BALTIMORE (AP) - When Yaslin Machuca Molina was a sophomore at Baltimore City College High School in 2014, she only knew five other Latino classmates. So she cofounded a club for students to learn about Latin American culture: hosting movie nights, having pinata-making lessons and holding events for Hispanic Heritage Month.
Two years later, sparked by the 2016 presidential election, the group started to become something different by doing advocacy work, organizing and hosting community workshops around immigrant rights.
Today, SOMOS (Students Organizing A Multicultural and Open Society) has 23 members and an alumni network tackling systemic issues of injustice in schools, Baltimore and the nation. Amid the pandemic, SOMOS has worked to address the inequitable access to internet, ensure fair academic opportunity for English language learners and make school reopenings safe. This month, their work to campaign for better and free Wi-Fi service for low income families landed them in a story in The New York Times.
“Now I see students from different backgrounds being part of the group and seeing a lot more active organizers,” said Molina, 22, now a communications coordinator and Hispanic liaison for Democratic Baltimore City Council member Odette Ramos. A first generation college student, Molina mentors SOMOS members on the college admissions process and has showcased their work at virtual town halls with Ramos.
“I call them my babies. I’m super proud of them,” Molina said.
Franca Muller Paz, a SOMOS adviser and teacher at City College, says the students will often meet every day, even on weekends, and sometimes have meetings that last four hours. The time commitment is already unusual for high school clubs, and on top of that, it’s common for SOMOS members to have one or two jobs and family responsibilities on top of their rigorous course load.
“A lot of SOMOS students do come from immigrant families, which means that they are translators, they’re going to the doctor, they’re helping to figure out tax payments, (and) helping to figure out all kinds of bureaucratic systems for their families,” said Muller Paz.
FIGHTING TO GET INTO TOP SCHOOLS
In 2017, the group advocated for ESOL - English for speakers of other languages - students who faced difficulties gaining entrance to elite city high schools. SOMOS students argued that the formula the district used to determine eligibility was creating a disparity. In seventh grade, students, whose first language is not English, were exempted from a standardized test in English. But their exemption was in reality a punishment, because they were given zeros, which pulled down their overall, or composite scores.
“I had no clue until I saw that composite score, which broke my heart and was a disappointment,” said Samreen Sheraz, the valedictorian of her class at Vanguard Middle School in 2018. “I still cannot forget the pain.”
Her twin brother, Samar Khawaja, had the second highest grades in their class. But the siblings weren’t accepted at Baltimore City College High School, the magnet high school they wanted to attend together. They had been enrolled in ESOL the year before, when they arrived in Baltimore from Sri Lanka speaking Urdu, the language of their native Pakistan.
SOMOS stepped in on their behalf. The advocacy led to the twins’ admission to City College and over 30 ESOL students receiving new placements into highly selective schools by June 2019.
“I started to realize that it’s not only my problem, but there were countless more students,” said Sheraz, 16, who joined SOMOS as an eighth grader and is a junior at City College.
Now, ESOL students can take the standardized tests in eighth grade, one year later than most students take it, and do not receive zeros for taking the exemption from the English test. SOMOS also won translators for students to take the tests in their native language, and City College became the first highly selective school to offer a Spanish course for Spanish speakers.
ACTIVISM FOR WI-FI
In February, their activism helped lead to Comcast increasing speeds for its low-cost Internet Essentials plan nationwide.
More than 40% of Baltimore households lack a fixed line connection, and one in three households do not have a desktop or laptop computer. In April 2020, alongside other advocates, Kimberly Vasquez gave public testimony with fellow SOMOS organizer Yashira Valenzuela-Morillo and helped secure $3 million from the Baltimore Children and Youth Fund to pay for more devices and internet connections for students.
Then last July, SOMOS spearheaded a petition that outlined three demands for Comcast: faster internet for families on Internet Essentials, a longer period of free internet for those families, and more free Wi-Fi hot spots. The student group held protests against the internet service provider and lobbied the Maryland legislature and the city to make broadband affordable for low-income households. Vasquez, a City College senior and lead organizer of SOMOS, even held meetings with Comcast executives like the Beltway region vice president of government, regulatory affairs and community impact, Misty Allen.
“It’s been a tough, tough fight,” said Vasquez, during a virtual town hall with Ramos, the city councilwoman. “We’re still fighting this, and only one of (the demands) was half met. But we’re hopeful that we can … get students to the Wi-Fi that they deserve.”
Internet Essentials has helped 192,000 residents in Baltimore over the last decade. Comcast plans to put $1 billiontoward digital equity over the next 10 years, said Kristie Fox, vice president of communications for Comcast’s Beltway region. “We understand that the digital divide is a vast and complex issue that requires collaboration so everyone is part of the solution.”
SPEAKING UP FOR SAFE REOPENING
This winter, SOMOS organizers dove into the school reopening debate, asking students to strike to be allowed to continue attending classes from home. Among several advocates and teachers who testified, Marigold Lewi, 15, spoke at City Council’s Education, Workforce and Youth Committee hearing on reopening Baltimore City schools. Limited to three minutes, Lewi presented demands including that schools hire full-time nurses and give students a break from standardized testing. Lewi spoke about her sister in kindergarten struggling at home to read full sentences and take i-Ready, a standardized assessment to verify school readiness.
“I told them not to rush me as I have to speak and what I have is important,” said Lewi, who immigrated to Baltimore from Ghana.
One of their demands was met when the Maryland State Board of Education delayed standardized testing until the fall. SOMOS is still pushing for reduced standardized testing, as studies show that these tests put youth of color at a disadvantage.
Lewi, a sophomore, says ego sometimes gets in the way and wishes adults would work with SOMOS instead of fighting them. She has two more years with SOMOS and will continue to tell those in power: “Go back and fix what you have to fix, because this is something that will affect generations to come.”
Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC.