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Finding their voices, claiming their power

ASU students from Maryvale use photos, podcast to stimulate conversation about important community issues

Manuel Elizalde, Wendy Ruiz, Kimberly Rios standing in front of a screen that reads "The importance of Elevating Youth Voices" with smaller text underneath

Barrett, The Honors College students (from left) Manuel Elizalde, Wendy Ruiz and Kimberly Rios stand at the screen for their honors thesis presentation in March.

July 05, 2023

Today, Arizona State University students Wendy Ruiz, Kimberly Rios and Manuel Elizalde are confident communicators, but that wasn't always the case.

Growing up in Maryvale, a mostly Latino area of west Phoenix, they knew certain subjects were hardly discussed among their fellow residents — which is why they wanted to find a way to get people talking about important community concerns.

A class project at Maryvale High School was the first step toward finding their own voices and understanding the power of speaking out.

The trio — who recently completed their junior year at ASU — say the many years they have spent facilitating community conversations taught them that self-expression can enlighten minds and hearts, create change and right wrongs.

Their experiences began at Maryvale High School, where the then-teens and classmates in an AP history class worked with ASU students from the Junior Scholars program, sponsored by the ASU Congressman Ed Pastor Center for Politics and Public Service, as well as with their advisor, social work Assistant Professor Lauren Reed and her colleagues at the School of Social Work’s Thriving Relationships Lab.

Reed has been working with the students ever since.

“What’s amazing about these projects is that they were student led,” she said.

As ASU students, they created a Photovoice project on social issues confronting Maryvale youths. This year, for their honors thesis, they produced a five-episode podcast based on social issues discussions stemming from the Photovoice project. The work was funded by the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions and Barrett, The Honors College at ASU.

Deciding on a controversial subject

Four years ago, the three, along with fellow Maryvale High School student Monaliza Hernandez — also now at ASU — brainstormed about social issues and politics as they tried to pick a topic for a public presentation in the school auditorium. They considered talking about drugs and human trafficking, but Ruiz, Rios and Elizalde believed those issues already had been significantly covered.

They decided on toxic masculinity, which Ruiz said they knew would be controversial in Maryvale.

“We came to the realization it should be about machismo in the Latino community. It’s kind of a taboo thing in our culture,” she said, and talking about it in an open forum would be an effective way to encourage discussion.

The project took a semester to plan and present. The students used about $500 in ASU funding from the Junior Scholars.

Ruiz said a crowd of nearly 600 heard their presentation in the auditorium.

“We shared facts, personal stories, how the media portrays toxic masculinity as harmful. We got a lot of feedback,” Ruiz said. ”We had people coming up to us saying, ‘I’m glad you talked about this, it’s not talked about.’ Others opposed it, saying things like, ‘That’s not true,’ even from some teachers. But we persevered. Our goal was to spark conversation — good or bad.”

The students gathered shortly afterward to recap the results.

“It was kind of a big deal. We were celebrating behind the curtain of the auditorium,” Elizalde said.

Creating a Photovoice project

When Ruiz, Rios and Elizalde saw how their program had engaged the community, they started developing more ideas to express their views and feelings, Reed said.

A conversation with Junior Scholars supervisor Alberto Olivas, the Pastor Center’s executive director, led Olivas to contact Reed, whose research dealt with many of the issues that interested the three students.

Reed was able to secure a Community Solutions Design Grant that totaled $60,000 over two years for faculty working with the Maryvale community from the Watts College’s Design Studio for Community Solutions to assist the teens.

Once at ASU, the three, now Barrett students, agreed on creating a Photovoice project that began virtually in summer 2020 and involved 12 Maryvale High School students and recent alumni.

Reed and others trained the group, which researched and presented about several issues, including public safety, health-care disparities among people of color, racial prejudice and colorism, and LGBTQ+ rights, taking photographs in their homes and communities to depict their experiences of these issues.

The podcast idea grew from their Photovoice experience, Rios said, as a way to enable anyone to engage with their content from anywhere.

“But none of us had ever done a podcast before,” Rios said. “We listened to them and thought they were really cool. We did research and asked for a lot of help on how to record. It was really fun.”

Podcast traces how youths deal with big life issues

The podcast, titled “Shouting the Whispers of the Youth,” documents how young people address important life concerns by giving them an opportunity to speak their minds and be listened to, all while seeking answers to big questions facing them, their friends, families and neighbors.

The students were nervous at first. But they eventually stopped noticing they were recording and just started talking, Rios said. They spoke without filters, not trying to sound too professional or worrying about making a mistake.

“We just would speak our minds,” she said.

The three committed to a yearlong series, which became their honors thesis project with help from Reed and Allison Mullady, director of the Design Studio.

Elizalde said he had to heavily edit episodes of the podcast because the students diverted into so many side conversations.

“I’m glad we were able to have them even though much didn’t make it into the episodes; it helped us become closer to each other,” he said. “Once I got the hang of the editing, it got easier. I often take pauses when I speak, I learned how to change that. I learned a lot about the topic I chose and making it personal to us as well.”

Ruiz agreed: “I knew it would be a challenge. It was so new to me and hard for me to be vulnerable to other people listening to me. I’m usually very reserved,” she said. “But I knew for this to be impactful and for people to be able to voice their opinions, I had to do that myself. I just got out of my comfort zone.”

People who’ve listened to their podcast and viewed the photos have changed how they see Maryvale, Ruiz said.

“People say they are understanding Maryvale more. It’s not all gangs,” she said. “I think we helped change the perspective and the stereotypes.”

Mullady said the Design Studio’s One Square Mile Initiative, a signature project supported by funding from the 2018 gift of college benefactors Mike and Cindy Watts, would not be where it is today without students like Ruiz, Rios and Elizalde, as well as community champions who reach out to residents.

Reed said the Wattses joined those attending the students’ thesis defense in March.

‘I’m not afraid to use my voice anymore’

The three said the experience helped them find their voices and desire to speak out.

“I learned that if you take the opportunity, put yourself out there and vocalize what you believe in, you can create a lot of impact on the legislative level, on policies, even at your school. Don’t be afraid to speak up and fight for what is right,” Ruiz said.

“I’m not afraid to use my voice anymore. The podcast changed my career perspective; I now really want to be involved in politics, public service and public policy.”

Elizalde said the podcast also changed what he wanted to do with his career. He wants it to include forming discussions around what he’s passionate about.

“(Doing the podcast) felt like a normal conversation,” he said. “Now, if I’m unhappy with something, I’ve learned to be able to move on to something that makes me happy, help others be advocated for and advocate for myself in my workplace.”

Rios said she learned how to advocate for herself.

“I feel more confident and comfortable now, asking questions, putting myself out there. I know how to advocate for myself, my voice and opinions,” Rios said.

“When you come from a high school like Maryvale High, some teachers will tell you about the Maryvale bubble, where you might be great here, but not anywhere else, like ASU. This project showed that even though some people said that, we’re all doing pretty great. ... Anything they can do, I can do.”

The three are mentoring current Maryvale High School students who are interested in attending ASU and getting involved with the Thriving Relationships Lab and the Design Studio, just as they had. Reed said a new Photovoice project is in the works with the Design Studio.

Rios said one of their mentees who graduated high school last year is now working with the group. “Hearing what they have to say, they have a different perspective than I had. It’s full circle," Rios added.

Listen to the students’ podcast, “Shouting the Whispers of the Youth,” here on Spotify.