The United States is home to millions. But for some people, the U.S. is a hub of opportunity and progression. One organization based out of Alexandria, Va., fulfills the expectation for young people who are new to the country.
Liberty’s Promise was founded in 2003 by Dr. Robert M. Ponichtera with a mission of providing opportunities to low-income, immigrant young people between the ages of 15-21 while emphasizing civic engagement.
Ponichtera, a Yale alumnus who concentrated his studies in international development, created the foundation of his non-profit organization through his own experiences in having grandparents who migrated from Italy. He says his grandparents were involved in their community civically through actions such as voting.
Last year, the student demographic was 22 percent Black/African American and 78 percent Hispanic/Latino. The country demographic includes young people from El Salvador, Honduras, Liberia, Nigeria, and Cameroon.
“One of the reasons to found [Liberty’s Promise] was that the folks that were coming here didn’t really have a background in democratic institutions,” stated Ponichtera.
Through several after-school programs in the D.C., Maryland, and Virginia region, the organization seeks to familiarize them with American democratic values to make them conscientious, active citizens. Yearly, the organization offers over 750 participants a 10-week civics course on American democracy, as well as English language courses and resources for immigrant youth.
The organization offers three different types of after-school programs. “Civics and Citizenship” is an after-school program with the central goal of making young adults civically engaged and bettering the understanding of their roles in their communities. Students are provided the opportunity to meet civic leaders, taken on field trips, and participate in community service projects. The program also offers free lunches and transportation for students.
CE-BELL, an acronym for Civic Engagement for Beginning English-Language Learners, is a modified version of the Civics and Citizenship program for those who are low-level ESOL students. The CE-BELL program is the only program offered by the organization in the D.C. metropolitan area, located at Theodore Roosevelt High School in the Petworth neighborhood of Ward 4. According to the 2016 U.S. Census Bureau 5-Year Estimates, 22.7% of the Ward 4 population is foreign-born, exceeding D.C.’s rate by 1.5 percent; 60% of the foreign-population is from Latin America.
“We looked at which schools had the most diverse student body, and then which schools had the highest numbers of students who were English language learners and received free or reduced lunches,” states the CE-BELL program director, Melissa Gelinas.
Although the vast majority of students who are part of the program speak Spanish, the organization has expanded to students who speak other languages, such as French-speaking students. To prevent the issue of a language barrier, students with higher proficiency in English often translate to their peers who have a lower ability.
“It’s a good opportunity for leadership in the youth,” Gelinas continues. “If one of the French-speaking African students’ English is good, they can translate in French back to their friends.”
Liberty’s Promise provides college readiness opportunities, as well as resources to help students navigate civic life, including “Know Your Rights” training and discussions. After the arrests of over 100 people by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the District and Northern Virginia during the summer of 2018, the organization provides resources and trips to community forums to alleviate the fear of detainment.
The organization focuses on providing opportunities in areas that it says the education system lacks when it comes to providing an opportunity for young immigrant adults.
“I learned — especially from the speakers or visitors that came from outside who talk about their jobs and how they got to where they are,” a 17-year-old participant from Cameroon, who did not want their name used, stated. “[I] also learned about scholarships and college education.”
“It just seems as though D.C. is more aware of its immigrant population than some of the other jurisdictions we work in,” Gelinas continued. “I feel they are more aware of the services that they need.”
Another student, from El Salvador, enjoys volunteering with the program.
“My favorite activity was making sandwiches because we helped people without homes,” the student, who requested anonymity for legal concerns, stated.
Liberty’s Promise plans to expand its boundaries beyond the D.C. metropolitan area, aiming for locations with high demographics of immigrants, such as Texas, Iowa, and Arkansas. As it works on expanding, it is currently working on increasing funding to push into many more schools around the District.
“[Young people] can live the American Dream,” states Ponichtera. This is the groundwork [for] helping people understand what this country is about.”