LINDEN, NJ — Kevin LaMastra and Michael D’Amato take a week off at the beginning of each August and travel south to the Dominican Republic. But they are not basking in the sun on the beaches of Punta Cana or wiling away the lazy summer days in a resort in Puerto Plata. No, LaMastra and D’Amato spend most of their time visiting garbage dumps and sweatshops, meeting with human rights activists and attending traditional voodoo ceremonies by some of the country’s poorest and most marginalized people.
It all started about 15 years ago, when LaMastra started a social justice club at Joseph E Soehl Middle School in Linden, where he has been teaching French and English as a second language for 21 years. LaMastra wanted to bridge his lessons inside the classroom with larger, global issues. “Part of my job is to be a cultural liaison,” said LaMastra.
“Global issues are inevitable. We’re interconnected in the world, we’re connected to all major issues in the world.”
Some of the social justice issues that LaMastra brings to the forefront of his lessons include poverty, race, gender equality and women’s rights.
Then one day about nine years ago, LaMastra decided to take up a collection of school supplies, bought a ticket to the Dominican Republic, and began formulating a plan. Why not educate other educators and their students about these social justice issues firsthand?
The Dominican Republic is a study in contrasts. Located in the Caribbean and home to vast numbers of immigrants from Haiti, it is most known for its upper middle class economy, tourism, and Free Trade Zone. But there is a lesser known dark side, where children as young as four are exploited in sweatshops and enslaved on sugar plantations. Many have no access to running water or electricity, and often these workers are “paid” in handfuls of sugar or flour.
LaMastra’s desire was to bring attention to the severe inequalities that run rampant in a country that, despite its fast development and globalization, has disproportionately large numbers of poor, exploited and marginalized people.
Two years later, LaMastra had gathered a delegation of educators from across the country to participate in a journey to the Dominican Republic, and there began Friends Beyond Borders, a nonprofit project focused on bringing understanding to issues like poverty, human rights and global justice issues.
For eight days the educators immersed themselves in the realities of extreme poverty in the developing world. With a jam-packed itinerary, they spent each day meeting with educators, activists and ordinary people who were trying to improve their communities through grassroots efforts. They collected plastic out of local garbage dumps — a job performed by women and children who get paid a dollar a day — stood side by side with workers on sugar plantations, and visited sweat shops.
The trip proved to be a resounding
success, and it has continued each year since, with LaMastra now bringing both educators and students with him. Word spread about LaMastra’s work, and this unique journey has become synonymous with social justice and human rights activism. “It’s like a crash course on human rights,” says LaMastra.
D’Amato, a world history teacher at Soehl for 17 years, was inspired by his colleague’s work and got involved. D’Amato, who has published several books, began going with LaMastra on his missions to the Dominican Republic, and soon he found himself chronicling the experience. Three years later his book, “The Dominican Experiment,” was born.
“I love to write, and this was a challenge,” said D’Amato. “A lot of students think that the world is perfect. They don’t realize that there are inequities that go the extreme. The mainstream media often represents things superficially. Solidarity is a better and deeper way to do things for places like this than just fundraising.”
Seoul student Rose Dorsainvil, 14, says that she, along with many other students, have been greatly influenced by D’Amato’s experiences, which he incorporates into his daily curriculum.
“At first I didn’t believe what Mr. D’Amato told us about the Dominican Republic,” said Rose. “But then he showed us videos and it broke my heart to see that.” Rose describes seeing toddlers and children working under extreme conditions and temperatures to help support their families. “Kids should be getting an education, not being forced to work. It was a real wakeup call. I wanted to cry.”
LaMastra says that exposure to these kinds of extreme living conditions can be difficult. “It takes an emotional toll when you come face to face with extreme poverty,” said LaMastra. “I think everyone was expecting them to be miserable because they have no running water or electricity,” he says of some of the impoverished natives he met. “The takeaway is that happiness is not necessarily provided by wealth. It’s more about human relations.”
LaMastra says that another myth he is trying to dispel is the idea that those touched by poverty have brought the condition upon themselves. “People have a different idea about where poverty comes from,” LaMastra said. “People look at the issue through a deficit lens. People blame other people for their poverty, attributing it to laziness or being uneducated. I try to complicate the issue.”
Soehl Principal Joseph Picaro says that the work of both LaMastra and D’Amato has had a huge impact on the district. “Students are really impacted by this,” he said of the experiences that both educators bring back to their classrooms each year. “It’s an amazing experience. I don’t think Mr. LaMastra sleeps. He teaches tirelessly. He is on top of everything.”
Picaro went on to describe D’Amato’s efforts. “He teaches out of the box,” he said of D’Amato. “He’s amazing in the classroom. He has tireless energy, he pulls students into the lesson. If you could put a definition on teaching, you would look at these two,” Picaro said of the teachers.
LaMastra says that his mission has changed who he is, both as a person and an educator. “I didn’t have the same understanding as I do now,” said LaMastra. “It’s good to be reflecting, thinking, complicating things I think I already know.”
“The Dominican Experiment: A Teacher and His Students Explore a Garbage Dump, a Sweatshop, and Vodou,” by Michael D’Amato and George Santos, is available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
For more information on Friends Beyond Borders visit www.friendsbeyondborders.net.