Graduates from the Eastside Dreamers Academy (EDA) spent three days in Washington, D.C. last week, where they visited the White House, the U.S. Capitol, the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian, and other national monuments, and met with Congressional leaders and one of President Obama’s senior advisors.
The Eastside Dreamers Academy is a City of San Antonio and San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce partnered program led by District 2 Councilman Alan Warrick’s office and facilitated by Winslow Consulting and One Million Dreams.
For several of the 14- to 17 year-old middle and high-school students, the D.C. trip marked their first time on an airplane and their first excursion away from home, and mentors found themselves coaching the group through some jitters and fears. Fortunately, the excitement of the trip ahead helped the Dreamers overcome those anxieties, and grins quickly replaced initial frowns.
There were many other firsts on this trip, including navigating the Metro system and the fast-paced rhythm of the big city. The group, 10 young Dreamers and five mentors, stayed in nearby Alexandria, Va., and after three days of constant mass transit travel, the kids started to get the hang of it.
The mentors – Councilman Warrick, District 2 Director of Neighborhood Engagement Milee Ray, EDA mentor Shevy Swart, and One Million Dreams Co-founders Alberto Altamirano – and I volunteered our time on this Dreamers mission.
The first stop after checking into the hotel was the Pentagon City Mall for some D.C.-style barbecue; the second was to Washington D.C.’s National Mall, which caught a few of the Dreamers by surprise seeing as it is not a mall in the traditional shopping sense.
Under a light, but cold drizzle, the Dreamers visited the Washington Monument, the National WWII Memorial, and the Lincoln Memorial. Inspired by their surroundings, they engaged in thoughtful discussion about whether Lincoln was good guy or not. They asked questions like, “Did he have slaves? How much did he really change the course of American history, as well as African-America history?”
I was proud of their depth of interest and curiosity and openness to a range of different viewpoints. One young Dreamer pointed out the large inscription and declared, “That’s the Emancipation Proclamation!”
From there, we walked to the White House just in time to witness it illuminated amid the dark autumn sky, enhanced by the sight and sound of Marine One and its decoy flying overhead. The kids chatted up Secret Service agents who were clad in full-Kevlar and all smiles as they answered the barrage of questions the Dreamers had about the president’s comings and goings.
On day two the Dreamers had an early meeting with U.S. Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas) in the Cannon House Office Building.
“If there’s just one thing to remember and take away from all of this, the one thing I can tell you is that people will tell you what you can’t do, what you can’t be, why you should settle for less,” Hurd told the Dreamers. “But if you look around, a lot of us heard the same things growing up. You’re going to have to not listen to any of that.”
Hurd asked each one of the Dreamers about their goals and aspirations and then proceeded to mentor each one individually on potential next steps and connections he was willing to facilitate, making sure his legislative correspondent wrote everything down so he could follow-up and help make things happen for these kids.
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) hosted all 15 of us at a luncheon in the U.S. Capitol Building’s “Congressional members only” dining room. This is a selfie-free, no press corps allowed, safe zone where members of Congress can dine with some degree of privacy and decorum. Many of the kids reflected on how special this experience was and labeled it one of the highlights of trip. The underground private subway ride connecting the Rayburn Building to the Capitol was pretty impressive as well.
Cuellar explained the scale and scope of the House Appropriation Committee’s responsibilities during a hospitable sit down in his office in the Rayburn Building.
U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) was equally welcoming as we sat around his desk and talked about district policy making and the work he does in Washington representing us. Doggett asked the Dreamers which neighborhoods they lived in and talked with them about relatable, regional topics.
We were told that the newly-opened Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of African American History and Culture was booked until March of 2017, but at the 11th hour Councilman Warrick managed to score tickets for our entire group. The exhibit starts with the beginnings of African slave trade in the late 1400s, and culminates with the President Obama’s administration. This unfiltered, raw, historically accurate, tastefully executed, multi-media narrative of the African American journey from exploitation to prominence is a powerful piece of education and history. It also serves as a reminder of both humankind’s capacity for cruelty and the destructive forces of intolerance and ends with beacons of hope and stories of a people’s resilience.
As the Dreamers absorbed slavery-era exhibits, several were moved by the familiarity of facial features which resembled those of close relatives. Many were deeply moved by Emmett Till’s casket, and a few kids commented on how seeing the artifacts of slavery – the whips in particular – made a lasting impression.
An evening trip to Georgetown helped lighten the mood, and the Dreamers even saw classes in session through theatre-style windows at George Washington University on the way to dinner.
On day three, after an extensive series of Secret Service security checks, the Dreamers finally arrived inside the White House. We were met by the Office of Public Engagement’s Staff Assistant and Policy Advisor Asher Mayerson who gave the us an overview of the White House’s layout and functions.
Next, we were met by Julie Chavez Rodriguez, the White House’s deputy director of Public Engagement, special assistant to the president, and granddaughter of the iconic labor leader and civil right activist César Chávez. Rodriguez explained thoroughly how our country’s executive office works and which parts she is directly involved in. Dream mentor Alberto Altamirano, who has a long-standing work relationship with Mayerson and Rodriguez on the Public Engagement Committee, was instrumental in setting up these special opportunities for our dreamers.
From there, it was back to Alexandria to check out of the hotel and board the long flight home.
During our layover Dallas Love Field airport, our Dreamers got a selfie with former Pearl CEO Darryl Byrd, Centro San Antonio President and CEO Pat DiGiovanni, and SAHA‘s Director of Choice Neighborhood Program Beverly Watts-Davis, who were also en route home from a conference. The trio’s response to our Dreamers and their epic journey made us all feel like there was a whole community cheering these kids on and supporting their success.