BRATTLEBORO—On a recent sunny Sunday, 39 college-bound Los Angeles high school students and their teachers and chaperones joined a handful of locals for “Building Bridges,” a special art project and presentation.
On the first floor of the Marlboro Graduate Center, attendees sat around big tables and made postcards with hearts, flowers, and messages of love and support. Through the efforts of Ann Braden’s group, the Local Love Brigade, these notes will go to groups and individuals on the receiving end of hateful acts, such as bomb threats and racial slurs.
How did 39 students from Academia Avance — a public charter middle- and high school in the Highland Park section of Los Angeles — end up in a conference room in Brattleboro?
It all started with postcards.
In late-February, Romulo Avelica-Gonzales was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement minutes after he dropped his daughter off at school. Another daughter filmed the incident on her cellphone and the local ABC-TV affiliate picked up the story, which then appeared in a number of national media outlets, including CNN, The Washington Post, and the New York Daily News.
Fatima, Donna, and Yuleni, Avelica-Gonzalez’s daughters, and their cousin Diana Vargas Avelica, are students at Academia Avance.
In March, the Vermont chapter of the Local Love Brigade sent “love postcards” to Romulo Avelica-Gonzalez’s family in Los Angeles.
Shortly after, members of the Brigade received an email from a staff member at Academia Avance.
Because the Avelica family — and the girls’ schoolmates — felt so supported by the postcards, they wanted to make a special stop in Brattleboro during an extended field trip the senior class was taking around the country.
The message read, “The Executive Director and others are very interested in arranging a meet-up with the VT Love Brigade to chat [...] about the concept, the organizing, and the different actions [you] have taken to reach out to folks around the country."
Seeing an opportunity to strengthen a connection, Braden welcomed the group, and set up “Building Bridges” for May 21.
To open the event, Academia Avance Executive Director Ricardo Mireles gave a brief yet energetic speech, then asked his charges to introduce themselves.
Students stood up and shared their names, which schools they will attend in the fall, their college majors, and internships they recently completed. These included internships at hospitals and medical research centers, the offices of city council members, and design studios making film props.
“We are so honored you are here today,” Braden told the group.
“There’s a lot of potential in this room!” Braden noted, expressing admiration for how hard these young people are working on their educations, and how that contrasts with how easy it is to send love through a simple postcard.
The event, which lasted about 90 minutes, resulted in over 80 cards made by the students, the Brigade members, and other guests. All were sent to those in need of some love.
’A tsunami of loving greetings’
In a follow-up conversation with The Commons, Braden said Diana Vargas Avelica, Romulo Avelica-Gonzalez’s niece, “is a senior and was on the trip. She came up to me at the end to thank me and we hugged and shared a good cry together."
Braden shared photos of the hand-made cards the Brigade received from the seventh-grade class at Academia Avance, thanking the group for their support. The artists include Avelica-Gonzalez’s daughters.
The students’ visit isn’t the only response the Brigade has received from postcard recipients.
Braden shared with The Commons emails and letters from representatives of the many Jewish community centers, schools, and temples that have been defaced or have received bomb threats.
One mentions “a paper tsunami of warm and loving greetings” from the Brigade.
Another message, from a woman in the Midwest who received a hateful message on her car, wrote to thank the Brigade, but took it a step further: “So I was wondering — can I join your group? Or are there local chapters? Or can I form one? How does this work, because the boost I have gotten from these letters (the first of which, by the way showed up on my birthday) has been amazing.”
“It’s amazing how far the ripples of actions — even small, simple ones — can travel,” Braden said. “Love is a powerful force, and this is a reminder that we’re able to push back against the hate and divisiveness, one step at a time.”