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Youth Film: Igniting Indigenous Insights

We equip indigenous youth with the tools to produce films that preserve heritage and counter the effects of racism and discrimination.

Photo of Donna DeGennaro
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What problem does the idea help to solve and how does your solution work? (2,000 characters maximum)

Central and North America lie on indigenous land, land which Indigenous peoples moved across in response to seasons and to ensure survival. Regardless of their journeys both place and people remain essential to indigenous identity, values, and culture. In our current climate, economic and political hardships impel indigenous individuals to reluctantly migrate away from their place and their people. Families separate, not by choice, but out of concern to take care of their loved ones. Migrants leaving Central America arrive at the Texas border only to face linguistic and cultural obstacles. The once fluid boundaries are now blockades. Prejudicial treatment and human rights violations persist, resulting from over 500 years of oppression and misrepresentation. Unlocking Silent Histories (USH) aims to counter these injustices by equipping indigenous youth and communities with the tools to (re)present their lives and to generate in-country sustainability. Together these aims 1) educate the world about indigenous people as communities that contribute valuable knowledge and solutions to local and global issues, and 2) afford indigenous young people to be agents of social change. USH is an Austin-based nonprofit, established here because the lands that comprise Austin, and Texas as a whole, have played an important role in bringing people of different nations together for millennia before the city was founded. Trade routes in the area joined members of Indigenous civilizations from across the continent, creating relationships and communities that transcend today’s national boundaries. Yet, the connection between the Native peoples of the north and south is vital to preserving Indigenous ways of being and the lands which birthed these traditions. As in the prophecy of the eagle and condor, only together can the Indigenous peoples of the Americas overcome the challenges they face today. Austin is the ideal location for this unification.

Geography of focus (500 characters)

Austin, TX, our nonprofit home, is close to the border where Indigenous families cross to seek economic stability for their families. Our work traverses the arbitrary boundaries between Central and North America. USH began in Guatemala, a country deeply impacted by poverty which affects the nearly 75% indigenous population. We aim to provide a better understanding of indigenous migrants through youth-produced films, and by illustrating their desire to enact their entrepreneurial capabilities.

Building Bridges: What bridge does your idea build between people on the move and neighbors towards a shared future of stability and promise? (500 characters)

Through cultural film productions, youth learn the skills to tell their stories in compelling ways. The stories that are told are a mixture of cultural richness and knowledge, as well as real-time problems, such as the detainment of Indigenous people at the border and mass extinction events. The films will be "talking tools" used to bridge the divide that exists between Indigenous communities of North and Central America, and ultimately between indigenous and nonindigenous communities.

What human need is your idea solving for? (1,000 characters)

Unlocking Silent Histories responds to the human need and desire to equally engage in creating the world around us. By starting with the ideas of local leadership, our program cultivates educationally confident and technologically savvy visionaries who foster project sustainability and impact in their own visions. Through investment in youth voice and Indigenous film, we explore innovative ways to engage young people in developing culturally and socially just learning opportunities. These opportunities derive from real-world community connections, uncovering how youth and their audiences reconnect with valuable traditional knowledge and ancestral social and environmental stewardship. They foster adolescent leaders who peacefully and constructively foster social change and take action against current local and global threats and violations. We generate ways to work alongside local policymakers and development practitioners to inform locally generated models for NGOs who do this work.

What will be different within the community of focus as a result of implementing your idea? (1,000 characters)

Actionable impact begins at the partnership’s inception. Using an iterative and reflective practice the community drives the work. Briefly, youth-identified topics and research make visible local knowledge, practices, values, and what is important to the community’s health and opulence. The leadership team is attentive to youth voice to support their media productions, and inform how productions are widely shared. The result is an Indigenous-informed stabilization model based on listening and responding to local counsel. Indigenous leaders and youth are best positioned to do this work because they know how to navigate their social, cultural, and political context. Positive change, as in Guatemala, shows itself when the team owns the program. The next measurement of positive, actionable change comes with bridging boundaries between Indigenous peoples and among non-indigenous communities. This requires establishing new partnerships in Austin and working again from the inside out.

