Ricardo Jaramillo is one of six coordinators of BRYTE (Brown Refugee Youth Tutoring & Enrichment), a program that pairs over 125 student tutors with refugee youth using a one-on-one, in-home tutoring model.
When I was first tasked with writing a story emblematic of the Brown Refugee Youth Tutoring and Enrichment organization, a clutter of names and faces collected in my mind. In the years I’ve had the opportunity to know and work with BRYTE students, there have been countless stories of extraordinary growth and achievement. I’ve seen students transform themselves and their communities. I’ve seen moments of incredible bravery, of students breaking through barriers, victories, dreams turning real all at once.
I have no doubt in the inspirational capacity of these stories. I know their power. It is the power that brings so many of us to this work again and again. But as I sat down to chose a name, a story, a moment, something pulled at me.
As a nation, we hold certain stories close to our heart. It is in the American mythos that we make certain possibilities and responsibilities clear. One of these stories is the tale of rags to riches, the American redemption arch. We believe that in this place anything is possible—that an individual with a certain amount of willpower can transgress even the most dire of circumstances. I used to be poor, abused, hopeless… now I’m amazing! I used to struggle…then I overcame. Particularly, these narratives are ascribed to low-income communities and communities of color whose oppression is misunderstood as an unfortunate circumstance or the result of a communal character flaw worthy of individual transgression.
I wonder what it means, then, for me to tell you one of the stories I would like to tell you, in the way that you would like to hear it. More broadly, I wonder how individual narratives of accomplishment and redemption can be weaponized to erase structures of violence that function beyond the individual, and to pathologize communities on the receiving end of this violence. How can we tell stories of hope without telling the stories of individuals and communities who struggle over and over for a change that has not arrived? How can we focus on individual narratives of reformist success and not tell the story of revolution?
I believe BRYTE to be an organization centered on radical love. On one level love means belief—a specific belief in young refugee students of color to change the world, maybe even to imagine a new world. On another level, love means breaking past common formulas—understanding the work and our role in it for what it is.
There is a difference between an organization with an agenda of service and an organization with an agenda of liberation. Paulo Freire, in his seminal work Pedagogy of the Oppressed, argues that the oppressors use personal success as a “method of manipulation,” guiding leaders of the oppressed towards their own acquisition of power and away from revolution. Furthermore, he makes an apt distinction between what he calls “false charity” and “true generosity”: ‘False charity constrains the fearful and subdued, the "rejects of life," to extend their trembling hands. True generosity lies in striving so that these hands--whether of individuals or entire peoples--need be extended less and less in supplication, so that more and more they become human hands which work and, working, transform the world.’
In his legacy of thought, we understand that real service has to be concerned with structures of power. It is less interested in helping oppressed individuals navigate up existing systems of power, and more interested in working with communities to break these systems, to claim a new liberation and reimagine a humanity and a society beyond what we currently know, to create real change on the level of community, of society-- to create revolution.
In my work with young students of color, I’ve borne witness to the particularities of their oppression, different from each other’s, different from mine, but all connected. But I don’t want to give you a name, a pain, a hope. Why should their oppression be an apparatus for your learning? Why should their hope be a tool for your appeasement? And what would it mean for me to put words to their story, for me to make meaning of their lives? After all, in the end the only story we can really tell is our own.
I believe the stories we decide to tell, and the stories we decide not to tell, matter. Stories can be manipulated, consciously and unconsciously, to erase, simplify, to silence. But it is in stories that we can find truth beyond these agendas.
I would push those involved in the work of this center towards an ethic of radical honesty. Honesty about the political structures that define their work and the histories that have created these structures. Honesty about their relationship to these structures of power. Honesty about the world they are trying to build. We must imagine what we are working towards before we begin working. And even if current systems limit our structures of thought, I believe in honesty and love as capable of pushing people plast limits.