EDITOR’S NOTE: As we make our way through these difficult, division-haunted days, take a break to read a story that offers some much-needed light.
Over the 4th of July weekend, two Los Angeles teenagers flew a round trip of nearly 5000 miles to bring water and various other supplies to around 200 undocumented residents of Flint, Michigan. The two had spent months raising the money necessary to pay for their trip to Michigan, and to buy the goods they would deliver once they got there.
On the surface, the twosome—Bryan Martinez, 18 and Carizma Brown, 19—were an unlikely pair to take on the challenge. For one thing, neither one of them, had flow in a plane before. Nor had they been out of LA, for that matter. And they had exactly zero experience in fundraising, or any kind of activism.
Bryan’s family is from El Salvador and Carizma is African American, yet the two have been best friends since they were 11, in part because they have a lot in common, much of it painful.
Bryan has been in and out of foster homes for most of his childhood, and has struggled to have have any kind of safe home environment.
Carizma lived with her mother for at least part of her growing up but, like her best friend Bryan, her homelife was anything but stable.
“These are two youngsters who have been impacted by ongoing poverty and violence,” said Dr. Cesar Cruz, who did his Harvard University doctoral residency at Homeboy Industries, where the teenagers are involved in a job training program. Cruz also became Bryan and Carizma’s mentor for the project, and their chaperone when they flew to Flint. “They’re not in gangs,” explained Cruz, “but a lot of times people think they are. And they’re impacted by gangs, trauma and instability, because of where they live.”
Although both teenagers are clearly bright, neither did well in traditional schools. Thus they wound up at Learning Works Charter School, an individualized learning program that operates in partnership with Homeboy Industries.
Even at Learning Works, according to Cruz, the teens struggled in the beginning to recover enough credits to get firmly on the road to graduation. (They expect to graduate next June.)
“But they wanted to be challenged,” Cruz said. “And they had a strong interest in social justice.” Thus when, as part of their studies, they read about the water contamination catastrophe in Flint, they became fascinated by the fact that the residents of an American city didn’t have enough of a basic necessity of living—water.
NO IDENTIFICATON, NO WATER
It was Carizma who first got the idea of turning their interest into action, said Cruz. She began bugging her best friend Bryan, “and they cooked up a plan.”
Bryan, in particular, was stunned by the idea of people in the U.S. without safe drinking water. “Water is an main need in life,” he said,”and seeing that people were having trouble getting it…it made us want to do something. We wanted to show that young people were concerned with other people, not just ourselves.”
They were also interested in the fact that, while Flint had been a big story, it had fallen out of the headlines. Most of the famous people had gone home. But the problem was far from over. People were still suffering.
Among the sub-issues within the crisis that Bryan and Carizma discovered was the fact that many among Flint’s undocumented population of several hundred residents were having trouble getting water and other crucial supplies that were being provided to those in need, because they had no valid IDs and, even when they did, they were fearful about disclosing their immigration status.
The idea of helping out Flint’s comparatively small undocumented population made the project seem manageable, according to Cruz.
But, how to find Flint’s undocumented residents?
FORMING A PLAN
In one of the news stories they found in the course of their research, they noticed the name of a Catholic Church located in Flint: Our Lady of Guadalupe. Having no other leads, they the two called the church. The parish secretary, a woman named Mary Mosqueda, happened to answer the phone. Bryan and Carizma explained what they wanted to do.
By the end of the conversation, Ms. Mosqueda had agreed to help the twosome.
“Don’t worry so much about water,” she told them. “People need baby wipes and adult wipes” in order to bathe.
Now that they had an on-the-ground contact and a reasonably practical plan, their next step was to make a budget. After doing the math, they determined they’d need to raise around $5000 to accomplish their goals. After that, they printed flyers for their project, which they handed out at the yearly Homeboy picnic, which draws about 300 Homeboy employees and supporters.
“They hit everyone up for donations,” said Cruz.
But, while Bryan and Carizma’s enthusiastic badgering of the picnic attendees did produce results, it wasn’t anywhere nearly enough.
Next, they turned to social media. With the help of Cruz and others, they made a promotional video and pitched their cause on IndieGoGo.
It worked. They didn’t raise the full $5000, but they managed to pull in $3825. Homeboy and Learning Works agreed to loan them the rest, until they could gather the remaining cash.
SAM’S CLUB STEPS UP
Bryan and Carizma flew to Flint on Friday July 1, and hit the ground running. They liked the symbolism of doing their outreach on Independence Day weekend, said Cruz.
On Saturday morning, they went into Sam’s Club to buy the needed water and wipes—after comparison shopping and finding that Sam’s had had the best prices for what they wanted to purchase in bulk. It turned out to be a felicitous choice because, at Sam’s Club, persuasive Carizma was able convince the store’s manager to match any of the money they spent in the store, dollar for dollar.
“The manager cared because this was her town,” said Cruz.
On Saturday afternoon and again on Sunday, they delivered the supplies to the church, and at other locations that their new Flint friends suggested. They also spoke at Our Lady of Guadalupe in front of the congregation. “They were powerful. Afterward, all these people came up and hugged them,” said Cruz.
Prior to coming to Flint, Carizma and Bryan decided they wanted to make a documentary covering what they experienced, so they came armed with cameras.
During their time in Flint, they were stunned by the poverty and the suffering they saw around them. .
As difficult as their own lives have been, they saw greater suffering in Flint, he said. It affected them to the point that they had trouble sleeping.
“I was talking to kids while I was giving out water,” explained Carizma, “and they weren’t eating good, they had rashes on their skins. And these are kids who are, like, seven years old.”
One antidote to their upset, seemed to be to film the pain they saw, with the idea of showing spreading the word beyond Flint. But it wasn’t all suffering, they were quick to note. They found significant pockets of hope provided by the many instances of local activism Bryan and Carizma witnessed.
“They filmed everything,” said Cruz. “They had no fear. They went into crack houses, they went into housing projects. They went everywhere, and talked to everyone.”
Bryan and Carizma hope to have a half-hour documentary ready in time to present at an event held at the California Endowment in August that draws leaders who work with populations like those at Homeboy, from around the globe.
And they’ll do it, said Cruz. “They’re on fire right now. They’re ready change the world….”
In the meantime, on July 5, Bryan and Carizma’s first day back at Homeboy, the two agreed to give the “Thought of the Day” at Homeboy’s morning staff meeting.
Carizma, normally the most facile public speaker of the two, grew suddenly shy, but still persevered, telling those assembled that her thought for the day was “Be grateful for what you have, because in Flint they don’t even have water.”