On Saturday afternoon the East Somerville Community School auditorium was filled with elected officials, families, students, and other city residents, eagerly awaiting the 11th annual Youth Peace Conference.
According to a press release from last week, the conference “set the stage for dramatic improvement in the lives of thousands of youth.”
This year’s conference, “Views from the Ville: Fact vs. Fiction,” tackled topics such as immigration, racism, displacement, policing, and “fake news.” Shaheim Grant and Janelle Messina were the masters of ceremonies.
The show was dedicated to Charlene Harris, a strong supporter of Teen Empowerment, who passed away in March. Danny Harris, one of her six children, addressed the crowd, thanking them for honoring his mother.
“My mother was the epitome of generosity and selflessness, and one of, if not the most, dedicated community servant this city has ever seen,” he said. “I thank you all for this huge honor and ask that you keep the spirit of Charlene Harris alive…and help benefit this great community of ours.”
The show featured around a skit with three different, but connecting, storylines.
When the characters are confronted by the results of the November presidential election, they realize a majority of them are at risk — at risk of deportation, hatred, racism, and more. They inspire one another to spread real news, focus on real issues, and inspire one another.
The first story followed a pair of journalists, Carolina (Nicole Santana) and Stephen (Jonathan Aguilar) covering the presidential elections in June.
While Stephen is ready to have fun because he suspects presidential candidate Hillary Clinton will win by a landslide, Carolina is taking her job extremely seriously, and is confused as to why no one else seems to care. She insists Stephen leave her to her work, and suggests he do the same.
After Donald Trump wins the election, Stephen is harassed and victim of racist comments about Mexican people. He starts to realize what the results of the election mean, and vows to spread true and personal stories with Carolina.
The second story followed a group of students, Izzy (Lola Vira), Maria (Zimoara Perlerla), Leandra (Landy Valcourt), and John (Kai Treck). Izzy meets John, a new student from Maine. When she introduces him to Maria, they find out they have very different opinions regarding the presidential election.
John insists the two candidates are equally as bad, accidentally offending his friend. But after a few awkward interactions, the characters realize they must engage in conversation with people who have different opinions than her, and try to come to a point of understanding.
The third story followed two brothers, Angel (Kenneth Doherty), Ricco (Manuel Santiago), their mother (Tatiana Grullon) and their friend Bobby (CJ Felix).
When President Trump is elected, Angel is terrified his mom will be deported But his older brother Ricco promises to take care of him and their family. Their friend, Bobby, gets Angel into some trouble, leading towards an altercation with police. Ricco talks to both Angel and Bobby, and with a bit of harsh reality, the two vow to support one another and work hard to better their lives.
The show also included an array musical and spoken word performances. Performers included: Jannelle Messina (poet), Ellie Billion (poet), Corif Rudolph (singer), Nigel Baugh (rapper), Ashley Joseph (rapper), Oskervens Leneus (singer), Jackie Eloi (poet and singer), Oscar Zelayandia (singer), Brendan Dinardo (singer), Elvis Solares (singer), and Samantha Fillmore (poet).
Five teens also read personal essays, starting with Djamilson Diveiga and his move from Dorchester to Somerville.
Living in Dorchester, said Diveiga, he was surrounded by violence and drama. But after finding a community center, and eventually Teen Empowerment in Somerville, he feels like he’s on the right path.
Jonathan Aguilar, 20, spoke about his struggles as a gay man. He and his other LGBTQ-identifying friends are comfortable in Somerville, something he is thankful for.
“We matter here,” he said.
Mike Vaglica came to the United States in 2004, leaving his family in his home country to seek a better life. The country opened its doors, he said, warm-heartedly, but now he feels like in the wake of recent political events and actions the “welcome mat” has disappeared.
He remains optimistic, he said, because he believes teens have the power to change the world, to bring peace into the community.
Brayden Goldstein, and eighth grader, spoke about religious oppression and expression. Coming from a Jewish family in a heavily-Catholic area, he’s felt excluded for his beliefs.
When he and his friend wore spaghetti strainers to school in honor of “Pastafarianism,” honoring “the flying spaghetti monster,” he was immediately sent to the office for honoring the “fake” religion.
But he told administrators he was simply practicing what he believed in, and isn’t what they’re doing against religious freedom?
“Religion shouldn’t be engrained in school,” said Goldstein. “What I went through is nothing compared to what people went through before me.”
Ileana Perlera spoke as well, sharing her experience as pansexual, which she described as loving someone regardless or gender, sex and/or identity. With a vice president who supposedly supported gay conversion therapy, Perlera was terrified to come out.
But, she said, in a state that welcomes the LGBTQ community, we can foster acceptance, ban conversion therapy and take a stand against hatred.
After the show, audience members were invited to mental health workshops, hosted by the youth, and enjoy free ice cream, courtesy of J.P Licks.