We Belong: Youth Leadership and Community Cultures of Care explores belonging, culture, and leadership
A new program at the Connecticut Museum of Culture and History (CMCH) provides opportunities for Asian American and Black high school students to connect with one another, their guardians, and their community for a better understanding of self and place. Each meeting is led by Asian American and Black activists, scholars, civic leaders, and a licensed professional counselor who serve as community partners and CMCH Community Engagement Manager, Mike Keo. Our pilot cohort has fifteen youth participants from Hartford, West Hartford, Glastonbury, New Britain, and Plainville.
The program launched in May and is now halfway through the inaugural session. In meetings, our cohort explored topics such as belonging, intergenerational healing and trauma, culture at home, leadership, and storytelling. These discussions allow young people to engage deeper in their own identity and find their unique storytelling voice. A 2023 report from Data Haven shares that “higher levels of personal well-being are associated with greater levels of community well-being.” We see young people connect with the material in transformative ways to better understand themselves, each other, and their families. One participant shared that they have always been shy, however, this program has allowed them to open up. They shared that “Being mindful of their experience allows me to be more mindful of my own experience.”
Community partner Kamora Herrington shares, “I had certain expectations going into We Belong, and have been pleasantly surprised by what I have experienced. These students are sharing and connecting through stories that I do not usually hear in academic spaces. While I would like to take credit for the vulnerability being shared in that space, I need to truly acknowledge that the young people are stepping into vulnerability in ways that are allowing them to connect authentically.”
A few weeks into the program, another student shared that the conversation with community partners Tyree Hughey and Dr. Jason Chang allowed them to recognize their strengths when previously they had felt inadequate in leadership roles. Many youths were able to identify 3-4 ways that they have led using models discussed with Hughey and Chang. Another student, Max, found particular meaning in an exercise where participants were asked to step forward or backward in response to having experienced (or not) a list of specific life events. This activity helped him to realize he was not alone in some of his life experiences, “There is no barrier to separate us. Sharing allows us to break the barriers—gender, race, orientation—we see everywhere we go. You can be yourself without the façade.” Another youth shared how they feel better equipped to teach others how to lean into their own experiences when advocating against racism.
Each meeting begins with a meal sponsored by the University of Connecticut’s Asian/Asian American Studies Institute. The room is filled with laughter and conversations on music, everyday life, and joy. Community partner, Adrienne Billings-Smith shares “The intelligence, drive, empathy, and intentionality of the We Belong youth shows that they are our future leaders. Their ability to pivot and handle adversity while advocating for humanity speaks volumes about our future. They have renewed, re-energized, and reminded me of why their voice is so important in bridging the gaps that we see in today’s systems, communities, and cultures.”
Next, this cohort will be interviewing their parents and grandparents to create multigenerational stories. These stories will be shared on August 24th at the Connecticut Museum of Culture and History at 5PM and is open to the public. Using these family interviews and deeper knowledge of self, participants will generate music, podcasts, social media posts, short stories, and poetry. They are transmuting their joy, conflicts, family history, and experiences into artistic anchors that will connect and inspire a 21st century community.
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