Arizona students collaborate for social justice

By Daniel Roca
Staff Writer

TUCSON, Ariz. — Behind heavy doors in the César Chávez building at the University of Arizona, elementary and high school students from across the state gathered together for a weekend of art, collaboration, organizing and activism on April 16-17 at the second annual Praxis Youth Conference.

The goal of the conference was to encourage “Praxis,” meaning “reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it,” as defined by Paulo Freire. Armed with the tools of art and media, the students at Praxis represented a hopeful and determined generation willing to step forward against many of the social injustices they see in their communities. Many of the participants came from marginalized communities struggling with issues surrounding ethnic and cultural oppression, such as indigenous land rights, youth incarceration and cultural acceptance in education. In addition, around 20 members of the Prescott College community attended the conference.

Sarah Morrison, graduating senior at Prescott College and organizer of this year’s conference, wanted the event to mobilize the resources available to the young people of Arizona. “There are youth all over that are all doing really great work and collaborating,’’ said Morrison.  “I’ve never met youth this passionate about issues in their community.”

Presentations and workshops throughout the weekend taught different ideas, activities and tools for organizing. Workshops ranged from screen printing, campaign media messaging, communicating through Hip-Hop, understanding personal identity, learning feminism through pop music, analyzing capitalism in education and gaining insight and strategies of the black power movement and the current labor struggle in Wisconsin.

One presentation, given by Kevin Morales, a 12-year-old student from Flagstaff, demonstrated “culture mapping” as an organizing tool to critically highlight the varying levels of cultural acceptance in their lives, mainly in their school. Using shapes, symbols and colors, Morales and his classmates illustrated the physical locations in their life where their ethnic background feels most and least secure.

Most striking about the presentation, apart from Morales’ age, was the level of clarity and definition with which this young man spoke. “Just because we’re Latin American doesn’t mean we can be judged by our culture,” said Morales. “[We should be judged] depending on our behavior and actions. … We want to be treated like other people. We want to work for it and earn it.”

Morales, and many others like him, attended the conference in the wake of controversial laws enacted in the past year, which directly affect people of ethnic backgrounds. Most prevalent at the moment is Arizona HB 2281, which stipulates that no public school or university shall teach classes that are designed primarily for students of a certain race or ethnicity or that advocate ethnic solidarity.

“The only thing that is going to save us is community knowledge,” urged Leilani Clark, member of U.N.I.D.O.S. Clark gave a presentation on the history of the cultural studies (also known as Raza Studies) program in Tucson. Clark emphasized the need to educate communities as a first step to organizing and empowering against oppression. “Youth just know action,” said Clark.  “When they feel educated and personally tied to it, it leads to action.”

Some students, like 19-year-old Shelby Ray, of Outta Your Backback Media (OYBM) in Flagstaff, take action using the unique tools of digital media available to their generation. The youth say that their films challenge dominant corporate media by sharing their own, under-covered stories, many revolving around sacred land issues in northern Arizona. For the past seven years, Ray has worked with OBYM to bring a voice to the struggles of her people. Her workshops give other youth a crash course lesson in film-making. “We can only do so much. It’s about planting a seed. It’s a thought, an idea. We’re all in it together,” said Ray.

Keynote presenters, Rebel Diaz, a South-Bronx based hip-hop group, flew in exclusively for the event. During their performance, they spoke about the need for events like Praxis in the face of our current political and cultural climate. “This state is in an historical mode of oppression and the immigrant community has fought back with an historic mode of resistance,” said the singers. “To use our culture as a weapon is the best way to organize.”

When looking back at the event, Morrison commented on the inspiring qualities of the youth who attended. “These kids are so empowered because it’s in their faces everyday,” she said. “With the issues about culture and ethnic studies, it would be so easy for them to lose hope, but they continue to push forward.”

On this weekend, hope and endurance were alive in each classroom and lecture hall. Individuals reflected upon the unique and dynamic ways that they relate to each other despite different backgrounds, challenges, and passions. And for a moment, students envisioned an Arizona where their heritage would not be seen as a threat, but as an asset to their communities.

To get involved:

Outta Your Backpack Media — Find them online at  They hold free weekend film workshops throughout the year for anyone interested in media justice.
U.N.I.D.O.S. — United Non-Discriminatory Individuals Demanding Our Studies, a Tucson based new youth coalition fighting for educational human rights. Find them on Facebook.

WEB — Women’s Empowerment Breakthrough, a Prescott women’s group dedicated to helping young women explore, define, and acheive their goals.

For information on next year’s conference and how to participate, visit

This article appeared in the May 2011 print edition of The Raven Review.

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