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How One Young Person ‘Learned Not To Be Complacent With Injustice’

When Ornan Mendez’ parents lived in the Dominican Republic, they both had stable careers. His mother was a dentist and his father, an industrial engineer. When they moved to the United States to give their kids more opportunities, however, they had a hard time finding jobs.

My mother did not speak English and my dad lacked experience as an engineer in the U.S,” said Mendez, 19. “We were struggling.”

To help out, Mendez knew he needed to get a job, but he wanted to go somewhere willing to hire “an inexperienced teenager.” He also wanted an employer who cared about his education. When friends and family told him about Sociedad Latina, a nonprofit that provides a variety of programs designed to empower Latino youth and their families in the Boston area, it sounded like the right fit.

Ornan Mendez
Ornan Mendez, 19, says Sociedad
Latina taught him to believe in himself.

Now in his second year at Bunker Hill Community College and a program assistant for civic engagement at Sociedad Latina, Mendez says the program helped him gain valuable skills and insights. Here’s what else he had to say about his experience in a Q&A with America’s Promise, which has been edited for length and clarity.

What was an average day like?

When we first came into the program, we “checked in” to see how everyone was doing, then participated in an icebreaker. After that, we’d have conversations about topics that affected our communities, topics regarding education, local elections, laws and regulations, gun control, voting, and others.

After learning about the different issues, we found ways in which we could get involved. We wrote testimonies about our stories and what was important to us and spoke in front of local officials, the Boston Public School Committee, and community members.

Students at Sociedad Latina.
At Sociedad Latina, students learn to advocate for issues they care about.

We reached out to community members to encourage them to vote in Boston’s most important mayoral election of the decade. We also participated in marches around the city for causes we supported and we performed skits in front of teachers to shed light on the challenges students experience in the classroom.

What was the biggest challenge you faced while you attended Sociedad Latina?

When I was in high school, I really wanted to become a nurse practitioner, so Sociedad Latina helped get me an internship. But between college applications, work, and home responsibilities, everything became too much for me to handle.

I decided that it would be best to leave the internship to focus more on school, which made me feel devastated. I felt like I had let Sociedad Latina down. Instead of decreasing their involvement in my life after I left my internship, staff became more involved in my life, meeting with my teachers and principal to find ways to better support me. The community I found in Sociedad Latina allowed me to overcome that challenge; they reassured me that once you are part of Sociedad Latina, you are always part of Sociedad Latina.

What was the most valuable skill you gained or learned?

To believe in myself. I know that sounds cliché , but it is honestly true. We learned a lot about the many challenges different groups experienced because of their race, gender, immigration status, sexual preference, social status, age, and many more. It is already hard to accomplish goals in life like graduating from high school, pursuing a degree, and getting a job. To know that you are already at a disadvantage when pursuing these goals because of factors you can’t control can be tough.

Mendez at Sociedad Latina
“Once you are part of Sociedad Latina,” Mendez discovered, “you are always part of Sociedad Latina.”

Sociedad Latina helped me overcome these insecurities and encouraged me in my journey. During high school, they checked my grades to keep me accountable and provided me with homework assistance, took me on college tours, helped with books, and provided me with a job that sets me up for a better future. The list goes on.

All these things helped me believe in myself and made me realize that despite the challenges and setbacks life might bring, things will be okay.

How has your life changed since you finished the program?

I learned not to be complacent with injustice around me. In the face of so much injustice happening all around the world, it is very easy to fall under the mentality that it’s a natural part of life, that we should just be okay with that.

Sociedad Latina encouraged me to believe that I should never be complacent with the way things are and although it might take time, things can and will change.

The Youth Opportunity Fund is part of the Citi Foundation’s Pathways to Progress initiative focused on preparing young people to thrive in today’s economy. Pathways to Progress launched in 2014 in the United States with a $50 million, three-year commitment that helped more than 100,000 young people, ages 16-24, across 10 cities to become career-ready through first jobs, internships, and leadership and entrepreneurship training. In February 2017 the Citi Foundation announced a global expansion of the Pathways to Progress initiative with a $100 million, three-year investment to prepare 500,000 young people for today’s competitive job market. For more stories about Youth Opportunity Fund community partners, visit our Medium page.