Voices of Tucson’s Youth Refugees & ImmigrantsBy Josh Schachter for Finding Voice/Catalina Magnet High School
Finding Voice is an innovative literacy and visual arts program in Tucson, Arizona dedicated to helping refugee and immigrant youth in English as a Second Language (ESL) classes at Catalina Magnet High School develop their literacy and second language skills by photographing, writing, and speaking out about critical social issues in their lives and communities.
Finding Voice founders, Julie Kasper (Catalina Magnet High School ESL/English Teacher) and Josh Schachter (Tucson-based photographer and educator) founded the program in the spring of 2007 in collaboration with the Tucson chapter of the International Rescue Committee. They worked with 46 students from Afghanistan, Ghana, Honduras, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Mexico, Republic of the Marshall Islands, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and Sudan to help them examine through words and photographs where they came from, where they live now, and where they want to go in the future. The power and synergy of writing and photography have been critical to the success of this project. For many students, taking photographs helps them determine what matters most to them and provides the motivation to revise and develop their writing.
Since 2007, Finding Voice has served over 400 refugee and immigrant youth.
Their work has been exhibited in Tucson city city council office galleries, the University of Arizona’s Union Gallery, Rocket Gallery, and the Idea:Exchange gallery in Washington, DC. Due to an overwhelmingly positive response by the community and media, Julie Kasper and Josh Schachter worked with the offices of Senator John McCain, Congressman Raul Grijalva and former City Councilmember Nina Trasoff to expand the impact of the work by exhibiting it in the U.S. Senate. While in DC, six Finding Voice students presented their photographs, stories and immigration policy reform recommendations at a Congressional briefing in the House of Representatives.
Seventeen Finding Voice students premiered their digital stories at the Arizona International Film Festival, their photos and words were installed in 22 bus stops throughout Tucson for a year, we organized several community forums on issues chosen by the youth, and we created a website featuring all their work.
The impact on the students has been profound. The students develop a better understanding of their Tucson neighborhood and U.S. culture, while building a strong connection to their culture and family. Course evaluations reveal they improve their literacy skills, critical thinking and self-confidence. Students who began the project speaking little or no English with strangers finished the year with poise, confidence, and a desire to speak with others about their lives. As one student said, “I like the project because I talk about what is inside me. I hope we will create change in education, immigration and racism. I hope our movies will go around the whole world. If they ask me to do this project again I will do it because it is a big challenge to improve yourself.”