BELLINGHAM — Hundreds of middle schoolers and high schoolers from Skagit and Whatcom counties gathered Tuesday at Western Washington University both to celebrate their roots and to see how high they can reach.
The winter Migrant Youth Leadership Conference, called “From Strong Roots Come Strong Leaders,” attracted students from five districts across the counties, including Burlington-Edison, Sedro-Woolley and Mount Vernon.
“We have a very large migrant community,” Jazz Espiritu, one of the conference organizers, said of Western Washington, and Skagit and Whatcom counties in particular. “A lot of these kids feel like they’re invisible.”
The conference is meant to empower students to seek higher education and other goals, he said, and show them that their language and culture are assets.
Migratory students are federally defined as those who have a parent or guardian employed within the past three years in seasonal agriculture work, and who have followed that parent from one school district to another.
These students are some of the most at risk for dropping out of school, said Maria Timmons Flores, an assistant professor in Bilingual Education.
Conference organizers worked with migrant advocates at schools to bring students to the conference, which was organized by university students in Flores’ TESL, or Teaching English as a Second Language, class.
The conference included workshops in everything from racial profiling to college application help, as well as a speech from Enrique Lopez, who works with the Washington State Migrant Council and grew up in Skagit County.
“Keep your roots grounded. Spread your roots in the Earth. Make those connections in your life to move you forward,” he told the students. “…Never feel like you don’t belong here.”
Lopez was born in Michoacan, Mexico, and at age 3 moved to Washington, where he lived in migrant camps in Skagit County with his family.
“I see talent, I see hope, I see the future of our communities given the opportunity,” he said of the students at the conference. “I can really relate to them. I grew up as a migrant youth and faced many of the same obstacles.”
Thirteen-year-old Lesley Ibanez felt a kinship with Lopez. She is an avid writer, she said, and would attend a poetry workshop that day at the conference. For her, the conference is a place to communicate, and she likes to hear what people have to say.
“I feel like it’s changed my life,” she said of Lopez’s speech. “His speech, it reminded me of me.”
This year was Faviola Martinez’s third time at the conference, but the Burlington-Edison High School student hasn’t gotten bored.
“Every year there’s different guest speakers,” she said. “Each one has something to tell me, that gets to me, gets me inspired.”
Martinez came to the United States when she was 9, and is now applying for DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. The new federal program allows eligible illegal immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children to apply for two-year, renewable work permits, if they meet certain requirements. She is also involved in Latinos in Action, a class that brings high schoolers into elementary and middle schools to mentor students.
“My dream is just to keep going with my school,” she said. “And to be someone in life.”