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By Andrés Feliciano. Andrés is a City Year New Orleans ’13 alum. He’s producer & music director of Paper City, a documentary film and educational program about the school-to-prison pipeline inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?

Two years before I joined City Year New Orleans, I was a student at Oberlin College, making music and trying to figure out my purpose in life. I saw a lot of injustice in the world, and knew I wanted to make a difference, but didn’t know how. One night, I got a call from Akil Gibbons, one of my closest friends since 8th grade. Akil was studying film at Hampshire College in Massachusetts and tutoring middle school students in Holyoke, a post-industrial paper mill city just 10 miles from his school. He was interviewing the students for his senior thesis film, and asked me to make the music. I’d never scored a film before, but got on board.

Akil asked the students about their dreams, what challenges they faced, and how they saw the future. What they said shocked us: these kids were dealing with the effects of crumbling infrastructure, high unemployment, a 50% dropout rate, drugs, gangs, incarceration, and violence on an everyday basis. And it wasn’t isolated: this is happening in cities across the country. Despite all this, these kids were as bright, brilliant, and hopeful as anyone you’ll ever meet.

Akil wanted to make something that could help, and I joined him as Producer. With the help of community leaders—teachers, law officers, activists, and politicians—we aimed to deliver a message to the youth of Holyoke: you have power, and your power will change the world. Paper City was born.

As I learned about Holyoke and its youth, I was inspired by the resilience, beauty, and love they exemplified. In turn, I also learned about mass incarceration, the prison industrial complex, the War on Drugs, the New Jim Crow, and the intersections between them. Most importantly, I realized these problems can’t be solved without the empowerment and education of our youth.

In 2012, I tutored at a local middle school as we finished the rough cut of Paper City. At a City Year presentation in Oberlin, I learned that over 1 million students were dropping out of U.S. high schools annually, and that those who drop out are 8x more likely to be incarcerated than those who graduate. This was a major problem in nearby Cleveland, and mirrored what we had seen in Holyoke. It seemed City Year’s mission to address this dropout crisis went hand in hand with  our mission in Paper City. I decided to serve in my hometown, New Orleans.

Serving with City Year New Orleans was one of the most transformative experiences of my life. As a mentor, advocate, and academic support for my students at SJ Green Charter School, I saw how important education is for a community, and how critical it is that we invest in making it work for our youth. Serving in New Orleans also gave me perspective on how Paper City could be relevant to other communities where kids are growing up surrounded by incarceration, drugs, violence, and poverty, and where schools struggle to support those kids’ needs. This was pivotal to our development of the Paper City curriculum alongside fellow AmeriCorps member Bang Vu Pham.
Since then, we’ve finished the final cut of Paper City, drafted the Paper City curriculum, toured film festivals nationwide, and ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to make Paper City a free public resource online. Now, we’re piloting the Paper City program in schools, youth programs, community organizations, and juvenile detention centers nationwide, and partnering with Harry Belafonte’s new social justice organization to build a community of educators, youth, and advocates to bring Paper City where it’s needed.

As we officially release Paper City’s pilot program this school year, we would like to invite all City Year AmeriCorps members, senior corps, staff, alumni, and partners to access the film, curriculum, and website.  We welcome your feedback on how to make this the best possible tool it can be for educators everywhere.  

City Year was integral to our realization of Paper City as an educational program, and Paper City helped me be a better AmeriCorps member. By helping future corps members inform their service with Paper City’s social justice framework, we can multiply the positive impact City Year has in communities everywhere.

Please check out the Paper City pilot site here, and let us know what you think.

Thank you.

Yours in service, with hope,

Andrés “Mr. F” Feliciano

City Year New Orleans ’13


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