Spreading Empowerment in a Divided World

Amnesty speaker Elvin Torres discusses identity, culture, and privilege.

Spreading Empowerment in a Divided World

Priya Kukreja, Co-Editor-in-Chief

On Wednesday Oct. 5, aMNesty club brought in a featured speaker, Elvin Torres, who discussed identity, culture, and privilege. With an audience of near 100 listeners, Torres’ words left a profound impact on many students.

Torres was born in Puerto Rico and grew up in New York City. His early life was marked by poverty and crime, culminating in an arrest for selling heroin to an undercover cop when he was 16.

“I grew up in the projects with a single mom in the heyday of the drug era in NYC. I remember being in sixth grade and shimmying my way up stairwells that were literally lined with drug addicts because the dealer was at the top of the stairwell,” Torres said.

Torres was sent to Boys Town in Omaha as a result, where he met first met Rhonda Betzold in 1995. Betzold, aMNesty sponsor and Torres’ former house parent, has been an instrumental part of Torres’ life.

“He’s like a son to me. I knew him when he was a kid so to hear him speak so eloquently, passionately, and wisely was very inspiring to me. I feel like I learned from him,” Betzold said.

After coming to Omaha, Torres found ways to turn his life around and has worked with young people in Nebraska and Chicago, telling his story and asking them to examine theirs. His presentation 

“I found so much hope in what he was saying because I think it’s so disheartening to watch newsㅡto think about racial, political, and cultural tension. His message was about personal power and what each of us can do to make a difference in our sphere of influence,” Betzold said.

During his presentation, Torres called up two volunteers to demonstrate the way in which privilege operates. He asked one student, Vishnu Menon, to stand on top of a chair and another, Ethan McDermott, to sit under the chair. He then asked both students to describe what they see.

“I see a bunch of little people, everyone else is below me. I’m the tallest one in this room,” Menon said.

Torres’ demonstration spoke to how citizens in the US are all standing in a different position. He further discussed the tenacity of the structures that are set up to give privilege to some groups and not others.

“If you’re in a privileged position, your perspective of the world is very different. Vishnu never saw Ethan because he was on top. Some of us are born and live in a system that allows them to be on top, and others are not so lucky,” Torres said.

Torres then went on describe a four-step plan to address privilege and create a more tolerant world.

  1. Listen longer than you think is necessary.
  2. Assume the best.
  3. Ask clarifying questions.
  4. You can create a new culture.

“This is based on that each and every one of you are uniquely positioned to impact your sphere of influence. You have an opportunity to impact, to make a significant influence in that group, and carry it to another group that you are also a part of,” Torres said.

Betzold and Torres both have the same vision of a new culture, one that is less hateful, more tolerant, and full of love.

“If Trump supporters and Bernie supporters and Hillary supports would listen, they would recognize that we all really want the same thing,” Betzold said. “There’s room at the table for all of us.”