Black Girl Magic in Japan Cultural Immersion with a Purpose
Three young women from Denver are preparing to bring Black Girl Magic to Japan, as they embark on a month-long cultural immersion trip to the Land of the Rising Sun.
Briana Thomas, Shea Carey, and Amara Williams are among a group of 15 students who will travel through out the country, teaching English and exploring Japanese culture first-hand.
Williams is a student at the Denver School for Science & Technology, while Thomas and Carey attend East High School. The girls joined Youth In Action, a service-based immersion program in 2016, all with a curiosity and admiration for Japanese culture, and its artistic and culinary intricacies. For the last two years, they have dedicated 15 hours per month to the Youth in Action program, learning Japanese, studying Japanese history and culture, and working with other students from around the city to raise money and give back to their community through outreach and volunteer work.
Youth in Action has provided opportunities for hundreds of students throughout Denver. Participants gather weekly to learn about the Japanese culture and language while developing leadership skills and cultivating a passion for global exploration. Founder and Director JoAnne Harada started the program in 2002 to help young people find ways to travel the world while giving back. “This program is an experience like no other,” said Harada, who will chaperone the trip for the fourth time from June 4 to July 2.
While in Japan, the group will teach English to students at nursing, elementary and high schools. “They have spent at least two years learning Japanese, so they will be able to relate to English learners in a unique way. It’s a great experience for everyone!” says Harada, who worked as an English instructor for eight years at one of the schools where the group will teach. Students will also participate in a traditional tea ceremony, Ikebana flower arrangement, calligraphy classes, and other cultural activities by day. By night, the group will be housed with Japanese host families, in Kyoto, Kyushu, and Yamagata, Colorado’s sister state.
The steadfast and benevolent service of teaching English to Japanese children and adults will be rewarded with unforgettable sightseeing opportunities. The group will attend the Kokusai Mura International Forum during their stay in the northern coastal city of Tsuruoka, and work alongside students from around the world at the exciting World Bazaar.
In Hiroshima, Youth in Action will visit the Children’s Peace Monument at Peace Memorial Park. Students have spent the last two years trying to perfect the ancient tradition of origami paper as they worked diligently to create 1,000 paper cranes. “They have worked so hard,” says Harada. “Amara is one of the best! She got really good at it, so now she helps some of the other students.” The cranes will be presented at the Children’s Peace Monument in honor of Sadako Sasaki, a young girl who died of leukemia 10 years after the atomic bombing of 1945. Believing that folding the paper cranes would miraculously heal her after she developed symptoms related to the devastating atomic bomb fallout, Sasaki folded the paper cranes until her death in 1955, which triggered a campaign for world peace. Youth in Action’s cranes will join millions more at Sasaki’s memorial.
For Williams, Thomas and Carey, Youth in Action have provided the opportunity of a lifetime. The experience of teaching, traveling, and exploring the intricacies of Japanese culture first-hand will reach far beyond the amazing stories they’ll share with family and friends. The opportunity to be immersed in a vastly different culture will broaden their horizons as they go on to pursue their interests in astrology, medicine, art, and philosophy.
Not surprisingly, the girls are all supported by loving families who are working diligently to raise the money needed for the June trip. Williams, a senior at DSST says, “My family has been onboard since I applied for the program. They have always encouraged me to experience different cultures.”
Despite myths surrounding negligible travel tendencies, global travel and tourism industries have seen a marked increase in travel spending amongst people of color in recent years. The surge in travel can be attributed to globalization with more affordable costs made possible by a highly competitive market, and the ease of access made possible by technological advancements has literally placed the world at our fingertips with websites like Kayak.com and NoirBnB.com offering discounted rates. The luxury once reserved for upper and middle-class families is now accessible and feasible for people of all ages and economic backgrounds.
Travel is especially important for young people, who are impressionable and adventurous with a strong need for self-exploration and discovery. Youth in Action’s immersive program builds confidence and character; as students delve into the unfamiliar landscape of a foreign country and rely on their instincts to navigate and adapt to changing customs and conditions.
“Travel is one of the greatest ways to teach leadership,” says Harada, whose focus on self-esteem and social development is one of the primary goals of Youth in Action. Thomas says that her family often encourages her to travel and see as much of the world as possible, supporting her efforts to learn a new language and gain exposure to Japanese culture.
As the group teaches English at nursing, primary and high schools, they will be required to apply what they’ve learned with patience and care, overcoming communication barriers and other obstacles. In addition to the cognitive benefit of learning a second language, the cultural sensitivity acquired through this immersion trip will prepare students for participation in an increasingly global economy. Students will have a greater understanding of their role in rapidly evolving social and technological environments, with the unique opportunity to build relationships and network with people from around the world.
The total cost of the month-long immersion trip to Japan is $4,300 per student. Youth in Action has assisted each student in the development of creative fundraisers to cover the expense. Each participant is responsible for coming up with innovative ways to earn money, and Youth in Action has raised enough funds to contribute $1,000 toward the cost of each student’s trip. Students are also thinking creatively to come up with service projects that meet the organization’s community service requirements. “We encourage students to volunteer in their communities, and that looks different for everyone,” says Harada, who praises the group for its fundraising and community outreach coordination. “One student teaches baseball clinics; another student collects medical equipment and sends it to people in need living in South America, and some of the students volunteer at various afterschool programs throughout the city of Denver.”
Williams, Thomas, and Carey are still working hard to raise the funds needed for the approaching trip. Carey, a 9th-grade student at East High School, says that she is thankful for the support of her friends and family, who have donated toward the cost of the trip. “My mom really believes in this opportunity,” says Carey, “So she is working extra hours to help pay the difference since I’ve been keeping my GPA at a 3.68 all year.” To raise funds, the girls have gift-wrapped during the holidays, volunteered at the church that houses the program, sold baked goods, and more.
Collectively, Youth in Action participants still need to come up with nearly $12,000 for the June 2018 trip. The students are optimistic that they will continue to raise the money with fundraisers like their Spring Lawn Care services, which are offered to residents of Denver and surrounding areas.
Youth in Action is a 501(c) (3) nonprofit organization. “We’ve been able to survive this long with donations from people in our community who want to see our students thrive.” Harada attributes the support Youth in Action receives from the community to the students’ willingness to provide outreach services at every opportunity. “We love to volunteer. Please invite us to clean-up, childcare and other events around Denver where volunteers are needed,” she offers.
To join the Youth in Action, students in grades 6-12 who are interested in learning Japanese and working with other students to volunteer throughout the community must write an essay explaining their interest in travel and cultural exploration.
Applicants must then undergo a rigorous 2-step interview before being invited to attend Saturday classes and other special Youth in Action events. Participants must attend weekly meetings and take part in ongoing community service.
Editor’s note: For more information about Youth in Action or to find out how to help the group meet its fundraising goals, visit www.YIAColorado.org.