School Social Worker and Photographer Give Undocumented Students a Voice

All across the United States, undocumented students are forced to suffer in silence because of the constant fear of being deported from the only country that they know. They’re our neighbors, our friends, our students, and our future—and now some are getting a chance to tell their stories through a Salt Lake City-based photo exhibit documenting their struggles.

“There was so much stereotyping about undocumented immigrants, and I thought if people understood the stories and knew these kids, they might think differently,” says Annie Brewer, a social worker in the Salt Lake City School District in Salt Lake City, Utah. Looking for a platform to highlight their struggles, Brewer decided to produce a photo exhibit called “DREAMers: Living in the Shadow of Hope.”

Brewer was frustrated by the lack of opportunities that she saw available for undocumented students in her school district, so she decided that the only way to change public opinion was to give a voice to these otherwise voiceless students. She had seen a photo exhibit on refugees that highlighted their personal stories, and she wondered why the same idea couldn’t be extended to undocumented students.

“I thought, ‘why can’t we do the same thing with these undocumented kids?’”  Brewer says. “I think generally the public just does not really understand the situation.”

After spending more than a year researching the topic and reaching out to different organizations, Brewer was finally put in contact with Lynn Hoffman-Brouse, a professional photographer living in Salt Lake City. Hoffman-Brouse had been a high school teacher for nine years before catching the photography bug, and her interest in non-profit, activist-based photojournalism drew her to Brewer’s idea.

The pair started by approaching students that Brewer knew, mindful of the legalities associated with their project. Students were explained the risks involved, and Brewer and Hoffman-Brouse were careful to protect the students from any potential consequences. But the students were eager to participate, and soon a steady stream of volunteers wanted the opportunity to share stories and reflections.

“One of the things we talked about was the idea of students trying to take charge of their destiny,” says Hoffman-Brouse. “They have this feeling of powerlessness because they’re undocumented and they have this issue hanging over them. Doing this project was a way for them to take control of the issue a little bit.”

In order to preserve their identities, Hoffman-Brouse had the students cover their faces in whatever pose they chose while she photographed them. The students would choose the picture they wanted in the exhibit and then write up a handwritten personal response that was geared towards interpreting the image they selected. Many of the responses showed students who were struggling to comprehend why they were being labeled as criminals by some of the American public.

“You miss something when you can’t look into somebody’s eyes when you’re looking at a portrait, so I wanted to be sure that people saw these kids as real kids who thought about this a lot and were serious about their future,” says Hoffman-Brouse.

Brewer interviewed all 35 of the students who were photographed and wrote up detailed descriptions about their shared experiences. To further protect their identities, Brewer and Hoffman-Brouse made sure that students’ stories didn’t correspond to their portraits, which created a tapestry of similar, yet wholly unique, vignettes of their personal struggles that were interspersed throughout the exhibit. For many of the students, speaking with Brewer was the first opportunity they had to openly describe their lives as undocumented immigrants.

“It was emotional for a lot of them when we talked,” says Brewer. “Many of them had been unable to sit down and share their stories with anyone.”

The “DREAMers: Living in the Shadow of Hope” exhibit first premiered in June 2010 at the Salt Lake City Main Library, and over the next several years it’s been featured at a variety of local schools, universities, art galleries, libraries and community centers in the Salt Lake City area.  The hope is to keep the exhibit circulating throughout Salt Lake City and the country until undocumented students receive equal access to an uninhibited future.

Finishing the photo exhibit has not slowed Brewer’s commitment to fighting for undocumented students.  In collaboration with the Salt Lake City School District and its Equity Department, Brewer has worked with specialists from Social Studies and Fine Arts courses to create a curriculum guide that uses the photo exhibit as a jumping off point into a large discussion about immigration. She’s also started a non-profit, Educational Opportunities for Utah’s Children, to help provide scholarship money to undocumented students. This past year, Brewer’s organization received a $20,000 award from the Mexican government to provide scholarship money for higher education opportunities for undocumented students from Mexico.

Through it all, Brewer has remained steadfast in her resolve to provide a better future for undocumented students. Her advocacy recently earned her a “Cesar Chavez Peace and Justice Award” from the Utah chapter of the National Council of La Raza, and she hopes that her continuing efforts will help lead to meaningful changes for undocumented students in the future.

“This is for so many of them the only country they know,” Brewer says. “They’ve grown here, they’ve gone to school here, they’ve learned the language, they’ve excelled. It wasn’t a choice they made to come here, so it just seems ridiculous that there shouldn’t be a way for them to achieve citizenship.”

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More information about “DREAMers: Living in the Shadow of Hope

Photos: Lynn Hoffman-Brouse