"They shared with the fellows the lessons they've learned following and chasing their dreams, the struggles and triumphs they have experiences, and the tips and guidance they have for living a life of meaning, purpose, and fulfillment...even if it isn't always what we expected it to be."
Our ethical citizenship cup runneth over...
Meet and get to know our most recent additions to the under A Tree family-- 25 South Florida-based high school juniors and seniors who are committed to becoming more ethical, accountable, and unapologetic social justice activists and civic leaders.
Click on the photo for more info!
The mentors (Tabitha Cherubin, Jhanae Douglas, Nick Mijares, Zoe Lee, and Shada Thykandy) and our leadership team (Director of Fellowship Recruitment & Experience, Andres Castillo, and Director of Development & Special Events, Donna Patricia de Castro) recently met in South Florida to build trust, share perspectives and hopes, and define individual, team, and organizational goals for the coming year.
Despite being depleted from weeks of AP Exam preparation and testing and sandwiched just before the thrilling release of graduation/summer vacation, our Fellows still somehow managed to create, implement, and execute their personalized capstones on a social issue/civic problem of their choosing.
The mission? Quite simple: Promote awareness (what it is people should care about it), garner accountability (why it is that people should care and why it matters to them), and promote agency (how can they actually go about doing something about it themselves moving forward).
In the final stage of our fellowship, facing more obstacles and barriers, our Fellows more than rose to the occasion. Over a span of two weeks in late May, they successfully implemented 30 community activism capstones on topics ranging from ending sexual violence to fighting environmental racism to shining a light on teen depression and addiction. In the process, they raised awareness in their local communities as well as online, inspired other elementary, middle, and high school students to think more critically and care more about the world we share, and experienced firsthand the difficulties and frustrations of creating social change but also the gifts, joy, and purpose of trying, learning, and persisting in the struggle nonetheless!
Please check out some highlights of our Fellows' work and be sure to click on all the links and explore some of what they created in more detail. We couldn't be more inspired by the work they invested in this effort and the foundations they have built to support the ongoing construction of a better tomorrow.
We are proud to officially announce our student leadership team for our third annual Ethical Citizens Fellowship, beginning in September of 2017.
As recent graduates of the UAT Ethical Citizens program, they will be responsible for recruiting, selecting, mentoring, and guiding the newest cohort of fellows. Please join us is recognizing and celebrating Shada, Jhanae, Andres Donna, Nick, Tabi, and Zoe!
On Friday morning, June 9, 2017, at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Ft. Lauderdale, I was lucky enough to emcee the high school graduation for 25 of our Under A Tree seniors who had taken part in Under A Tree during 2016 or 2017.
Of the six student speakers at the two-school ceremony (Somerset Academy High School and Somerset Arts Conservatory), five of them were UAT alumni (both school valedictorians, both school salutatorians, AND the senior class president). This opportunity ranked among the most meaningful moments of my 15-year career in education.
Although we are admittedly sad to see our founding fellows of Under A Tree move on to college (we will miss them terribly and wish them well!), we are awed by their personal and academic accomplishments. Multiple AP Scholars of Distinction, National Merit Finalists, and an unbelievable list of college acceptances and millions in scholarship offers...our fellows are quite simply...IMPRESSIVE!
Here's just a snapshot of their admissions accomplishments:
We are also excited to note that we have a student leadership team in place for the 2017-18 school year and are ready to implement our THIRD annual Ethical Citizens Fellowship.
With all that said, check out a few images from that special morning below:
And a few bonus pics from our final extemporaneous hoorah picnic:
June 11, 2017 | Pembroke Pines, FL
On Wednesday, June 7, 2017, Under A Tree honored 27 Ethical Citizenship Fellows and six Ethical Leadership Mentors for their successful completion of our 2016-17 Fellowship. Joined by parents, family members, community stakeholders, donors, and past Under A Tree alumni, we highlighted major accomplishments, celebrated student achievements, and awarded over $6500 in college scholarships.
We are grateful to Diana Rivera, Diana Escobar, Anaeli Mirjares, and Damaris Vila or their tireless efforts to secure and prepare such a beautiful space and provide tasty refreshments. We would also like to thank the Principal Stephanie Saban, the faculty and staff, and the PTA of Coral Cove Elementary School for so generously donating their facility for the celebration.
