Advocacy Corps: Felipe’s Story

Advocacy Corps: Felipe’s Story
Danny Stock
The second in a series on GDS Corps, the Middle School community engagement program. Read Good Neighbors » 


Eighth grade groups studying constitutional issues had just recently returned from on-location visits when the group focused on immigration had the chance to sit down for a critical discussion with their teacher...via video chat.

Felipe Oyarzún Moltedo, co-leader of the immigration track (and Lower/Middle School dance teacher), was stranded in Chile, where his green card issuing had been held up by national striking in response to prevalent wealth inequalities in the country.* While certainly an unfortunate—and unexpected—scenario to find themselves in, Felipe, Leigh Tait (program associate for community engagement and experiential learning), and the students made the most of the opportunity to connect on a truly personal level with Felipe’s story and with broader contemporary immigration issues.

Mission-aligned community engagement through Advocacy Corps (GDS Corps for 8th graders) aims to teach empathy, while allowing students to grapple with issues in the national conversation. Programming creates space for informed civic participation and demonstrates that teenagers can have an impact—both in their communities and in the world—right now. In the yearlong scope of learning, students venture off campus to engage first from the heart by establishing an emotional, human understanding of a constitutional issue. And so in this first phase of their Advocacy Corps journey, students in the “immigration” group asked Felipe not only how he is experiencing his extended stay in Chile—“What was your emotional response when you were told that you had three days to return to Chile?” asked Natalie ’24—but also how his status as an immigrant has impacted his experience in the U.S.

“In my case, the experience has been two-fold,” Felipe explained during the call. “I’m a Latino immigrant, but I’m also an artist. First, I’ve experienced implicit bias because I’m Latino. Americans are surprised that people study dance in universities where I’m from. People have told me, ‘Oh, I thought people just worked in the fields in Chile.’ Instead of getting angry, I try to respond with the goal of educating them.”

“Felipe explained about the disconnect he has felt being stuck back in Chile,” Natalie said after the call. “The more time he has spent here in the U.S., the less Chilean he has felt and the more American he’s becoming.”

“Everytime I come back here [to Chile], I feel that I belong less and less,” Felipe told them. “I’m half Chilean, so I have already felt that I don’t fit in much. When traveling as an immigrant, you want to fit into the country you’re in, so you start to own parts of the culture that are not yours. These days, I experience culture shock when returning to Chile: things that used to be normal aren’t anymore, and jokes that people make, we don’t make here in the U.S.”

Felipe originally looked to leave Chile because he wasn’t able to make enough as a dancer, even while teaching in two different universities and running a dance company—an illustration of the connection between Felipe’s journey and the current civil unrest. Eight years ago, renowned dancer and U.S. State Department cultural ambassador Dana Tai Soon Burgess visited Chile and invited Felipe to audition for his dance company.

After Felipe, Leigh, and the students closed the call—with Felipe assuring the 8th graders that “[former GDS teacher] Paola says, ‘Hi’ and remembers all of you well”—the group turned their attention to their in-person visitor, a DREAMer and advocate named Victor Zambrano.

Victor shared his journey from undocumented immigrant to green card-holding federal worker. He is currently working as a financial specialist under GDS parent Cait Clarke, chief of Defender Services Office for U.S. Courts. At age 18, Victor discovered he was undocumented and one of (now) nearly four million DREAMers (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act) in the United States. His childhood dream of becoming an FBI agent was shattered when, while applying to college, he was told his Social Security number did not match. The 8th graders listened as Victor shared his journey through community college and working for Oregon Senator Ron Wyden to riding in President Obama’s limo (“the Beast”), and pursuing higher education in criminal justice.

Of course, students wanted to hear about meeting the President’s Portegeuse water dogs, Mr. Obama’s greeting (“Hi, I’m Barack”), and how the president told Victor, “I’ll give you a lift” to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute (CHCI) gala. At the same time, Victor helped our 8th graders to start thinking about their advocacy work and the upcoming Hill Day this winter.

