Sociedad Latina Encourages Youth Expression

Michael Berthaud, a rising sophomore and computer science major at Wentworth Institute of Technology, was not excited when he first learned he would be participating in Sociedad Latina’s summer program.  At age 12, he was looking forward to having the summer off and had no interest in wasting time with schoolwork. However, once he started the program, he realized it was quite different from what he had imagined.

“We did things that would entice you academically, and got your gears moving,” Berthaud said. “I never felt that it was busy work.”

During the program at the Simmons College campus, Berthaud took English courses which encouraged him to do more than decipher texts. By focusing on workshopping with peers and freewriting, the course helped him develop the skills to express his own voice. Because of this, Berthaud began spending his summers exploring ways to express his voice through different mediums, learning new skills and expanding on existing ones.

“Right now I’m a computer programmer and a game designer, so I make games and I think the program at Sociedad Latina really, really helped me. It was a kick starter to a lot of the work that I do now,” Berthaud said. “I write a lot about storylines and plotlines and even how the game is structured, how the player is supposed to feel while playing it and I think a lot of my personality bleeds into my games.”

Giving youth the ability to express themselves is an important part of Sociedad Latina’s mission.

“We feel that learning can be fun and engaging and that students should have a voice in their learning, so for us it’s really important as an out-of-school-time program to be able to partner with a program that shares those values,” said Alex Oliver-Dávila, Executive Director of Sociedad Latina. “We can see the difference when young people are in the summer program versus a traditional school day. It’s a very hands-on approach, it’s a very youth-led approach, young people are able to choose the types of projects they want to work on, we see the difference in how teachers we hire in the summer along with our staff are working side by side with students.”

Sociedad Latina, based out of Mission Hill, aims to empower Latino youth by training them in civic engagement, education, workforce development, and arts and culture. Serving 5,000 11 to 21-year-olds each year, Sociedad Latina seeks to introduce professional, educational, and economic opportunities to the community.

“I think young people become more engaged when they actually have an enrichment program that’s tied to academics, and we can really see those gains when we have young people participate in summer. They go back to school and we talk with many teachers who tell us the difference in the students from last school year,” Oliver-Dávila said.

After participating in Sociedad Latina’s summer program, Berthaud had a changed mindset about learning and was inspired to continue expressing himself through writing and other creative outlets during the summer.

“It was that summer that I realized there is more to your summer and more to your time than just staying at home and taking it off,” Berthaud said. “There’s so much stuff you can do with your time besides staying home.  From then on, I never took a summer off after that.”

Berthaud began spending his summers writing and drawing, but his love for computers and playing video games eventually led him to programming. By programming video games, he combines those three interests in a way that allows him to fully express himself.

“There was this one game really struck me – the theme, the topic, it was touching on real world topics that affect me and my life,” Berthaud said. “That’s when I realized, I want to touch people like that, I want to tell stories like that.”

From middle-schoolers learning about storytelling and comic book creation as part of STEAM Team to high schoolers sharing art with the community during the summer in Academy for Latinos Achieving Success, Sociedad Latina offers a variety of artistic mediums that allow youth to create and experience art focused on Latino cultural traditions. The organization is unique in its approach to the arts, not only focusing on what art can mean for individuals, but instead looking at arts as they impact and fit within a broader community.

“One of the things I love that Sociedad has made the effort to accomplish is to really focus on making students activists – really looking at social justice and its many facets, and what that looks like in the community,” said Donkor Minors, an educator with Sociedad Latina.

Minors has taught ELA with Sociedad, along with flag football and robotics. Teaching during the summer led Minors to develop creative teaching practices that he brought to the classroom. In the same way that Minors has changed his approach to teaching due to Sociedad students, the entire program relies on student responses to ensure the best possible experience.

“Students have voice in the process – they’re always surveyed and questioned, and the directors of Sociedad really try hard to find what’s working for the students, what’s working for the program, and find a happy medium so that they can maintain the core values of why they were committed to social justice to begin with,” Minors said.

Minors has seen students from his Sociedad classes go on to become college graduates, app developers, lead chefs, and engineers.

“Each of them, in their own individual ways, are all doing great things, given the circumstance and the wisdom and knowledge that they had at the time,” said Minors. “And the level of growth that they’ve made in that time is inspiring.”

Another educator, Jeff Timberlake, has seen tremendous growth in his older Sociedad students as well, all of whom are English Learners.

“The most exciting thing is when you can see their growth in speaking across the four language domains of English,” Timberlake said. “You see them interacting more in English.  When they leave they have such an improved way of expressing themselves across those four language domains, in ways that are really creative and challenging, and all about growing into citizens of the world.”

Timberlake works with Sociedad’s Escalera program, which serves high school students focusing on on-time graduation and higher education options in addition to developing social-emotional skills for English language learners.

“These students have the skills in their first language, but my role is to help them express themselves, their strengths and challenges, in reading, writing, listening, and speaking in English,” Timberlake said. “Many of them have stories to share, and many of them have backgrounds that pose different challenges.”

The goal of the program, along with preparing high schoolers for their future, is to promote students’ confidence in themselves and their abilities. The set-up of the program consists of three days of classes with a fourth day of practicing career skills with local business leaders or visiting colleges.

“It’s really important to expose students to places they wouldn’t normally go to, so being able to partner with Simmons, bring our students here, for them to be able to experience being in a college setting is hugely important,” said Oliver-Dávila. “I think it opens up a whole world that they were not exposed to before and it helps the city of Boston. I know it helps us in our neighborhood to have these partnerships and I think having people be able to experience that is just priceless.”

Joel Colon, a rising sophomore majoring in engineering at UMASS Amherst, participated in a youth music enrichment program through Sociedad Latina that took place at Simmons College at age 14.

“It was a combination of academic work and different activities they put together,” Colon said. “The activities were really cool – they had capoeira and glassblowing and a bunch of other things I’d never heard of, exotic things I would never search up on YouTube.”

Sociedad Latina encouraged Joel’s passion for music and helped him through the college process with recommendation letters and FAFSA information, but one of the most important things for him was introducing him to college campuses.

“The idea of college was something I might not have wanted to do back in the beginning,” Colon said. “Sociedad exposing me to the college environment over and over again, like Simmons or MIT, really brought me to make my decision to go to college.”

Sociedad Latina runs a number of after school and summer programs for different age groups that address their mission by celebrating diverse heritages in a way that encourages young people to impact the world around them. By emphasizing social-emotional learning and supportive networks, youth who participate in Sociedad Latina’s programs are well-equipped to serve their community as they grow into adults.

“I think social-emotional skills are more important than academic skills,” Oliver-Dávila said. “Those skills are going to carry you throughout life – in a leadership position, leading projects, being on a team – and we focus really heavily on the social-emotional development of students and that only furthers the academic pieces. When you can come to the table and have a conversation with your teacher to talk about how you’re doing, how you can do better, those are skills that you’re going to take with you forever and will make you successful in whatever environment – whether you’re going to college – and eventually employed, those things are really what’s going to further you and make you a successful adult.”