Check out our photoblog below to get a sense of the magic, emotion, and impact of this unforgettable evening in South Florida:
For our most recent ethical citizenship mission*, House of Bhutto and House of Suu Kyi teamed up to spread awareness about sexual assault and ending sexual violence. We realized that this is a topic that isn’t heavily discussed amongst high schoolers, not necessarily because it isn't an important issue but because many people are afraid to speak out about it. We decided that the best way to bring attention to the issue was to approach the young audience at our own school by making an information/photo booth and a “twibbon” that people could use on twitter. Flyers were handed out to remind people to do their part if they ever found themselves in a difficult situation involving the potential for sexual assault. Whether ensuring consent or being an ally for someone who experienced the trauma of sexual violence, we wanted to encourage our classmates not to be afraid to communicate openly, seek help if needed, or simply just to bring attention to a serious problem.
Members from both houses worked together to spread awareness in various forms. Maria, the mentor of House of Bhutto, made the flyers and created the twibbon. Adrianna from the House of Bhutto and Camila from House of Suu Kyi took the pictures at the photo booth. Kyle made the blue ribbon with which people could take pictures. Daniel, Maria, Camila, and Ariana helped design the poster. Everyone else participated in helping inform people what our project was all about. It became something fun -– the dancers at our school dressed up in teal body suits to match our theme and people were posting their pictures on different social media platforms. There was music playing and we were able to get plenty of pledges from both boys and girls.
Ending sexual violence will not be easy. But we can't change a culture until we communicate with each other and collaborate to amplify our voices...even if we're sure at first no one is listening.
~Kelly Ostruszka, House of Suu Kyi
*Editor's Note: For a look at Kelly's campaign as well as the campaigns created and implemented by the other houses, please check out our above photoblog documenting an incredible week of activism, social change, and civic leadership.
For "Stage VII: Race, Ethnicity & The Color Line," each of the fellows were asked to write a letter to their future children in the style of James Baldwin's 1962 letter to his nephew, "My Dungeon Shook." The unit's mission asked them to explore the twin values of audacity and humility and how they will define the appropriate time to be deferential, gracious, and willing to listen...and when they need to speak out without restraint, qualification, or apology.
What follows is a selection of 15 of our fellows' letters explaining their hopes and fears about the future of race in America...the progress we must celebrate, the demons we must slay, and the long road to trudge when it comes to actualizing a version of America often espoused but rarely experienced.
"You know and I know that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too early," wrote Baldwin to his nephew in 1962. "We cannot be free until they are free."
The words of our fellows remind us that freedom from truth (ignorance), freedom from responsibility (shamelessness), and freedom from reality (insanity) are no types of freedom at all. We want our children to be hopeful but not naive, critical-minded but not cynical. We want them to be equipped with the humility to know that the odds are against them but the audacity to never give up nonetheless...
I Am Not Your Negro is a film I needed to see, that anyone who walks in this country without fear of being judged on the way your look before being judged for your character, should see. The words of James Baldwin brought new light to a topic I've heard of many times yet never truly processed because I'm not being directly affected by it. When someone who was born and raised in this country says that they would never come back because any danger the outside world could bring them would be nothing to what they would face at home that gets you thinking. How could we have let this happen? How could a group of people try so hard to belittle and demean another group of people in order to raise above them and feel more powerful?
On March 16, 2017, senior fellow and House of Bhutto member, Daniel Roque, sat down to interview four junior Under A Tree fellows. What follows is a transcript of the discussion--an open, honest, and thoughtful look behind the scenes of Under A Tree.
What stands out? Where do we go from here? What comes next for them and for the organization? Find out here!
Tabitha (Tabi) Cherubin | Jhanae Douglas | Nicholas (Nick) Mijares | Shada Thykandy
House of Blanchard | House of Bhutto | House of Suu Kyi| House of Socrates
1. What are some things you like to do, your interests?
Jhanae: I like to sing, I like photography, and I like reading.
Tabi: I like art, I like working on art, just anything that has to do with art.
