Long Beach social justice art exhibit highlights youth stories 

The “Letters to…” exhibit runs until August 31 at the Billie Jean King Main Library in Long Beach, CA. | Photo courtesy of Make Some Noise

LONG BEACH, Calif. — To amplify the power of youth’s voices, Intertrend Communications Inc., an award-winning multicultural communications agency, recently launched the first-of-its-kind art exhibition, showcasing entries from a writing contest, dubbed “Letters To…An Extraordinary Correspondence,” conducted by its branding unit Make Noise Today (MNT).

Launched in December last year, the “Letters to…” contest has allowed over 900 high school students from around the country to sound off otherwise difficult to utter feelings and thoughts into words.

Julia Huang, founder and CEO of Intertrend, told the Asian Journal during the unveiling of the art installation at the Billie Jean King Main Library in Long Beach, California, that this unique experience is generally aimed at combating racism by empowering the youth.

Julia Huang | AJPress photo by Donnabelle Gatdula Arevalo

“MNT was an initiative generated by our employees during the height of Asian American violence and discrimination but we opted to focus more on telling stories, encouraging Asian Americans to tell their stories, and amplifying our voices. [For] this particular exhibition called ‘Letter To…’ we focused on high school students. So we asked high school students around the country to submit letters addressed to anyone, letters to yourself, letters to your future self, letters from the past, or teachers or people who believe you or discriminated against you or any kind of letters talking about identity and racial equality and it was really expanded to more than AsiaA=n Americans,” Huang said.

MNT is a platform that creates empathy and equity through Asian storytelling. It accomplishes this through collections of content and stories on the lives of Asian Americans-Recipe for Change.

For over 20 years, Long Beach-based Intertrend has been successfully helping its clients nurture and establish brand leadership positions in this emerging market through an integrated mix of advertising, public relations, promotions, events, and interactive strategies via various culturally relevant marketing programs.

With the recent school shooting in Texas, the Intertrend chief believes that mental health is extremely important and the “Letters to…” exhibit provided a venue for teens to put their feelings into words and present them to the world.

According to Huang, Intertrend allocated some $10,000 cash prizes for the 10 winners. The first prize got $5,000 and the rest was equally divided amongst the nine runners-up.

Around 60 letters, including the Top 10 winners, are being highlighted in the exhibit, which will run from June 9 to August 31 and will be free for the public.

For his part, Intertrend executive director and MNT project manager Michael Vitug said this social justice initiative, which basically provides the youth with not only an alternative but a relevant platform to voice out their experiences, might be carried out in other parts of the country.

“We are looking at this one as a travelling exhibition so after this one, hopefully we can have this in other Southern Californian parts of the country. We are also thinking of other forms of platforms. Our objective is still to provide the platform for the youth so it could be in the form of art. It could be another writing contest, but we are looking to do something that could be similar but something to do with art,” Vitug said.

Vitug said they are planning to launch a similar initiative early 2023. “We are looking at next year, opening up another contest. “We started this contest in December 2021, so we probably do the same, maybe roll out another similar project in January (2023) and then have the exhibition in summer,” the Intertrend official said.

Tanya Raukko, Intertrend chief strategy officer (CSO), echoed Vitug’s optimism that this initiative will continue to expand every year.

“I think, we might make this an annual project. Maybe, it’s more art next time. We need to see what the format is. We might create a book by aggregating these letters,” Raukko said, attributing the success of the initiative through a aggressive digital marketing campaign, educational and multi-personal networks among Asian Americans and by setting up a scholarship website.

Cathy de Leon, director of Long Beach Public Libraries, on the other hand, is elated to play an active part in this social and racial equality campaign.

“My role is to be able to make sure that everybody feels welcome and to let people know the Long Beach Public Libraries are a place where we are going to highlight these stories and these voices and really make space that everyone to feel included and welcome,” de Leon said.