What is the inspiration behind your idea? (1,000 characters)

Since earning my PhD, my passion has been to work alongside youth to co-design technology enabled learning that shows what underrepresented youth know and how they learn. I was inspired by youth’s enthusiasm to creatively express their worlds and by how their products countered deficit perspectives held about them. Inspired by this, I moved to Guatemala for two years to work more closely with Maya youth. Immersed in their worlds, I repeatedly heard their call for opportunities that are absent in their communities. Over the years, many youth have reached out to me asking how to obtain U.S. Visas. Mayan families live together, eat meals together, and celebrate the holidays together. Emerging adults do not want to leave their small towns, but feel responsible for their families. From youth’s desire to stay home, and from their visions to shape USH, the program shifted from solely a learning design to both a chance to re-image indigenous identities and offer leadership opportunities.

Describe the dynamics of the community in which the idea is to be implemented. (1,000 characters)

We take a unique approach to addressing interrelated and complex injustices facing Indigenous communities. Additionally, we break boundaries of normative thought by moving away from traditional operational roles where foreigners maintain decision-making power, so that young people quickly and seamlessly become leaders of the program and the organization. We draw on the understanding that foreigners cannot uplift impoverished and oppressed communities, only leaders from within can do this as we take a supportive and listening role. Our job is to attend to how our partners articulate their conditions, aspirations, and solutions, using media as a vehicle to cultivate successful and inspiring resolutions. We are guided by how local leaders create familial and municipal relationships so that we can parallelly work with our partners, adapting to what emerges organically through our collective practice.

How does your idea leverage and empower community strengths and assets to help create an environment for success? (1,000 characters)

The idea of empowering local leadership to guide local processes results in significant gains. Two examples that occurred in consecutive months come to mind. The first is relates to a recent fundraiser held by the Guatemala team. Rather than relying solely on foreign support, the team orchestrated a local funding initiative as an effort to achieve self-sustainability. Guatemalan residents, foreigners, and past participants enjoyed a Holiday Benefit Dinner, with talented performers Yahaira Tubac, AJPON (a local dance group) and our very own local filmmakers providing entertainment. The local team entire event envisioned and organized the entire event, the first step to reaching their goal of independently securing funds and offering this opportunity to more eager youth. The second example is the team’s appearance on a Guatemala television program called Nuestro Mundo y ChapinTV. The leadership team contacted the television station and quickly negotiated a TV spot. During this segment, y

What other partners or stakeholders will work alongside you in implementing the idea, if any? (1,000 characters)

Descubriendo Historias Escondidas [Formerly Unlocking Silent Histories: Guatemala], Oak Foundation [Funding our work with Lumbee Tribe Youth, our first North American Native partner], Austin Film Society [A venue for bridging Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities to discuss the films and relearn Indigenous narratives], The International Indigenous Youth Council of Texas and Indigenous Cultures Institute [Local Austin partners to assist in our bridging goals].

What part of the displacement journey is your solution addressing

  • Leaving a community of origin

Tell us how you'd describe the type of innovation you are proposing

  • Platform: Creating a community or market that facilitates interaction between users and resources

Idea Proposal Stage

  • Prototype: We have done some small tests or experiments with prospective users to continue developing the idea.

Group or Organization Name

Unlocking Silent Histories

Tell us more about your group or organization [or lived experience as a displaced person?] (1000 characters)

After a country-wide call for applications, we hired Irasema to lead USH: Guatemala. Irasema led the search for the remaining members of our team. With a newly minted leadership team and toolkit, Irasema launched our first Leadership Institute. The orientation unfolded over three months. First, Irasema drew upon the toolkit to take the mentors she hired through a process of developing culturally relevant leadership. During the activities, the members of the team contributed their ideas collectively setting their goals, strategies, and operational practices to map out and construct their vision of USH: Guatemala. After defining the characteristics of what leadership in their vision, Irasema and the mentor team engaged as “students.” Module after module, the mentors practiced the learning activities that they would soon facilitate with young Indigenous filmmakers. While actively immersed in the process, they were also adjusting procedures to adapt to their culture.

Website URL:

Type of submitter

  • We are a registered Non-Profit Organization

Organization Headquarters: Country

United States

Organization Headquarters: City / State

Austin, Texas

Attachments (1)

Pitch Packet.pdf

Sample timeline of unfolding the program with local leadership guiding the way.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Uchenna Okafor

Hello Donna! Indeed thoughtful of you. Moreover, if countering the effect of discrimination through films is the goal, discrimination and rejection of disabled persons should also not be neglected. Sure, disabled persons are the most vulnerable of all times and such appears a generally acceptable norm of the entire society. So, producing films to discourage such behavior could improve the social and economic integration of this group.

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