Shada: I like reading, writing, and watching TV.
Nick: Yeah, I like to watch TV, listen to music, and filmmaking is something I really like to do.
2. Which world issues are you most passionate about?
Nick: The gender issues from around the world and how they’re strongly rooted in culture, and how the issues are so diverse all over the world and it seems like solutions are so limited in certain areas.
Daniel: So then how do you think society can improve in terms of these gender issues?
Nick: Well, that’s a very difficult question. I don’t know for sure all the ways we can improve but educating people is the first step to solving any kind of problem, as long as you increase awareness, because they may not be able to do anything about it. But as long as they don’t neglect the issues or ignore them completely then you’re making at least some progress.
Shada: I feel like discrimination and the categorization of people in certain ways, like stereotypes, because of their particular race or religion, like seeing someone who’s black and automatically characterizing them as a criminal or seeing someone who’s Muslim and automatically characterizing them as a terrorist, that’s a major problem. If we can combat xenophobia and ignorance and bigotry, I feel like that is a major step forward in almost every issue.
Tabi: I think, for me, it would definitely be race, because it’s something that’s so close to home and it’s something that, being a person that is black, is something that I have to deal with on an everyday basis. And like Nick was saying, one of the major issues with race is that, because racism looks so different than it did before, I feel like a lot of people fail to acknowledge the fact that some of the ideas that they hold may be surrounded by these racist ideas that have been set years before. So I think first acknowledging the fact that we may hold some racist views is one of the main things we need to do.
Jhanae: Mine is pretty similar. Race relations, in the US, especially since we don’t educate people, there are things that have come off of racism that are very present. LIke, as I was researching colorism, I saw that came off of racism and then stayed, and people don’t acknowledge that it’s essentially racism...it’s just a different mask for racism.
3. What drew you to UAT?
Jhanae: Originally it was Kyle ('16 Alumnus) who was like “Oh you have to do it, I’m making you do it.” So I signed up, but then I read what the fellowship was about, like having a conversation about things we don’t get to have conversations about I feel is so important because you may talk about these issues on occasion but being in a group in which the sole thing you’re talking about is these issues, I think that’s what drew me to it, because I didn't get to have those conversations on a daily basis, and now I can.
Tabi: I think for me what really drew me was Danny (Meyer). My sister was in it last year and the way she would describe Danny was as like this charismatic and intelligent guy, and when she described what the fellowship does I thought that would be really cool to be a part of.
Shada: I think the first people who told me about UAT were Maria and Sabrina ('16 Alumni), and they told me I’d be a good candidate and that I needed to join this club. And at first when I was recruited for it I heard about the things they talk about, like Jhanae said, they’re things you never get to talk about at school, like religion and race and real issues that just aren't addressed by our standardized curriculum, and I thought that having the opportunity to explore that outside of school would be really cool, especially being in an environment where everyone's open and accepting. That’s hard to find anywhere else.
Nick: For me it was seeing everyone’s capstones last year, like the one about consent, and I saw on social media all the different projects that they were doing and I wanted to be a part of it. And so I remember going on the website last year and reading through all the capstones and I decided I definitely wanted to apply for it next year. And then my friends this year like Kelechi told me I should apply, so I’d already heard of it before and I was interested, and they just gave me that extra push to actually go for it.
4. What has stood out about your experience in UAT?
Shada: Personally, an experience that's stood out to me was being able to co-facilitate a session. A lot of the time you sit in and you listen as a fellow, which is very valuable, but when you have the ability to talk about your issues and you have a hand in being able to shape what everyone hears and the content, I feel like that's a very special experience and I enjoyed it, I would love to do it again.
Tabi: Kind of going back to what Jhanae was saying, being able to have a conversation on a regular basis about really important topics that we all experience in some way, we don't usually get that, so being able to be a part of something where people for the most part hold similar values and ideas as I do, that's really refreshing to be able to have those conversations
Jhanae: Something that stood out to me was when we did "The Race," like, that got really emotional really quickly. It was a lot, but it was an important conversation to have, and once you acknowledge white privilege or the comparative disadvantage that many people place because white privilege exists. When you have those conversations you get a better look at the world, and I think you acknowledge people more in a different way.