When asked how she feels about hosting this kind of event in her jurisdiction, De Leon, a Filipino American, said, “It’s really amazing, it’s such an important conversation to have — as Asian Americans, as Filipinos, and with everything that is going on around the country. It’s really kinda sad when we see our lolas and our lolos being attacked in different places. So to be able to have this space in the library, this gallery’s space to be able to highlight and give full space to young people that want to tell their stories, we are all for it. The more we could talk about these things, the more, we could encourage young people to be proud of who they are, the better of we gonna be moving forward.”

“My message (to fellow Filipinos) is just exactly what the title of the exhibit is, Make Noise Today. Don’t be afraid to speak up. Tell your story, talk about these things that are hard, don’t be ashamed, be proud of who you are. Be proud to be a Filipino,” de Leon added.

During the opening of the one-of-a-kind exhibition, some contest winners and a student activist were asked to share their thoughts on how this experience created an impact on their lives.

Millie Liao, student activist | AJPress photo by Donnabelle Gatdula Arevalo

Millie Liao, student and youth activist, said “These letters, essays, poems and other forms of writing contain the invaluable stories of the next generation. They capture the voices of the future leaders of this nation, and they shed light on the experiences we have gone through using those experiences to call for change.”

“Through the ‘Letters To…’ campaign, Make Noise Today has uplifted Gen-Z voices, making sure we are heard and allowing us to contribute to the greater nationwide conversation,” Liao said. “Thanks to MNT, more and more youth are realizing the power of their voices, and using that power to change the world we live in. So when MNT launched the Letters To competition, you can imagine how overjoyed and elated I was. I wanted to get involved, and I started working as an intern helping to give feedback from a youth perspective.”

The top 10 winners of the contest, which was judged by Morell Jones (History Educator from Geffen Academy at UCLA), Ian Kumamoto (Writer from New York),Eleanor Wikstrom (Poet Laureate, Editor of The Harvard Crimson), are: First Place – Aida G., (Cary, N.C.) – “Mama”; Gold – Scarlett C., (Maplewood, N.J.) – “Nothing To See; Gold – Kenna P., (Shreveport, La.) – “Were You With Them?”; Silver – Amerie G., (San Fernando, Calif.) – “The Hands That Built Us”; Silver – Natasha Q., (Lake Forest, Calif.) – “Your Hair, Your Crown”; Silver – Arabella V., (Fullerton, Calif.) – “Other” Honorable Mention – Arshia A., (Warren, N.Y.) – “What’s in a Name?”; Honorable Mention – My H., (Aurora, Colo.) – “Con”; Honorable Mention – Xin L., (Queens, N.Y.) – “Xin Lu”; and Honorable Mention – Sage S., (Washington, D.C.) – “How Do You Love Yourself in a World That Hates You, Black Girl?”

Natasha Q from Lake Forest, California | AJPress photo by Donnabelle Gatdula Arevalo

Natasha Q, a 17-year old student from Lake Forest, talked about her winning piece, “Your Hair, Your Crown,” and narrated how this experience brought significant change in her life.

“I remember sitting in my room like two o’clock in the morning brainstorming ideas about what I could talk about. I just [got] memories of what people used to say about my hair and how they felt about and how it would make me feel and growing up, I had very low self-esteem. I grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood where people are not really looking like me. I am a lot taller than everyone else, darker than everyone else, my hair a lot different. So struggling to look for that connection really did me a disservice as a kid. When I grew up and went to high school, my friends looked like me and they had curly hair just like me and they just inspired to write from the heart and they always made me feel that I did not have to earn my blackness or earn my whiteness, they just accepted me as who I am and they made me love the person that I am today,” she said, in an interview with the Asian Journal.

In joining the contest, Natasha said, “It made a huge difference in my life. It kinda help my confidence grow. I was terrified getting up there talking in front of everyone but the organization has helped so much in making me feel comfortable for who I am, my skills and my talents. This kinda helps me accept who I am and love that part of me.”

Amerie G., from San Fernando, California, said she wrote about her family’s heritage in her winning story entry. “Since it’s Hispanic Heritage Month and me being Hispanic, I wanted to recognize my parents, they’re everything that I am right now but I also wanted to grow and become my own person and grow in to theirs as Hispanic people,” she said.

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