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Professor’s eye-opening project helps N.C. teachers understand the immigration experience

When the newly-constructed Margaret B. Pollard Middle School first opened its doors in Chatham County last year, teachers welcomed an unexpected wave of Hispanic youth into their classrooms. This year, Latinos are expected to make up almost a quarter of the school’s 480-student body, and educators are better prepared for their return.

That readiness is due in part to a collaborative project based at UNC’s School of Social Work. The project, called “Yo Veo” or “I see,” is designed to open educators’ eyes to the migration experiences of Latino youth and how those experiences might affect the adolescents’ academic success, mental health, and overall well-being. School Associate Professor Mimi Chapman, Ph.D., directed the training for teachers over the summer.

Chapman, whose research focuses on adolescent health and mental health, immigration and acculturation issues, and visual methods in research and intervention, developed the program with Robert Colby, Ph.D., an art historian, former staff member at UNC’s Ackland Art Museum, and visiting scholar at the School of Social Work. Their work builds on a long-standing partnership with the nonprofit agency El Futuro and Chatham County Schools.

“What we’re ultimately trying to do is to develop an intervention,” explained Chapman, who is also getting project assistance from Will Hall, an MSW/Ph.D. continuum student, and Laurel Sisler, a 2nd year MSW student. We’re really trying to see if we can affect attitudes and affect access to treatment—and with the belief that mental health and education go together and that you can’t really engage in good education when you are struggling with other issues that may come from migration experiences.”

The training, which was first introduced in Chatham Middle School in Siler City, challenges biases, stereotypes, and myths about immigration. The program relies on a series of images from “Dream of the Rich North,” an ongoing photo project by UNC graduate and photojournalist Janet Jarman. Jarman has spent more than 15 years capturing the intimate moments and harsh realities of a family from Mexico, before and after their immigration to the United States. The project focuses on the life story of Marisol, who was 8-years-old when Jarman began her study.

Jarman’s photographs document just one family’s experience, but similar stories echo throughout North Carolina, Chapman said. Scores of Hispanic immigrants have been settling in the state since the mid- to late-1990s, mainly in search of employment. Chatham County has drawn a large portion of the Hispanic population; according to census reports, more than 13 percent of its residents are Latino.

Many of these new immigrants have encountered extreme poverty and communities hostile to newcomers. The county’s public schools also have struggled with the growth, in part because teachers aren’t always sure how to respond to the newest residents or how to address their needs, Chapman added.

Yo Veo attempts to bridge understanding by showing the side of immigration that people don’t often see, she said, including how migration to another country and the stresses of learning a new language and new customs might affect the mental health of immigrant children. During a two-day training session in late July, Chapman encouraged the nearly two dozen teachers from Margaret Pollard to consider Jarman’s art as a tool for exploring how they “see the world,” and how their personal views of power, privilege, and personal status might influence their relationships in the classroom.

“This is really about (Marisol’s) story, and how that might open us up to other stories of the young people we work with,” she explained.

The educators’ journey began at the Ackland in Chapel Hill, where they were introduced to more than a half dozen photographs illustrating Marisol’s early life in Mexico and subsequent move to the United States. The teachers quietly studied the colorful images, all of which were intentionally displayed in no specific order and without captions to help provoke thought and discussion. In one, Marisol and a sibling, dressed in knee-length skirts and short-sleeve tops, walked barefoot down a dirt road to school. In another, Marisol’s mother, Eloisa, looked puzzled as she paused in a grocery store aisle to take in shelf after shelf of boxes of cereal. And then, there was Marisol’s sister, her long brown hair pulled back into a ponytail, chatting with a blonde-haired girl by a chain-link fence that divided the neighbors’ yards.

Colby guided the conversation and encouraged the participants to react honestly. During the discussion, one teacher pointed to a photo of a woman and child sifting through a mountain of waste at the city dump. The image, she said, reminded her of her own daughter rummaging through her room in search of something of value.

“It reminds me of how much we own and take for granted,” she said.

Colby then revealed the context behind the photo. At the time, Marisol’s family eked out a living in Mexico by picking through garbage in search of recyclables to sell — that is, until Marisol discovered a corpse in the dump one day. That discovery, Colby explained, hastened her mother’s determination to move her children across the border so that they could reunite with their father, who was a legal resident working in Florida’s farm fields.

The teachers gasped at the shocking details. “I just keep thinking about all we do to sanitize our kids’ worlds and how that one is just right out there in that garbage,” one teacher responded. “Wow.”

They also weighed the family’s choices, including their eventual agreement to enter the United States. However, the complexity of such a decision is not always clearly reflected in debates that play out across America over illegal immigration, the teachers said.

“So when people come to this country illegally, what is your perception of why they come?” Chapman asked the group.

