The six-foot-tall wooden pyramid was in essence a blank canvass for the young people gathered around — built to allow them to express their feelings on subjects that cut to the core of the human condition: freedom and oppression.

With the aid of spray paint, stencils and pictures, the youth covered one side of the pyramid with slogans and images, such as iconic pictures of Martin Luther King, that made them feel free.

The other two sides were reserved for representations of oppression. The most common image? A camera.

While one might expect young people to feel oppressed by parents, school officials or police officers, but it is from cameras they say they cannot escape. Cameras are everywhere in their world — at street intersections, in public buildings, at their schools, on their phones.

This was but one of the insights gained by those who attended Santa Ana’s inaugural Boys and Men of Color Conference, a two-day gathering held last weekend at Valley High School.

“It definitely empowered me. It was a very worth-it experience,” said 18-year-old Victor Gudiel, a Santa Ana High School senior who was one of the BMOC organizers. “BMOC gave me more speaking experience, meeting experience and connecting experience.”

A wide range of activists, teachers and other experts on the issues facing underserved communities were on hand to interact with the youth and dispense their wisdom. Several said they were impressed with what they saw.

“Santa Ana has important space to see action and build community,” said Raquel Armenta, a youth leader for the Los Angeles-based group Innercity Struggle. Armenta said she was impressed by the turnout.

Dr. Victor Rios, one of the conference’s keynote speakers, spoke of the need for a change in how young people are viewed in underserved communities. We need to change it from “at risk” to “at promise.”

Rios went on to say that the reason street gangs do so well in recruiting young kids is the gang leaders make them feel important. This is something the community must do instead, he said.

“Spending any time with a young person is making them feel important,” said Rios, a professor of sociology at UC Santa Barbara specializing in youth culture and the author of “Street Life,” an autobiographical account of growing up in inner-city Oakland.

Rios also said it is crucial that people of color know their cultural roots. It’s been proven that those who do perform better in school and have a better overall sense of purpose in their lives.

Jerry Tello, the conference’s other keynote speaker, agreed wholeheartedly with Rios on that point. Tello said his culture actually helped him stay out of trouble.

Specifically, he said his grandmother would regularly give him the first of her homemade tortillas and tell him it was because he was her most important grandchild. He later found out that she said the same thing to her other grandchildren.

Tello’s accounts had an impact on Gudiel. “I learned more about my roots” he said. “Storytelling, there is power to it.”

Tello also spoke about the hurdles people must overcome when they come from a broken home. It is crucial that people in those circumstances be able to themselves, but often men grow up without healing, Tello said.

Too often, Tello said, men develop coping mechanisms like use of drugs and alcohol to cover up the lack of healing.

This reality was one of the reasons the concept of the healing circle was part of the conference. In a healing circle, people sit together, and each is given the opportunity to get issues off their chests. It is an especially important exercise for boys, because men are often expected not to talk about their feelings.

The healing circle at the conference showed progress in this regard. Young women who took part said it surprised them that the guys were talking about their emotions.

Voice of OC Youth Media staff writers Nelson Alonso, Daniel Garcia, Jaaziel Lopez, Yvette Ortega and Alex Guevara contributed to this report.

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