ECVI Hosts Art Gala to Fund Citizenship Applications


Photo Courtesy of Nathaniel Liu

Art created by Oberlin students and community members was auc- tioned off at El Centro Volunteer Initiative’s Art Gala last Friday.

A furry orange armchair, a pair of upcycled jeans, and a legion of prints and pottery donated by YeoPress and the Oberlin Pottery Co-op were among the works of art up for auction at the El Centro Volunteer Initiative Art Gala last Friday. Attendees of the free event, many dressed in the recommended cocktail attire, lined the perimeter of the Root Room, admiring the pieces and placing bids to help fund citizenship applications for Lorain County residents. The annual art auction originated with YeoPress, but in recent years ECVI has taken the reins, putting on the event with the aid of donations from YeoPress and the Pottery Co-op.

“Some of [the donations] are from professors,” College fourth-year and ECVI Co-Leader of Grant Writing and Fundraising Signe Meyer said. “We have some this year from librarians, one from a Dean of Student Life. We had a community member donate the other day. It’s a good mix of people. It is predominantly student art, but we accept art from whoeverʼs interested.”

As the night progressed and the closing of bidding drew near, the energy in the room heightened. Bidders discreetly guarded their desired works to outbid any challengers, and the Mexican banda drew a growing crowd to the dance floor. With its music and food, the gala provided a rare opportunity for Latine students to celebrate their culture alongside Lorain community members.

“Itʼs a fact that thereʼs Latine students in the Conservatory, but there is no band centered on Latinidad or anything like that,” College second-year and ECVI Co-Leader of Grant Writing and Fundraising Angelina Martinez said. “There isnʼt really Spanish music and Spanish bands [at Oberlin]. The reason we brought the banda is because we wanted that type of representation.”

Cultural connection is also a motivation for many of those involved with ECVI.

“Iʼm from Houston, Texas, and the community Iʼm from is all Black and Brown people, so coming [to Oberlin] was a definite culture shock,” Martinez said. “ECVI specifically goes out to a predominantly Latinx community to give citizenship and English classes, so one, [joining] was really important for me because it felt like home, and two, immigration is a personal issue for me and itʼs something that Iʼm really passionate about.”

Lorain’s Latine community has a notable history, with hundreds of men being recruited from Puerto Rico to work in the steel mill in the mid-20th century.

“We want people to be aware of that community, and to be able to have an opportunity to support them and to engage in really important local social justice and community-building work,” Meyer said.

To provide Oberlin students with that opportunity, ECVI works to benefit El Centro de Servicios Sociales.

“El Centro provides so many services, weʼre known as a one-stop organization here in Lorain County with a big reputation,” Executive Director of El Centro de Servicios Sociales Victor Leandry said. “We do English classes, first-homebuyer classes, we do summer camp, ballet classes, we have senior services, legal aid clinics — we do a lot. … Lorain County and Lorain City have the biggest Latino population per capita in Ohio, but we only have one organization thatʼs ours.”

El Centro is the organization for which ECVI is named, though ECVI is entirely student-led. It was students of El Centro’s citizenship test preparation classes whose applications the gala sought to raise funds for. This semester, ECVI-led citizenship classes have been attended by as many as nine participants in one session — a record for the organization.

“This semester, we have the largest number of citizenship students ever,” Meyer said. “Given that every test is $725 just for the application alone, weʼd love to fund at least three if not more, but itʼs super reliant on how many people show up, how much theyʼre willing to pay, how much theyʼre willing to donate to the organization.”

Meyer says they have met the aforementioned goal — out of 136 pieces, all but three were auctioned off, raising enough money to fund four citizenship applications. But regardless of the monetary proceeds from the gala, El Centro values the efforts and con- tributions of ECVI.

“They have organized a great group; they have a group that runs almost like a board of directors,” Leandry said. “Approximately six years ago, they started volunteering at El Centro, doing citizenship classes, [and] educating our immigrant community on how to pass their citizenship test. … They have very good success rates. Most of the people who take the class — in the 90 percent — pass the citizenship test.”

ECVI is not the only avenue through which Oberlin and El Centro have developed a relationship. Professor of Comparative American Studies Gina Pérez recently joined El Centro’s board of directors and has worked closely with the organization and the Lorain Historical Society to create the Latino Lorain History Project.

“We started our project three years ago to collect and capture the history of the Latino community [in Lorain], because it was not captured [anywhere],” Leandry said.

Pérez led students in her class in collecting oral histories from early members of the Latino community in Lorain.

“This year weʼre working on capturing the story of the Latino veterans in Ohio in Lorain to do an exhibit,” Leandry said. “Some of the students are from ECVI, and some are from [Pérez’s] class.”

Turnout at last weekʼs art gala was significantly greater than at the previous art auction. ECVI organizers were encouraged by the show of Oberlin support for El Centro’s cause.

“Itʼs refreshing to see, especially in todayʼs political environment, that people care about immigration issues,” Martinez said.

Perhaps ECVI’s success in marketing the art gala can be attributed in part to their collaboration with Oberlin artists.

“This college has such an expansive network of artists that also want to do social justice work, that want their work to be for good,” Meyer said.

For some student artists, donating their art might’ve been an opportunity to put disused creations to use, but it also provided inspiration.

“Sometimes it can be a little bit hard to find a reason to do art, so I think this is a really good way to use my art for something thatʼs really important,” College second-year and ECVI volunteer Camila Ciembroniewicz said.

At the end of the night, as auction winners claimed their spoils and evaluated how to transport the pieces home — the aforementioned neon armchair closing at a bid of $60 — and feelings of warmth and community lingered in the room.

“As much as Oberlin students want to take care of huge global issues, itʼs also important to take care of the local ones, and this event is a really cool way to be a part of that,” Meyer said.