Club is "trying to prevent this cycle from running around," she said.
Another Dream Club leader added: "The more you get connected to a wider community that's going to be accepting towards you and people regardless of immigration status, the more support you are going to be able to receive. Also it will help widen your network and form connections if you need help in the future."
"I wish we had a Dream Club at our school," one workshop participant said during the discussion, and others expressed agreement.
The Sequoia Dream Club recently developed a template for replicating Dream Clubs in other school communities, which Slater and Dream Club leaders present at different conference venues and events. The trickiest part initially, they said, is getting students to join, and a huge part of that is making students, especially the undocumented, feel safe. It's a little bit of a chicken-and-egg dilemma because a robust club contributes immensely to an inclusive atmosphere, but Slater and her crew have developed ways to get the ball rolling for anyone interested in giving it a try.
Dream Club Spoken Word Poem
At Sequoia's Dream Club conference last year, four student club members (two undocumented, two U.S. citizens) performed a spoken word poem they wrote together. A June 1, 2015, video performance of this poem can be viewed on the Dream Club's Facebook page timeline. Excerpts follow:
We are all human beings, separated by one thing
One thing only, a single paper
My life might be different, but by how much?
We all go to the same school
Have the same third period
Same hair color, speak Spanish, eat enchiladas for dinner
But yet, we are separated.
When will a time come when we are no longer different in the eyes of society?
When will a time come that my friends have the same opportunities I have?
I am a stranger in my country
An alien in America
I am not from here, I am not from there
Ni de aqui, ni de alla
We are defined by our status
No matter how much we look the same
Act the same, are culturally connected
We are still separated
It is not a barricade, a wall, a fence, a door
It is none of those
Only a single paper
It does not define my strengths
It does not define who I am
And it does not define what I can and cannot do
Our status is not everything
Does the lack of one thing outweigh everything else?
I live here and I have every right to dream.
What: Sequoia High School student-run Dream Club's annual conference
When: Saturday, Feb. 27, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Where: Sequoia High School, 1201 Brewster Ave., Redwood City (one block from Redwood City Caltrain station).
Details: Event is free, including lunch; free conference advance registration is required.
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