“To live a better life,” offered Marty Goldman, an 8th-grade teacher. “If you think about the hardships that most of our ancestors went through to get from Europe to this country, there are lots of similarities there. In having a conversation with someone who has crossed the border, the fear and trepidations of trying to get into this country legally are virtually impossible with the numbers that we presently have in our system. So you’re kinda almost forced into attacking it from that perspective.”

Though Goldman said his opinions “waver” over illegal immigration, he and other teachers agreed that too often, children get caught in the middle of the controversy. A few pointed to Jarman’s centerpiece portrait, the one in which 8-year-old Marisol, glossy-eyed and with a dirt-splattered face, stares off toward a setting sun after an apparent long day of foraging at the city dump.

“She’s probably thinking about the American Dream, but where’s the dream?” one teacher chimed in. “What’s the price for it?”

The selected images further fueled discussions on poverty and class but also elicited a gentle reminder from peers that poverty does not discriminate.  “I think we have to be very careful not to make assumptions,” cautioned LaShonda Hester, the school’s assistant principal. “You could just as easily remove those Mexican children (from the waste dump) and put black children there or white children there. That is very real in parts of America or even in parts of Chapel Hill. So we have to keep that in mind.”

The call for caution illustrated just how knotty student needs can be and how difficulties and challenges at home often play out in classrooms every day, the teachers agreed. For example, does a 7th grader’s failing grades demonstrate a true disinterest in learning or could his aloofness be a repercussion of going to bed hungry every night? Even still, could he be showing signs of an undiagnosed mental illness? Complicating those questions, what if the child is Latino and potentially feeling the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) based on his experiences in a border crossing?

“It is true that we come by mental health problems, both by our biology and by our environment and our experiences, and those things sometimes interweave,” Chapman explained. “So experiences like finding a corpse in a garbage dump may set us up for trauma and trauma-type reactions and behavior in the classroom that looks like inattentiveness or defiance or hypervigilance or any number of things that may be a symptom of something that could be better characterized and treated as a mental health problem.”

Chapman shared some eye-opening statistics. According to her research and a recent federal youth risk behavior survey:

  • At least 20 percent of children in the United States have a diagnosable mental health problem that significantly impairs their functioning, such as anxiety,  bipolar disorder, PTSD, ADHD, or clinical depression,
  • About 30 percent of Latino high school students in North Carolina have felt sad or loneliness almost every day,
  • About 20 percent of Latino middle school students in North Carolina have seriously thought about committing suicide,
  • Around 6 percent of new immigrant Latino adolescents in North Carolina had PTSD.

But did Marisol’s life bear out such a narrative, the teachers wondered. Two of Jarman’s photos certainly raised red flags. In one, a young Marisol appeared to anxiously study her new classmates during a bus ride on her first day of school in Florida. The image and scene clearly contrasted with another from a bus, in which a more mature Marisol appeared to be in the middle of a fight. The Latina student, it turned out, had received multiple suspensions from school, most often for fighting.

“What do you think is going on with her there?” asked Reyna Rivera, a mental health therapist at El Futuro and a partner in the training project.

“I wonder why she dyed her hair,” one teacher said, noting the reddish-brown tint of Marisol’s mane. “She was very beautiful the way she was, so maybe it’s a cultural thing.”

“So there’s some cultural belonging issues, maybe some self-esteem stuff,” Rivera continued.

Another teacher saw a child needing to assert herself. “I wonder if there’s something going on that she feels she needs to come out and do that. I think every kid does that.”

Perhaps, the student was beginning to feel torn between two worlds, offered Casandra Seed, an exceptional children’s teacher at the school. “I’m wondering because she is part of the first generation coming over, if she’s having an identity crisis over ‘Am I Latina? Am I an American? Which culture do I belong to? I belong to both of them, but I don’t really.’ This may be one way of acting out and trying to figure out who she is.”

Over the course of the two-day session, the teachers reflected on Marisol’s journey—her adolescent dreams of becoming an artist, a lawyer, or a teacher and the reality and influence of the cyclical effects of poverty in her life.

Although educators can’t guarantee every student who passes through their classroom doors will succeed, Marisol’s story is a reminder that teachers have a responsibility to consider how cultural barriers and migration experiences might hinder potential student success, Seed said.
“We do need to be cultural brokers,” she said. “We need to be someone who helps mediate or act as a cultural liaison from one culture to another to help (students) be successful in whatever it is that they’re going to be. But we need to help them maintain their identity as well.”

Furthermore, as schools continue to become increasingly diverse, educators must ensure that they are serving the entire population, Hester added.

“So many times we don’t know what our children are faced with at home, so this (training) is an eye-opener,” she said. “Our teachers do a great job, but we’re always striving to do better, so hopefully, this gives them a push to do even more to reach all of our kids.”