IDEA Quest College Preparatory counselor Marcos Silva remembers a survey revealing 97% of his students would rather live somewhere other than the Rio Grande Valley.
Needing to find a way to strengthen their connection with the community, he said the solution came “kind of organically.”
Three years ago, his former student Michael Mireles expressed interest in a summer program Silva posted on his classroom wall. It was the Bezos Family Foundation, which hosted juniors for a week-long leadership development session.
Mireles was accepted, and Silva accompanied him, receiving professional development as well.
“At the end, they almost challenge you to go back to your community and think of a need and create an event that will address that,” Silva said. “We talked about the lack of pride of place here and what effects that has on young people.
“What was their perception of growing up here and being involved in organization around the community?”
Through their research, they discovered how the vast majority of his students yearned to escape the Valley. He attributed this to having greater access to info through the internet.
“For them, it’s interesting. It’s intriguing, the idea of living somewhere else,” he said of bigger cities. “It’s not that we want to stop them from seeing it.
“If they see it, they can recreate it better here and not just go over there.”
Silva and Mireles decided to build a student-run festival to feature ideas and start conversations. Now in its third year, the club has grown to attract other high schools and into the college level. Schools from Brownsville to La Joya send students to the event to hear student-curated presenters.
As important as the speakers are, Silva said empowering his students to fundraise, plan and execute the event is just as, if not more important.
For Silva, it’s not about this particular event but rather showing kids what they can accomplish.
“The idea is for them to own it, to grab it and say, ‘This is ours’ and this is as big as we make it,” he said. “We can replicate it somewhere else. It can be bigger and better and that they feel part of the community as a whole.”
And it’s about them understanding their voices matter, he said, and that they don’t have to wait until they’re older to do something meaningful.
“You are a part of this place and in your role, you can make a difference,” he said.
Silva said as a migrant, he grew up “questioning access” and focused primarily on achieving educational milestones. His parents came to the United States from Mexico, and it was understood he’d take advantage of educational opportunities they didn’t have.
His family would travel to northern Washington to pick strawberry and asparagus until he was in elementary, until they could afford a home. He graduated from McAllen Memorial High School, and earned his bachelor’s in psychology and master’s in educational administration for the University of Texas-Pan American.
“Growing up and having conversations with my parents, we would talk about how we forgot that a big influence of where you get to as a person is the people around and not just education alone,” he said. “When it came to networking and meeting new people, that was really important for me in college.
“Now that I get to do that with young people, I really try to be mindful of their age, their capacity.”
Reflecting how his own youthful shortcomings, he talked about going through high school not understanding the importance of a school board, or not knowing how nonprofits functioned in college.
It was his own youthful “lack of understanding the community” that motivated him to push his students to engage with local processes, he said.
“We all want our kids to vote at 18, but I feel like we don’t start that conversation until they’re already 18,” he said. “For me, it was about starting this civic-engagement conversation and volunteerism — having these topics be around them at a younger age.
“Right now, it’s a festival for young people to talk about culture, community and identity, but later it could be a voting rally or a food drive.”