“Have your bullet points ready and make sure you guess what the staffers and representatives are going to ask you in advance,” Victor told them. At one point during the conversation, Victor referenced the Sixth Amendment then paused to check for understanding. Darwin ’24 had already pulled the Constitution (pocket-sized) out of his pocket. “Oh, Cait would have loved to see that,” Victor said. Cait Clarke will interview Victor about his story during a visit to the High School later this month, when the Policy and Advocacy Institute cohorts from the 2019 “Life Resettled” track will lead an assembly for their peers.

After students in each of the Advocacy Corps tracks have seen and talked to real people impacted by the constitutional issues they are studying, they will next engage more intellectually by researching and speaking to experts and policymakers, including on Capitol Hill. Advocacy Corps is also designed to enhance the 8th grade history curriculum and their yearlong study of a constitutional issue. By spring, students will have produced a comprehensive position paper based on their research and their experiences in the community engagement program. Also in the spring, students will put all of their emotional and intellectual learning to work by ideating and carrying out their own small-group action projects. These student-driven initiatives will culminate in formal presentations open to the greater GDS community and network of partner organizations.

See below for summaries of other tracks of note at this stage of engagement.

Other Tracks of Note at this Phase

Leo ’24 was among the 8th grade students in the Capital Punishment and Criminal Justice track to attend a criminal sentencing hearing during one of their off-site excursions. “It was sad to see this 21-year-old sentenced to two-and-a-half more years in jail,” Leo explained. “His mom and siblings were there. Being there was different from anything I’ve experienced through TV or movies. Obviously, it was an upsetting experience, but it sparked a lot of interest in learning how they add up the points to determine how severe a crime is. It was important to see this was a real person sentenced to prison.”

Separately, students met with Judge Beryl Howell, chief U.S. district judge of the U.S. District Court for DC, who, as it happens, is also the parent of three GDS alumni. Judge Howell most recently supervised the grand jury for special counsel Robert Mueller's probe into Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections. Current GDS parent Lisa Klem, special assistant to the chief judge, coordinated the visit, during which the chief judge fielded questions from students about her work on the bench. Judge Howell’s connection to Mueller’s investigation did come up during the conversation with students and students read more about it during lunch.

On a visit to Charlottesville, Virginia, students walked through Market Street Park, where the Unite the Right rally was held in 2017. The statue of General Robert E. Lee was shrouded in the aftermath of the rally but has since been uncovered. Students visited the memorial for Heather Heyer, victim of a hate-motivated car attack on those protesting the rally. The group also spoke with three anchors and reporters at WVIR-TV NBC29 who covered the events that September weekend and the impact on the community in the months that have followed.

Students met with Dr. Nancy Gaba MD, FACOG and medical students at The George Washington University to discuss reproductive justice issues in D.C. After establishing a shared understanding of essential vocabulary and honoring students’ own values, Dr. Gaba shared some of her clients' stories navigating the often-complicated decision around whether or not to bring a pregnancy to term. Students also learned about the “Teen Promise” program and the impact of socio-economic status on reproductive health outcomes.

Stay tuned for forthcoming updates from Affirmative Action, Gun Control, and Indigneous Land Rights & Environmental Justice tracks.

*UPDATE: While Felipe’s permanent residence status in the U.S. had been approved, the consulate keeps possession of passports until all documentation is finalized. The protests and strikes kept these offices closed for several weeks. Felipe has since returned to GDS. Seven years ago, he arrived in the U.S. on a student-based J1 visa, while training with Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company. On Thursday, he arrived home in the U.S. with a new green card marking his permanent resident status.
Group photo of students posing next to a sign for a health center.

Students in the Immigration track visited the Rosa Health Center in Georgetown, Delaware.

Group photo of students behind an anchor desk.

Students in the Hate Speech track met anchors from NBC29 who covered events during and following the 2017 Unite the Right rally.

Students and instructor interacting with an anatomical model.

Students in the Abortion track learned from doctors about reproduction and reproductive rights.

Teenager and younger child smiling together.

Students in the Immigration track spent time with preschoolers at the Rosa Health Center.

Group photo of students outside a memorial.

Students in the Hate Speech track stand at the memorial for Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Teenager reading to younger children.

Students in the Immigration track spent time with preschoolers at the Rosa Health Center.

Advocacy Corps: Felipe’s Story
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