Chicago freelance photographer Alyssa Schukar talks about her experience accompanying students from the Village Leadership Academy in Chicago on a trip to visit the Dominican Republic. The students spent their school year learning about the country’s history and culture. See more of Alyssa’s work here.
A few weeks ago, I boarded a plane to the Dominican Republic alongside a dozen students from the Village Leadership Academy in Chicago. The students spent their school year learning about Dominican history and culture and preparing to meet some of its 10 million people during a nine-day trip across the Caribbean’s second-largest nation.
Teachers designed the trip to give the students an understanding of how racism, colonialism, globalization, gender inequality, and poverty influence Dominicans’ lives. I tried to document the experiences shared by American and Dominican children of color. I wanted to study how nationality and ethnicity can affect how young people understand the world. Despite the geographic and cultural differences that separate these students, they learned they had more in common than they would have guessed.
All of the students on the trip have African heritage, and school administrators make an effort to travel to countries that share that ancestry. The school previously sent students to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Brazil, and South Africa. I wanted to document the big effect that international travel can have on young people, and I wanted to see what the students learned about themselves from their Dominican peers.
I tried to find moments that told a little more about these children in that place and time. One of my favorite pictures from the trip is of student D’Ondre Senter. During a brief break from swimming in the Jimenoa River in the country’s central region, I captured a quiet portrait of him enjoying the idyllic afternoon. D’Ondre was completely relaxed. All of the noise and chaos of Chicago was far from his mind.
As our journey continued, the students began to lose their initial inhibitions around the local children. Through broken Spanish and a little bit of English, they connected with the young Dominicans we met along the way. It sounds so obvious now, but the trip reminded me of how universal our experiences are and of how we long for the same things, no matter our ethnographic distinctions, our economic backgrounds, or our first language.
After a lesson on the island’s traditional music, Eduardo, the young Dominican boy pictured below, leaped to play drums just as the visiting students had done before him. He seemed eager to connect with the artistic pulse of the nation. Behind Eduardo hangs a painting by the artist Ricardo Toribio who paints scenes celebrating life on the island.
In the 15th century, European colonialists enslaved the native Tainos and later imported African slaves. The country, and its neighbor Haiti, still struggle with racism and ethnic divisions. The students from the Village Leadership Academy, a charter school, compared this inequality to what they face as people of color in America’s third-largest city. Many of the VLA students said they felt the Dominicans tried to conceal their dark skin and deny their African heritage. The students discussed how their own skin color is perceived in Chicago; how they’ve felt different or inferior in a city deeply fractured along ethnic and socioeconomic lines.
During our last full day in the country, we visited the Sosua dump, a short drive from a bustling tourist resort on the island’s northern coast. Homeless people live at the dump and pull recyclable materials from piles of medical waste, soiled toilet paper, and discarded food for about a dollar a day. For a few moments, the VLA students sorted garbage alongside Sosua’s residents. It’s easy to come to the dump with the idea that the people who live there have no hope or happiness, but the interactions seemed to reveal the strength of the human spirit and the dignity of all people.
The bus was quiet during the half-hour ride back to the hotel. Later, the students sat in a circle under palm trees to talk about what they’d seen. They said they wanted Sosua’s inhabitants to have the same resources they had in Chicago.
Seeing those moments is the beauty of being embedded with a group of people. Every day I could create a new “photo story” that would be published online for others to view and contribute to. I uploaded these photos to Education Week’s Instagram account every day and received comments from students, teachers, and Education Week‘s followers from around the world.
I come from a newspaper background, so I’m used to having a pretty specific target audience. I miss that relationship, but it’s an exciting time to be a photojournalist because we have such powerful tools to share stories and to connect with new audiences. We can create our own communities.
I feel blessed to have documented the trip and gotten to know these bright, young minds. International travel is always educational, but I didn’t know how illuminating my time there would be. I learned more from the students and the people I met than I could have learned in a hundred textbooks.
Now that we’re back in Chicago, I hope to continue my project by photographing the students in their homes and neighborhoods with their families. I feel that there is much more to learn and document about the students’ experiences.
A version of this article first appeared in the Full Frame blog.