Lena Ashooh, 16, of Shelburne, Vermont, a member of Chittenden County 4-H and a junior at Champlain Valley Union High School, organized a free two-day storytelling conference last July that brought together rural and migrant youth from across Vermont to overcome language and cultural barriers, share life experiences and foster connection. Lena’s involvement in two groups laid the groundwork for her organization. As a 4-Her, she learned about the complexities and difficulties of working and living on a farm. And as a youth leader with the Bread Loaf Teacher Network’s NextGeneration Leadership Network, which brings together civic-minded youth to fight social injustice, she saw how the power of written and spoken expression can help address social crises.
Drawing on those experiences, Lena envisioned an annual event that would bring together young people who live on Vermont farms and young people who relocate independently or with their families to obtain seasonal or temporary employment in agriculture. Through a partnership with the Vermont Migrant Education Program and the BLT NextGen Network, Lena created “Mi Vida, Mi Voz” (My Life, My Voice) last February. She obtained a $3,000 grant and appealed to businesses, corporations and organizations for donations of food, supplies and money. She then recruited artists, educators and writers to participate in the conference and worked out logistics for 20 young people to attend. “The gathering celebrated powerful stories, surprising similarities, great food, and lots of laughter,” said Lena. As one of the youth participants noted, she said, “we all have more in common than we think.” Mi Vida, Mi Voz is now a year-round, youth-led creative network and nonprofit, and Lena is busy working on next summer’s conference.