Nick: For me, an impactful part of the fellowship was what we considered in the religion unit, which has always been a major conflict in my life and I've never been able to really find the balance that I needed, and think talking about it makes you a lot more open-minded about it and helps you see that things aren't in black and white. There are different routes that you can take that'll make you happy, and being able to explore that, because there aren't a lot of people or places that you can go to to talk about things like this, and so being able to find yourself through it, I think that's a big factor in building your own personal identity. And that's something that I've found nowhere else.
5. What subject or topics so far have you enjoyed discussing the most? What are you still most looking forward to discussing?
Tabi: I think race. I feel like with the issue there are so many layers and different things that make up the issue, and it's not just black and white, and the thing that I'm really looking forward to would be gender roles--discussing that and their effects on society.
Jhanae: Mine is race as well because, like Tabi said, there are so many layers to the issues and it's still such an important issue. We're still trying to have this conversation on race and we haven't managed to flush it out, so that's what I've enjoyed talking about the most this year. And I also look forward to the unit on gender roles.
Nick: I'm looking forward to the same thing, gender roles and sexuality because I feel like that's something that almost never gets touched on besides a very minimal overview that we get in school, so I think that's something we still need to make progress in, through legislation too, and like with race, there's still unfairness and disadvantages, so I think that's a huge problem and I look forward to discussing. It should be really interesting.
Shada: The topic I've enjoyed the most so far has been religion, because, like Nick said, you see all these perspectives, and at home you're not actually exposed or given much choice in what you learn about and choose, but in an environment where everyone is open-minded and talking in a rational manner, I think that allows you to think more broadly. And I'm also looking forward to talking about gender roles because I feel like, especially now in 2017, there's so much homophobia and gay rights is such a current issue, so I feel like being able to discuss that is very important to do.
Tabi: What I think is so important about talking about all these different things is that they're still so prevalent in our society, none of them have really gone away, whether it be stereotypes or racism or gender discrimination, so I think the relevance makes this discussion so important to our society.
6. What topics or interactions have made you reflect most about your own view on things? What conversations or activities have made you most uncomfortable or most challenged you to look at an issue from a different perspective (even if your mind didn’t change)?
Daniel: So pretty much what topics have clashed with your previously held beliefs and how has that affected you?
Nick: The most eye-opening activity for me was "The Race," like, I’d always known racial issues were big problems, but I hadn’t really recognized the severity of it and I’d always brushed it aside like “We’re not living in the past anymore; there have definitely been improvements," but I think really seeing the depth of it and seeing that these problems still exist and that, like Jhanae said, they’re under different masks now, I think it’s extremely important for us to know. And that specifically I had known that we all have our disadvantages based on our ethnicity or color, like there are things beyond us that we may not know about each other, and I think doing that activity and seeing what everyone else has gone through, that’s something we never really acknowledge besides in that activity. And that we weren’t only talking about our differences but physically seeing them I think made it even scarier but at the same time it’s crucial for us to understand.
Shada: For me something that made me reflect deeply was the discussion of the concept of the soul and when it was formed or where it is like does it reside inside you, I’d always thought it was like a spirit inside you but when I heard people talking about abortion specifically and when the soul is really formed, it was something that kind of clashed with the biology of it all, and it’s something that I still don’t really have an answer to...something that’s always going to be contested everywhere: when does life really begin, not just by logic but when is your soul born? That was something that I still think about, it’s crazy.
Tabi: I think the same thing as Shada, like the discussion on the formation of the soul is one thing that left me reflecting. It’s not something that there’s really a definite answer to but it is based heavily on your beliefs so it makes you consider them. I think, for the most part, the topics haven’t contrasted that heavily with my views...many of them have actually strengthened and reaffirmed them.
7. Many of us struggle with a sense of paralysis in the face of insurmountable social and political problems. What is your recommendation for people who want to be more aware and active but also don't want to lose themselves to bitterness, resentment, or hopelessness?
