Youth gather to “speak their soul”

Twelve-year-old Ebony Ceballos steps onto the stage at Montgomery College, long brown hair obscuring her pretty face. Her fellow emcee, Agnes King, a shy fifth grader, clutches her script.

At first, they’re a little silly, but soon they get in a groove, welcoming 150 participants to the fourth annual Step Up ! Youth Summit, designed to focus attention on the voices of “minority” kids who now represent a majority of Montgomery County’s youth population.  Before long, they’re leading the audience in their version of Keri Hilson’s “Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Beautiful.”


Participants in the Step Up! Youth Summit take part in a dance class. (Photos by Julie Wiatt)

Community Bridges (CB), a Silver Spring nonprofit that offers after school programs for girls from low-income and diverse backgrounds, convened the summit. “We hear from the girls, help us deal with the drama at school, the bullying, the difficult friendships, setting boundaries with boys,” says CB staff member Gboyinde Onijala. Together with the girls, the staff developed a program around this year’s theme,”Speak Your Soul.”


Progressive hip-hop artist Christylez Bacon performed and led a songwriting workshop.

It was a day full of stories.

Patricia de Lima, news commentator from El Zol 99.1, led off the storytelling, sharing memories from her childhood in Venezuela.

Then it was the kids’ turn. They told about family battles with immigration officials, about parents who don’t understand the pressures of school, about ambitions for a job that will make them feel proud.

Silver Spring’s Gandi Brigade brought in a team of young filmmakers who encouraged everyone to visit the “Let It All Out!” Story Studio, a kind of confession booth where young people could “speak their souls” on camera.

Some elementary school students told their stories through puppetry, with assistance from Artstream, while others created small accordion books about themselves, with the help of artists from Pyramid Atlantic.  Hip-hop artist Christylez Bacon also led a songwriting workshop for the 12 and under set. Teens told their stories on the dance floor (with D.C.-based Movement Matters) and on audio tape (with Los Charlys Nativos).  Bacon and Los Charlys also performed.



Students in a “Theatre of the Oppressed” workshop learn about their legal rights with help from Julia Kann (at right) of Casa de Maryland.

Casa de Maryland’s “Theatre of the Oppressed” gave middle schoolers a chance to develop small scenes about their experiences with immigration officers and police, while learning more about their legal rights. “It’s my goal to put a civil rights expert in every household,” said Casa’s workshop leader, Julia Kann.

One expert in the making, fifteen-year-old Claribel Ovalle, said afterward, “We learned that if the police start blaming you, you have the right to remain silent.” Claribel, a four-year veteran of CB programs who serves on the Silver Spring Youth Advisory Committee, says, “We’re trying to get adults to see that we’re not just a bad influence, we don’t all do drugs.  Just because you’re a teenager doesn’t mean you can’t help out in the community.”

Parents get tips for communicating with teens

This year the summit also included workshops for parents, many of them immigrants. Kevin Sanchez (Barrios Unidos) and Teresa Wright (Montgomery County Schools) gathered parents in a circle, for a frank, bi-lingual discussion, sharing tips on how to promote trust and communicate effectively with teens.   “We want to identify the issues their daughters may be facing before they reach the breaking point.” says Gboyinde.

Although she joined CB just over a year ago, Ebony Ceballos has already seen its benefits. “At our weekly meetings, me and the other girls, we all have families who are from another country. We talk about our ups and downs, and express how we feel,” she says. ” It’s really changed me a lot, and now I feel I can help others.  I feel at home.”

Widely recognized as a vital resource, Community Bridges began in 1997 in the living room of community activists Naomi Nim and Mary Freeman.  Under the direction of award-winning Ana Lopez van Balen, now in her fifth year as executive director, the number of schools CB serves has increased from three to 17.

What began as “Jump Start,” a small program for eight-to-thirteen-year-olds, now includes four additional programs, serving girls all the way through high school.  And CB’s service area, which was once limited  in Silver Spring now includes a service for girls as far away Gaithersburg.

Nancy Navarro, a member of the Montgomery County Council who spoke at the summit, has high praise for CB’s approach. “The ability to express yourself and hear what others like you have to say can be a rare experience for many girls, but
Community Bridges is changing that,” she says. “This is patient work that yields extraordinary results, and I applaud Community Bridges for staying the course.”.

About the Author

Sandy Moore, the Kids' Voice columnist, writes for young readers and is a member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. Sandy is also a past contributor to Washington Parent magazine, a Board member of Lumina Studio Theatre, and resident of Silver Spring.