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Recognizing privilege, learning how to advocate for change

The author, Gloria Fortuna, demonstrating against hate and bigotry at an election campaign rally. Photo: Courtesy Gloria Fortuna

By Gloria Fortuna

In 2014, Gloria Fortuna took part in Liberation Summer Youth Advocacy Training Camp, organized by AFSC in New York City. Every year, the camp brings together high schoolers from the Tri-State area who have been directly impacted the U.S. criminal and/or immigration systems as well as others who want to join their efforts toward change. Together, they analyze the issues and are trained on advocacy strategies, including filmmaking for change.

Now a college student in North Carolina, Gloria writes about how the camp changed her perspective and the way she advocates on social justice issues. 

When I arrived for the first day of the Liberation Summer training camp, I felt like I was prepared for anything that could possibly come my way. As a 16-year-old, I was already somewhat familiar with issues like the school-to-prison pipeline, race-based policing, and the disproportionate rates of incarceration among people of color. My father, who is a Quaker, had been working with AFSC for many years, and he encouraged me to take part in the camp as an opportunity to get involved myself.

Most of the participants in the program were members of my larger community—the Tri-State Area—who had been directly affected by the criminal justice or immigration systems in the U.S. Most were also people of color, some had attended high schools with a strong police presence, some had emigrated from other countries.

Young participants at the Liberation Summer Youth Advocacy Training Camp learn about systems of injustice and how to advocate for change. Photo: AFSC/New York

Through our discussions at the camp, I soon realized that I had much less exposure to these systems than almost everyone else there. Coming from a small, homogenous private school on Long Island (often referred to as "the bubble"), I was a world away from the daily experiences of so many teenagers my own age. Usually, the only conversations concerning around race during my high school experience centered around either microaggressions in our small community, or huge events on the national landscape, such as the Trayvon Martin shooting. Needless to say, the conversations I had in my hometown didn't delve into the realities of other high schoolers who didn't attend small private schools like mine.

The camp helped broaden my awareness of the larger community that I am part of. The criminal justice and immigration systems are issues that we all hear about often on a national scale, but as a high schooler from Long Island, I was having trouble seeing the impact that they had on people in my own community.

One of the first steps in understanding my own privilege was recognizing that it was the very thing that allowed me to live my first 16 years completely oblivious to the reality of many of those surrounding me. For so long, I was able to distance myself from the problem and share the uninvolved attitude of those around me. The advocacy training camp showed me the faces of those harmed by these systems of injustice, which included many of the other smart, driven teenagers sitting with me, calling for change in their community.

The author, Gloria Fortuna (second from left), takes part in a panel on sexual assault on college campuses. Photo: Courtesy Gloria Fortuna

It is one thing to understand that the criminalization of Black citizens on the streets and "zero-tolerance" policies in schools are bad on the surface level, but it's entirely different to understand how these factors play into the larger pandemics that plague our society, such as mass incarceration. What I needed to do was pay closer attention to what was going on right around me, and listen to the stories of others to learn what I can do to help. This program taught me what it means to be an advocate and an agent of change, and gave me the opportunity to practice what it means to be an ally to others. 

Now, as a college student in North Carolina, I feel more comfortable informing myself and talking about these issues with fellow students, as well as taking a more active role in campus initiatives and local protests. Although some of the specific issues in this community differ from the Tri-State Area, we are conscious of the greater political landscape, especially with the election rapidly approaching. Recently, I was part of a group of students who drove three hours to protest at a Trump rally this past spring, demonstrating against bigotry and hate. I am thankful for the training camp reminding me that I have a powerful voice that I can use to speak out on issues that are important. 

I went through a transformation that summer in 2014, and it wasn't because of some huge life-changing experience, but rather a slight change in perspective. It was the first time I felt the bubble around me pop, allowing me to see beyond my own experience. The training camp pushed me to challenge and redefine not only my preconceived notions about what many young New Yorkers experience every day, but also my entire perspective of what it really means to make a positive change in the world.

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