Tabi: I think with that question it has to do with your own personal experiences. Like, I know with the race, I would say that the majority of black people were more towards the back, and it reminded me that even though black people have been through so much adversity, they’ve come so far. So, I think seeing all the oppression and discrimination that black people have to deal with on an everyday basis, seeing how far they’ve come is something that’s made me proud and not want to give up, no matter what challenge we face.
Jhanae: People wonder what they can do if there are x amount of problems in the world, like looking at the war in Syria, you have people like the White Helmets, and they go out and it’s a lot, you see people and their families dying every day, but you can’t be sad and think you can’t do anything, there’s always something that you can do. And even though the overall problem may not be fixed, you contributed to helping it be solved in some way.
Tabi: I think a lot of those problems like the ones that we discussed, as optimistic as I can be, I know these things aren’t going away and that as long as humans are around there will always be discrimination and oppression whether it be based on race or religion or gender, so although there may not be one big solution that would just end the problem, I think there are little things we can do here and there.
Nick: Yeah I completely agree. I have to remind myself that the world is never going to be a perfect place. There’s always going to be some form of conflict, but then you also have to remember that discord is what leads to progress.You need to have some sort of disagreement if you’re going to make a change or if there’s ever going to be a route to improvement. The minute we all agree that everything is okay, that’s when the problems begin...when there is no disagreement or there is no push for change.
Tabi: Yeah, sometimes conflict is necessary to make change. The most important changes in history have come from disagreement, argument, and sometimes even violence. This is what makes people see the issues as important and take them seriously.
Shada: I think it takes a certain level of maturity to be able to understand and accept these problems. Being afraid of the fact that it might be sad to recognize these things shouldn’t mean you should turn a blind eye to them. Being able to recognize the problem is like half of solving it. I feel like if you have mutual cooperation, you can overcome.
8. What do you think UAT has to offer to the fellows of next year?
Jhanae: It offers them the same thing it offered me: a place to talk about problems that I see happening in the world, and I think it’s a safe place to be open and discuss things intellectually and respectfully with other people who may differ from your point of view.
Tabi: I feel that the school we go to, in particular, fails to have these important discussions with the students. So I feel like it would be really nice for next year’s fellows to have a place where they can have these conversations and talk about things that they may not be at home or at school.
Shada: I really believe it’s like an open forum for discussion where you don’t have to be afraid or hold back what you want to say because you know that you’ve heard that other people might think the same thing as you. At school and at home you might keep those things in and you might never know that people actually feel the same way you do. The fellows will benefit from a lot from open discussion, and it may come as a shock at first that these kinds of discussions can even happen, but once you get used to it I feel like it’s such a great experience.
Nick: Yeah, UAT for me is a safe space for talking about what concerns me or what concerns other people and the way I can educate myself on those things, but at the same time I think it’s going to offer them answers. For me there were so many questions beforehand...like, who am I to talk about this? What authority do I have like I don’t know anything about this? And the fact that we’re being introduced to those topics, it’s going to give us a nice foundation for when we do get asked those questions in the future. It gives us the security we need to speak about certain things.
9.. What advice do you have for people who want to join the fellowship next year?
Nick: My advice would be to not feel intimidated or that you have to be super-smart to be able to contribute to our conversations. The point of it is to not show everything that you know but to show what you learn from it, so even if you’re not that educated, that’s the point, please apply so that way you can be informed so that you can get there.
Shada: Yeah, I agree with Nick. A major problem that a lot of people struggle with is that they don’t know what’s the right time to give their input or might think that what they have to say isn’t that smart. But if you value your input then others will also value your input. Also, try to make it to meetings, the more meetings you go to, the more exposure you get and you may miss a topic that you would’ve really enjoyed talking about.
Tabi: Yeah, the same thing as what Shada said. Try to make it to as many meetings as you can, like I know, me personally, I was kind of bad with that at the beginning of the year but as I started going to more and more I just realized that the meetings add just a little something extra to your day, it’s nice to be able to talk about those important topics. I also think that you should try to give your input as much as possible, sometimes people are nervous or they feel like they’ll sound stupid but I think that each opinion and contribution adds value to the discussion.
Jhanae: I would say to come with an open mind. You’re going to meet people with starkly different opinions and it’s going to seem a little bit jarring at first because you’re going to be like “I’m not really feeling them.” You may not acknowledge what they have to say, but everyone has something important to say.
