Building character in overlooked places

One of my favorite parts of being on the road, speaking about my various books, is the chance to interact with local organizers, artists, and activists, and get even just a lil’ taste of the issues in various parts of the country. A couple of weeks ago I had the chance to go to Salt Lake City, a place you’re probably more likely to associate with Mormons and mountains than radical activism. Think again.

I visited the Mestizo Arts & Activism Collective at their home base in a cool, local coffee spot. They describe themselves like this:

We are an inter-generational group of students of diverse academic and ethnic backgrounds concerned about the community we live in. Our goal is to make a difference and make the world a better place for everyone to live in through developing young leaders, creating unity within our community, informing the world about problems young people of color face and finding creative ways to solve them.

In any every day way, this translates into beautiful mural projects, complex conversations about sex, relationships, immigration, spoken word poetry nights, documentary films, policy advocacy, and so much more. The broad range of their actions are a reflection of the broad range of the human spirit. After all, they don’t operate based on some top down, preconceived notion of what will educate and empower. They listen to their own hearts, honor their own struggles, and let the work flow from their collective commitment to explore new ways of being and agitating together.

The air really does feel different in that little meeting room. You can sense that every single perspective is valued, that every single question is valid, that every single struggle is a moment just waiting to be unlocked for its growth and connection.

The side effect, of course, is that these kids–often coming from low income backgrounds, often wrestling with the realities of being undocumented in a country that is still getting its act together legislatively–are thriving. They are going to college. They are staying safe. They are finding meaning in their own gifts reflected back to them in conscious community.

While the nation’s education experts and columnists continue to spout off about the importance of “building character,” The Mestizo Arts & Activism Collective is doing it every day, quietly, in a little coffee shop in Salt Lake City. I’m so heartened to know of their work.


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