Published May 16, 2016
Unlocking Silent Histories, or “USH,” is an up-and-coming organization that you’ll want to know. We aim to combat the legacy of genocide and colonialism by empowering Indigenous youth to raise their voices and tell their stories through film. Our work has captured the attention of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), which will feature these youth-produced films between September 9 – 18, 2016.
USH began to emerge in 2012 when our founder Donna DeGennaro left her academic job to focus on developing self-directed, technology-enabled learning with youth in the Lake Atitlan region of Guatemala. The stunning beauty of this region masks its troubled and violent history, which still impacts the Indigenous people who make up approximately 75% of the population, 76.41% of whom continue to live in poverty as a direct consequence of oppression brought about by both Spanish colonization and the more recent armed conflict.
500 years of colonialism and discrimination have affected these citizens’ senses of identity and trust. Despite the 1996 Guatemalan Peace Accords, developed to equalize Indigenous voice, identity, and rights, Indigenous customs, traditions, and language remain threatened and individuals are constantly pressured to abandon their cultural identities. Subsequently, Guatemalan Indigenous Maya have implicitly learned to keep their histories hidden.
Yet Indigenous Maya strength and resolute became readily visible as Donna began working with four enthusiastic and eager youth in the rural highlands. Donna provided cameras and held educational workshops, and these youth created extraordinary documentaries. She knew that this was only the beginning of great things to come, and established USH as a nonprofit. Continuing forward and in keeping with a youth-led vision, she created a team which included her participants. Three youth become Program Leaders accepting administrative and teaching roles and making possible our growing archive of revelatory youth-produced films.
When the NMAI team learned about USH, they invited us to be part of their upcoming Maya Cultural event. On this world stage our Program Leaders will have the opportunity to enthrall and educate audiences and illustrate their profound resilience to rise above the continued oppression that silences their voices.
During this event, we will announce an expansion strategy for working with Indigenous communities around the world. We are particularly interested in establishing U.S. chapters as we hear Native Americans call to safeguard their languages and to reinvigorate their cultural traditions to not only reunite their communities, but also to renew the implicit connection with our earth. The urgency is compounded by the staggering rates of suicide, drug abuse, and other diseases that plague Indian country, effects – like in Guatemala – arising from colonization and oppression.
USH has witnessed that mobilizing and empowering Indigenous youth is both critical to capturing, representing, and revitalizing the priceless knowledge and wisdom that can be passed on through generations, and to cultivating a vital sense of identity. By designing learning in a way that honors Indigenous knowledge and traditions, youth confidently vocalize their concerns and demonstrate their pride in the people and the land from which they come. These goals are equally important across Indigenous nations, as the struggles faced are so similar, and the need to be acknowledged and recognized as a people is a challenge shared amongst Indigenous communities. USH provides youth the tools to face these challenges head on, in a constructive way that encompasses growth and learning for both the individual and the community, as well as educating the outside world.
We are ecstatic about moving forward, but this progress can’t be made without outside help. If you believe in USH’s principles, in empowering youth to fulfill their dreams, and protecting what they and their ancestors hold sacred, you can help achieve these goals by making a donation to USH. Every little bit counts, and your support would be tremendously appreciated. Please check out the USH website at unlockingsilenthistories.org to learn more about the organization and the students we work with. You can also “like” USH’s Facebook page, just search “Unlocking Silent Histories.” Tax deductible donations can be made through the website by clicking “GET INVOLVED” and “DONATE.” Together, we can make a difference in the lives of these young people and their immediate communities.
Join us, be part of the story!
Jennifer S. Baker is a senior associate at Fredericks Peebles & Morgan LLP and a member of the board of directors for Unlocking Silent Histories.