"Know Your Rights" Workshops Teach Immigrant Youth How to Protect Themselves

The Welcome Project has been busy with political activism and community organizing this Spring. Part of our programing involved organizing two “Know Your Rights” workshops to help prepare Somerville youth for encounters with law enforcement. Solina, a teen who is a member of our LIPS program -- the liaison interpreters program of somerville -- had a good experience with the workshop series; she noted, “people do not know what to do and what their rights are so we learn as teenagers if something bad happens, we know what to do."

The workshops engaged students in “mini-skits,” where they were asked to act out realistic encounters with law enforcement. Each skit detailed a scenario in which it would be easy to unknowingly or accidentally give up one’s rights.  For example, the skits dealt with being wrongly accused of stealing, being pulled over while smoking in the car, debating on whether or not to call the cops when a friend passes out, or being given a fake warrant to search the house. After performing the skits, students brainstormed about what the appropriate response might have been in each situation.

"You should never give consent to have your bags searched,” said Charu Verma, one of two public defenders who presented on specific constitutional rights during the workshops. Their presentation contained information on the fourth and fifth amendments. Charu highlighted the right to remain silent. Verma also spoke about the importance of asking officers questions. Many times, individuals are unaware of the fact that when they are approached, they are not required to stop and talk to officers. Verma elaborated on how you can make sure you can walk away from a situation. He advises people to ask the officer, "Am I being detained?" If they answer no, then you are free to walk away. If they say yes, then you have to stay, but you can still reserve the right to remain silent. Charu serves as a full time staff attorney for the Committee for Public Counsel Services and is also a board member for the ACLU of Massachusetts.

This is just some of the information that students were presented with throughout the workshop series. Alison Kuah, Youth Coordinator at The Welcome Project, noted that, “the first time you hear a lot of this information, it’s really overwhelming.” However, after attending the first “Know Your Rights” workshop, our LIPS students have had the opportunity to interpret at a separate “Know Your Rights” workshop for our ESOL classes. Students were able to apply what they had learned at the first workshop in order to better interpret information for the ESOL students. Alison noted, by “knowing your rights, you educate yourself and you bring knowledge to your communities and that’s the way the workshop has been really important for us.”

This workshop series came out of a working group within the Youth Workers Network in Somerville. The workshops were produced in partnership with Groundwork Somerville, Somerville Media Center and The Center for Teen Empowerment. According to Alison, the group also wanted to run the workshops so that youth from different organizations around Somerville would have an opportunity to connect and “make sure [they] knew of other people in their communities who were working for them and caring about them.”

Harrison, another LIPS student who attended the workshop, also found it very useful. He mentioned, “It’s nice to see that there is more than one person that cares about this sort of stuff. It helps us know that stuff if it happens to us; and we can tell our friends, which can help other people… and just prevent people from being arrested.” For many students, this is the first time they are hearing some of the risks they may face in interactions with law enforcement.
When asked about the most surprising thing he learned at the workshop, Harrison answered, “The thing that surprised me was that if I touched an officer it can be used against me.” The workshop aimed to educate students about these specific details since many youth are ill-informed of what can be held against them in interactions with law enforcement. After the workshop, Harrison concluded that knowing your rights “just gives you a little bit more of a feeling of safety, knowing that you are not as vulnerable.”

In thinking about ways to improve the workshop series, Alison mentioned that it might be helpful to have physical pamphlets in multiple languages that lay out the information discussed during the workshop. With these, it would be easier to engage the parents of the youth who attended the workshop. Ultimately, Alison concludes that it is important to constantly ask, “How do we bring this information to the people who weren’t in the room?” Overall, the “Know Your Rights” workshops have been important steps towards educating Somerville youth about their rights, as well as bringing together youth from multiple organizations around the city.

Donors help immigrant youth like Harrison and Solina know their rights.