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A Portrait of New Americans
A Photo Essay

Harvard Graduate School of Education
March 1, 2003
A story from Ed., the magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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 A Portrait of New Americans
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Amid the most dramatic wave of immigration to date, a snapshot of Columbia Heights West, Virginia, offers a picture of America’s future. Unlike other urban centers settled into the cozy, ethnic neighborhoods of Little Italy, Little Russia, or Chinatown, Columbia Heights West is a city without internal borders. Instead, immigrants from some 128 countries live together in what the authors of the U.S. Constitution referred to as an effort to “form a more perfect Union.”

For the first time in its history, immigrant children are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population, according to the 2000 Census. Immigrants, as a whole, have tipped the scales, turning America’s minority populations into the majority. As our nation grapples with the social and political ramifications of this change, a growing number of children must cope with confusing signals of inclusion and exclusion. Helping immigrant children to view themselves as valuable—and valued—members of American society will become an escalating priority for educators and psychologists during the next century.

Documenting Their New America
No one grasps this challenge better than the youths themselves, says Paula Endo, M.A.T.’69, a third-generation Japanese-American photographer, who is the founding director of the Columbia Heights West Teen Photo Project in Arlington, Virginia. Because their parents are often slower to acclimate to life in the United States, Endo describes the students in her afterschool program as “pioneers seeking their own pathways in a new homeland.”

Endo’s teens have found a corner of their new homeland in the abandoned Safeway supermarket where the program started in 1996. Since then, Endo has been unwavering in her goals: to equip local youths for their lifelong journeys and to help them develop confidence by learning photography skills. Today, the teen photo project constitutes a junior United Nations of artists. These 15 teenagers are documenting the new America—their new America—as they create it.

“Puzzling over how to say something important, photographically, about the variety of faces in the Columbia Heights West neighborhood has cultivated in the teens a deeper understanding—and in some cases, some peace—about the world inside themselves.”

The photographs taken by students in the photo project—students from Cambodia, El Salvador, Eritrea, Mexico, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Thailand, Vietnam, and the United States—capture the deep pleasures of securing a place in the world—and the isolation and confusion of adolescence. The photographers’ direct and eloquent voices have spoken to an extensive list of premier arts organizations, including the National Endowment for the Arts (which funded the group’s project on local unsung heroes in 2001), and the Smithsonian Institution (which launched a traveling exhibition last year that included several students’ work). A new grant from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities has the group sifting eagerly through images for its first book of selected works. All the while, organizations around the county are commissioning the teens to take pictures for documentary and publicity purposes.

Puzzling over how to say something important, photographically, about the variety of faces in the Columbia Heights West neighborhood has cultivated in the teens a deeper understanding—and in some cases, some peace—about the world inside themselves. In the words of Albert Hernandez, age 18, one of Endo’s students whose poetry accompanies his photographs, “Living in a community that supports me,/ Less afraid of people around me/…I have started a new way of living.”

Endo’s efforts to create a safe haven and a sense of purpose have helped her students build stronger self-images. The seriousness with which they approach their work has improved the larger community’s image of its youth, as well. “People tend to be afraid of teenagers, especially ‘foreigners,’” Endo says. But after they see this creative, well-crafted work, she says, they realize how these young people contribute to the community.

The Story behind the Picture
The Columbia Heights West Teen Photo Project meets every Thursday afternoon during the school year to tackle thought-provoking exercises and to critique new works, which include Endo’s own photography. The rest of the week, students work on professional assignments and personal projects. The teens can earn their own 35mm cameras by maintaining good grades in school and by volunteering for community service and leadership projects. Some students have sought and secured grants for the program on their own. Others have taught photography workshops to younger children.

The group’s dedication offers one antidote for the juvenile crime rates that triple, throughout the country, in the hours immediately after school. By giving teens something constructive to do when their parents are likely to be at work, quality afterschool programs hold the promise of preventing high-risk behavior, building resiliency, and improving students’ prospects following high school. The arts focus of Endo’s program also gives youths the deep satisfaction of creating beauty.

Endo understands this well. A self-described “wallflower” as a child, her social life started clicking into place at the age of 16, when she began documenting the world around her. “My camera gave me a kind of an identity. Photographing my immediate surroundings offered me a way of becoming more comfortable with people.”

In a sense, Endo’s photography skills have remained the central source of her life’s opportunities. After exploring careers as an elementary- and high-school teacher, a photojournalist, and an award-winning artist, her personal interests and professional identities finally melded. “For so long I wanted to teach on my own terms—outside the confines of an institution where I have to worry about grading, parent conferences, and committee meetings,” she says. “I really wanted to concentrate on the teens and my relationship with them as people. There are no authority issues here. It’s just me, Paula.”

Mimi Xang Ho, age 22, calls Endo a mentor rather than a teacher. One of Endo’s first students, Ho is now a senior at George Mason University, on scholarship, earning a bachelor of fine arts degree in photography. “Some people write, some sing, some dance—I take photos, paint, or draw,” Ho says. “This is the way I found to express myself.”

After her parents divorced, when she was 10, Ho emigrated from Thailand to the United States with her mother and younger sister. As an infant, Ho contracted a debilitating case of polio from an immunization overdose. To this day, she struggles with leg braces and the disease’s other lifelong effects. Even so, her mother, like many immigrant parents who speak very little English, depends heavily upon her daughters. Endo’s influence helped Ho forge a positive path for herself, while many of her peers struggled to cope with growing up poor in a foreign world. “Any kid Paula works with could easily take the wrong path,” Ho says. And some do. One student from the group is currently incarcerated; another was released recently from a detention home. All of Endo’s students talk with her about the pressures that weigh heavily on them.

Ho says the decision to become a photographer and art teacher came easily. “Art helped me define who I am and find confidence in myself,” she says. “Paula gave me that. I know I will have thanked her when I help others find the same strength in themselves.”

About the Article
A version of this article originally appeared in the Fall 2003 issue of Ed., the magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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