10. What do you think UAT has the potential to become?
Shada: I think UAT will and should branch out, like other schools can adopt the UAT program that was originally founded by Danny and replicate the things we do. I feel like that would help so many students like every school that you would add would have so many more students and minds that are exposed to these critical issues, and I feel like it could become statewide or nationwide and it could become a movement, it would be of great value to everyone’s education.
Tabi: I agree with Shada. I think that it would be awesome for UAT to branch out and go to different schools so that different kids have the opportunity to be in a program where they’d be able to express their beliefs and opinions and learn something new.
Nick: Like a well-known high school organization that kids could apply to like with clubs or other associations that exist.
Jhanae: There are classes at community centers--you could open it up to the community so that everyone gets the opportunity, because some adults may have gone their whole lives without learning about these issues. So, if it opens up to be available to everyone, I think that would be important.
11. Why do you want to keep being a part of and contributing to UAT next year?
Tabi: I think that it’s such an awesome program that I want to be in it for as long as possible, and being able to continue having these discussions and learning more next year and growing--becoming more firm in my beliefs--I think that’s something that I want to do and be a part of next year.
Shada: Another thing I thought is that in some units I didn’t get enough time, I started enjoying it and by that time it was already over, so the fact that we get the chance to go over them again next year, like you can never have a unit for too long because there’s always something to talk about, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to do it a second year. Even if you went through the units this year, going through them as a different person next year with different experiences, you get new perspectives and get to continue growing and changing.
Nick: For me, it’s to keep the conversation going...like, that’s something that should never stop happening; you should always continue the discussion. But I’m also interested in what it’s all like from the perspective of a mentor or someone who’s still there, I want to see others grow from a different standpoint. This year we are the fellows, and Danny and the mentors get to see us change. I’m interested in how that feels or what it looks like to see these people grow and really become aware of these issues.
Jhanae: Yeah, like what Nick said, because I would like to become a mentor and help facilitate someone else’s growth in all of these issues and see how they change or don't’ change over the course of the units.
Tabi: I think that, like Nick said, you can never have these conversations enough because there’s always something new to talk about or add in, so it would be really nice to be able to continue those discussions.
On Monday afternoon, March 6, 2017, our UAT fellows and mentors took part in a very special activity that asked them to contemplate and discuss the role of privilege, power, and oppression in determining life opportunities in the U.S. The purpose of the event was neither to congratulate nor to shame individuals but to look critically at competing notions of fairness, meritocracy, inequity, and individual talent vs. societal dis/advantages.
For those participants who found themselves in an advantageous position in "the race," how might they work as allies to ensure that others just as capable might have similar chances to succeed. For those facing additional obstacles, how might they retain hope and strength when facing leaping these additional hurdles head on? For all of us, how could we work to remember that we will all inevitably find ourselves at the front and at the back, ahead and behind, held up and held back...and how can we continue to celebrate our own achievements while still realizing that nothing in this world is accomplished alone?
What resulted was an experience that will last a lifetime...
And the following evening, our fellows and mentors gathered again to continue the dialogue about how we can all work together to create a more just, fair, and equitable world for all people. Rather than feel defeated by the weight of history and the reality of unfairness, how can we make a difference in immediate and lasting ways?
On Thursday night, February 16, 2017, the Under A Tree fellows and mentors hosted nearly 150 people--students, parents, siblings, community members-- at Somerset Academy in Pembroke Pines, FL. The event provided an opportunity for all who participated to engage in meaningful and robust discourse about religion, faith, spirituality, doubt, and the obstacles to understanding and acceptance. We welcome you to scroll through our photoblog to get a sense of the evening's energy and impact!
"So now my assignment from Sunday school is to respond to one of these letters. But perhaps that will be the hardest part of all - because I don’t think any words that I know could ever express the love and gratitude I feel for these people who have reached out and gone out of their way to personally comfort, to reassure, and to console a group of people they don’t even know.
It just goes to show that there is always someone out there looking out for you, someone who believes in the virtues of our great country, and that love always trumps hate."