Backpack Project Pima

The Backpack Project Uplifts the Voices of Opportunity Youth in Arizona

March 7, 2019

Angelique Rodriguez was one of 21,000 young people in Pima County, Arizona, who recently received a backpack full of school supplies.  "I use my backpack for some of my school work. It helped me when I got kicked out. It was Christmas. I put clothes, hygiene products, makeup... all in there," she says.

“My backpack is important because it is sometimes the only thing that really helping me cope ... you can hold anything in it. I can take it anywhere," she adds. 

Her backpack comes with an unusual and powerful history—it was part of a youth-led art installation designed to illustrate the needs of Opportunity Youth in Pima County. It, together with thousands of others like it, adorned the campus of the University of Arizona last fall as part of The Backpack Project, designed by the United Way of Tucson and its young leaders, to raise awareness about and challenge narratives around Opportunity Youth.

Across America, there are more than 4.6 million “Opportunity Youth,” young people ages 16 to 24 who are disconnected from school and the workforce. In Pima County alone, more than 21,000 young people are Opportunity Youth – three times the size of the incoming freshman class every year at the University of Arizona. Put another way, one in seven young people in the county are considered Opportunity Youth.

In Pima County alone, more than 21,000 young people are Opportunity Youth – three times the size of the incoming freshman class every year at the University of Arizona.

Imagine those numbers—and the people and experiences behind them—represented as 21,000 backpacks spread across campus in Tucson, Arizona.

Humanizing the People Behind the Statistics

Behind the Backpack Project is a small coalition of 16- to 24-year-olds who are, or have been, identified as Opportunity Youth and want the world to know they are more than a statistic or “defeating label,” and more than the hardships they have faced. They are human beings. They seek access to opportunity, and they represent an opportunity: with support, data show Opportunity Youth are strong assets for their communities.

The national conversation surrounding Opportunity Youth has largely revolved around economics, says Mercedez Marquez, one of the young organizers who created the Backpack Project. “Instead of asking, ‘how much money will each young person cost a taxpayer over the course of our lifetimes?’ and talking only in terms of data, we need to do more to elevate the voices and solutions of young people in order to change the data," say the organizers of the campaign.

“Number: how many times have you not felt safe enough to say something, to ask for help? How many counselors or mentors or family members have come into your life only to leave? How many days / months / years have you slept on the streets? How many times has a backpack been your pantry, your closet, your pillow, your stability? The data is still relevant, but it will never be the sum of us. I think it is what you do with the data that matters,” she says.

To humanize and complicate the conversation, United Way and its young leaders collected thousands of backpacks from the surrounding community and set them up as an exhibit on campus that launched on October 31, 2018. The installation seeks to go beyond statistics to spark discussion about solutions to the educational, social and economic barriers that Opportunity Youth face, asking the question:

Why a Backpack?

The interactive, youth-curated art installation on the campus of the University of Arizona helped to display the overwhelming humanness of what it means to be an Opportunity Youth.

For many young people, a backpack can be a beacon of hope or a survival necessity. It can also be “a testimony of the displaced.” While it might look like mere plastic and cloth, a backpack is a story of the presence of safety and privacy, or the absence of it, says Mercedez.

The young people who put together the project explain that most Opportunity Youth have known the shame of walking through a classroom without a backpack, as well as “the restoration of confidence when we do.” For the young people trying to change the conversation surrounding opportunity, the backpack has been "our desk, our pantry, our closet, our pillow, our home, our stability."  

Access to education is fundamental for young people seeking opportunities to build self-sufficient lives and provide for families and communities. Too often, our nation falls back on an outdated narrative that the ultimate “success” of young people is solely the result of their own choices and efforts, even though we have decades of evidence to show us that a combination of circumstances and systemic barriers make all the difference in the world. In fact, Zip Code is one of the strongest predictor of success and access to opportunity.

The Power of Art

As public education systems at all levels face cuts in funding, services and staffing, the students behind The Backpack Project set out to answer one key question: “How can we bring the realities of Opportunity Youth to light in our national discussion in a way that gives us a voice and the power to lead the solutions?”

Art, they felt, would cut across boundaries and rhetoric and help inform policies, laws and community organizing efforts.

Art and “artivism,” or activism through art, “forces us to see the world differently, and uncover the problems that divide us,” says Mercedez , who feels that the Backpack Project “opened up a conversation for the young leaders who identify as Opportunity Youth to talk to new people in their community and find unity.” Mercedez says that since the exhibit, she’s talked to people who had no idea there’s so many young people away from school and work. “They’re shocked. They say, ‘Wait that’s just in Pima County?’”

Art and “artivism,” or activism through art, “forces us to see the world differently, and uncover the problems that divide us,” says Mercedez , who feels that the Backpack Project “opened up a conversation for the young leaders who identify as Opportunity Youth to talk to new people in their community and find unity.”

Ultimately, she says she wants people to know “systems are not just systems, they’re made of people.” She hopes people walked away “feeling like they could do something different and feeling empowered to overcome stigma.”

Allie Field Bell, a coordinator with United Way who worked with young people to put the project together behind the scenes with help from United Way’s Cradle to Career Partnership, says she knows that a small-scale event can’t necessarily change the world’s perspective on Opportunity Youth. However, “it has been about interrupting the conversation and turning it on its head so it’s not just constantly about getting Opportunity Youth trained as mechanics.”

Instead, the conversation in the local community can now be more about, “‘Oh these are people in our community who have the same kinds of passions that everyone else has. We want them to feel and be part of the community.”

 

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Elly Belle is SparkAction’s content & engagement strategist and a writer with a passion for youth empowerment, advocacy, culture and media. Elly is most passionate about youth development, reproductive health, mental health, advocacy for the LGBTQIA community, immigration, and advocacy for sexual assault survivors—and she's written about all of it and more for outlets like Bust and Teen Vogue. More from Elly here.



Lesley is a recent graduate from New York University where she majored in Politics, Rights & Development and minored in Latinx Studies. Her academic endeavors have involved research and written works around the Latinx community's relationship to and role within the United States' power structures. Lesley is currently a paralegal in the Structure Investments team at JPMorgan. She is passionated about youth political development, financial literacy, immigration law, LGBTQ politics and intersectional advocacy for marginalized communities.