For Central Falls Youth, A Rally In Washington After Trump Inauguration

Jan 20, 2017

Thousands of people watched Friday as President Donald Trump took the oath of office in Washington, D.C. It was the culmination of an election season that left many people divided over the future of the country.

On Saturday, thousands more demonstrators are expected at the Women’s March in Washington. Organizers say they want to make sure that issues of women’s health and equality, the concerns of immigrants and other minority groups are not forgotten under Trump's presidency. A group of teenagers from Central Falls are among dozens of Rhode Islanders planning to attend the rally.

Caroline Berdugo, a 16-year-old high school student, moved to Rhode Island from Colombia just five years ago. With just a hint of an accent, she said she’s worried about the tone of comments she’s been hearing, both during and after the election, about women, minorities and immigrants.

“As an immigrant woman I feel like I need to speak up and stand up for what is right,” said Berdugo. “And we shouldn’t let powerful people overshadow us, because we’re all equal.”

That’s why Berdugo, a senior at the Blackstone Academy Charter School, has joined a group of Rhode Islanders bound for Washington, D.C. Berdugo and about 40 high school students from the Central Falls area will join the crowds expected at the National Mall on the day after Trump’s inauguration.

Credit John Bender / RIPR

Before leaving for the rally, Berdugo and about 20 other students took a workshop on demonstrating peacefully. The training was scheduled to coincide with the observance earlier this week of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Gail McHugh, from the Providence-based Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence led the session covering Dr. King’s 6 principles of nonviolence.

“Principle one: non-violence is not for cowards, but a way of life for courageous people,”  McHugh told the students.

All of the teens attending the workshop were black and Latino, and some are still learning English. When McHugh asked if they had any fears about attending the march, 17-year old Celia Contreras, piped up.

“Since the election was rooted in a lot of hate and violence, there might be supporters that may be against what we’re doing even though we’re doing it in a nonviolent manner,” said Contreras. “So just our presence there might tick them off and get them upset.”

Pro-Trump groups are planning counter-demonstrations in opposition to the march in Washington. McHugh suggested ignoring other protestors, and focusing on the larger message of the rally as a way to counter a conflict.

Central Falls has long been a home for newly settled immigrants, and today its streets are lined with Latino markets and restaurants. Many families in town come from places like Colombia and the Dominican Republic, and some residents are undocumented. Students at the workshop said the election has left many in their community feeling fearful because of Trump's heated rhetoric about immigration.

Credit John Bender / RIPR

Seth Kolker, who teaches Math at Central Falls High School, remembered how students in his classroom reacted the day after the election.

“Kids had a lot of anxiety, anger, confusion, I think lying under that was fear,” said Kolker. “And they were asking all sorts of questions, even kids who were citizens were asking ‘am I going to be deported?’”

Kolker helped organize and raise money for a bus to transport 40 teenagers and about 10 chaperones to the march on Saturday. He tapped a network of friends in his hometown of Arlington, Virginia, to find home-stays for the students during the trip.

Kolker is quick to point out that the rally is not anti-Trump, though some Trump supporters feel differently. He has faced criticism from some conservatives, who accuse him of promoting a political position with students, though Kolker said that was never his goal.

Credit John Bender / RIPR

“It’s very important to me in my role as an educator that I don’t tell kids what to think,” said Kolker. “Obviously if they tell me that one plus one equals eleven, I’m going to remind them that it’s two. My job is to help them deal with the world around them and figure out for themselves what they think about things.”

Kolker said bringing students to the rally is an opportunity to help them participate in a unifying act that has drawn people from across the country.

Student Celia Contreras hopes attending the rally will be empowering.

“As a Latina, as a person of color, as someone growing up in Central Falls, a low income community, I often feel voiceless, but I still feel powerful in the sense that I firsthand have these experiences,” said Contreras. “I represent this community, so it’s important for me to go there, and to represent not only the community, but my family who’s raised me here. Obviously they came for opportunities they didn’t have growing up.”

Contreras hopes those opportunities continue to be extended to immigrants under the Trump administration.