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Through Save Our Schools Network, Mandy Bermudez Romero brings the collective struggle of the Lumad youth to the foreground.

On Mandy: Yumi top, PUNG TO LUMAD, corset and pants, JUST BONITA.

In an endlessly changing society, the youth bears a remarkable strength to create a positive impact on the future. From enlightened viewpoints to an unwavering determination to bring change, the youth remains inspirational. They are a relentless voice, exposing gaps, and calling out for positive and relevant change. Being young is never a hindrance as Mandy Romero unveils in talking about her beginnings as a volunteer educator.

As early as nine years old, she would visit her school’s social action office and volunteer for community projects. Being in third grade, the office can only offer her basic activities like teaching basic math and reading to first-graders in schools in Payatas. This is her first encounter with 2KK or Tulong sa Kapwa Kapatid, a non-government organization aiming to “empower underprivileged youth, particularly in urban poor communities through education, community building, and leadership training,” explains Mandy.

Seeing the growth of the young people she teaches and the friendships she formed with them, Mandy cultivated the heart to continue her work many years later into adulthood. She realized the value of building communities. “When I talk about community work,” she says, “it really has to be centered on fostering connections, listening to what people need [and] what their experiences are.” Only from understanding people first will positive and sustainable change happens, and Mandy is actively collaborating with leaders and communities to do this.

On Mandy: MABAYA earrings, PUNG TO LUMAD, and top and skirt, JOR-EL ESPINA.

Starting from awareness

Taking up Health Care Management and Policy with a minor in Justice and Peace Studies at Georgetown University, one may wonder if Mandy desires to create changes here in the Philippines, why did she study abroad? “It’s a way for me to realize what works and what doesn’t in other countries, what innovations they may have, and how can we apply that here,” Mandy replies. Her decision trickles down to the future innovations she can do from her learnings and experiences in college. For instance, she worked with Social Innovation in Health Initiative (SIHI), a research hub at the University of the Philippines (UP) in Manila. There, they tackle the ultimate question, “How do you make healthcare more accessible to marginalized groups?”

A similar case runs and remains in attaining peace in the country. It is no argument how the criminal justice system is riddled with issues, one on top of another. Thus, Mandy shares how her studies have been transformative for her, “it teaches me about alternative ways to seek impactful positive change from restorative justice.” After all, solutions come in many forms to address systemic inequalities, especially in healthcare and justice systems.

Resolving such deep-seated problems requires great work. Yet where does one start? Mandy says to have empathy. “It is a catalyst. It’s a force that moves you and fuels connection,” she clarifies. “But [it is] also a product of deep listening and of getting to know people, wanting to know them because you value their experiences [and] you value their lives regardless of where you came from.” Empathizing with people is also a process for Mandy as it builds while she continues her volunteer work. She stands by the words of Cynthia Silva Parker, a social justice advocate, “pairing empathy with equity leads to social justice.”

On Mandy: IKAPATI earrings, PUNG TO LUMAD, top, MARC RANCY, and barong skirt, JOR-EL ESPINA.

Beyond cultural struggle

Apart from volunteering in 2KK, Mandy is the Head of Alliance Division of Save the Schools Network, a network of groups advocating for indigenous people’s education. They are born out of the need to take action against the ongoing violent attacks towards indigenous communities—from the destruction of their schools to harassment and militarization, ultimately devastating their homes and livelihood.

With such vehement attacks, Lumad communities, especially the youth, experience layers of anguish and trauma as seen in the award-winning documentary called Bullet-Laced Dreams. The attacks have been occurring for years that Mandy admits, “it’s so difficult for me as an outsider to process what they’re feeling. The student communities share how every day is a struggle.” Yet she shares how the communities never lose hope. They continue to fight back, protecting their rights.

Among their important movements is the Lakbayan ng Pambansang Minorya, an annual march of minority people in the Philippines including the Lumad, Mangyan, Aeta, Moro, and Igorot. They assert their right to have sufficient access to healthcare, social services, stable employment, and education. “You have to recognize that these socio-economic disparities persist within these regions,” Mandy points out, “and these disparities are further exacerbated by the continued violence and plunder of indigenous lands and resources.”

With this continuous disregard for the indigenous people’s human rights, she can’t reiterate enough how “every student deserves a safe and secure environment to learn. Every student’s right to education must be recognized. It shouldn’t be a privilege.” As this turned into a human rights crisis, more people should act on empathy, reaching out, and engaging with communities to address the issues.

On Mandy: E6 earrings, PUNG TO LUMAD, piña top, JOR-EL ESPINA, and corset and pants, JUST BONITA.

Laying the groundwork

There is much work to do not only from the level of the organizations but from other sectors as well. Thus, as the Head of Alliance Division, Mandy leads in broadening the network of individuals, child rights advocates, and different organizations. Currently, they are focusing on policy work and campaigns for the Lumad communities’ right to education and self-determination. One of their projects in support of the Lumad Bakwit Schools is the online store Pung To Lumad that celebrates handicrafts made by Lumad communities and local artists. They also connect with the local and international governments, launching peace talks, seminars, and efforts to sustain Lumad Bakwit schools. These schools are for refugees, created to help students continue their education amid the revolting military encampment and destruction of ancestral lands.

Through continuous initiatives and collaborations, students and teachers of the Lumad Bakwit schools, envision a “future of peace, solidarity, and of justice.” Mandy shares they remain hopeful to “have safe and secure environments to learn, to protect and to empower themselves as a community, as their indigenous culture, their way of life and at the same time, to achieve their dreams.”

Thus, Mandy keeps connected with the Lumad communities and other organizations even during the pandemic. Beyond collaboration, she shares volunteer work plays a crucial role as well. “With so much suffering and so much pain, if there’s a way for you to volunteer or to be a part of community organizations, then we should all try our best to jump on it.” There are many ways to reach out especially in the digital age. But she stresses that participating is about “engaging with the communities—listening to their stories and solutions, and following their lead towards a better, more equitable future.”

On Mandy: earrings, AMAMI, and top and pants, JOR-EL ESPINA.

Strength in the collective

Mandy takes inspiration from her fellow youth who has been vocal on social media about pressing issues on both national and global levels. “It’s just been so moving to see how many young people are demanding change, demanding accountability and systemic solutions, and are really creating so many different avenues to achieve that,” she ruminates.

Staying informed is crucial and so even in her free time, Mandy keeps reading on top of her university studies. She supports independent bookstores and publishers like Gantala Press. Recently, she finished Daloy by Filipino migrant women of Batis AWARE and currently reading The Philippines is Not a Small Country by Gideon Lasco. Of course, she doesn’t forget to rest. She often does meditation to recenter herself, recognizing the value of a renewed spirit, especially in these difficult times.

With the remarkable work she is doing, one can say Mandy is on her way to a well-lived life. However, when asked how she would define a meaningful life, there is one word that comes to her mind: mutual liberation. “It’s one where everyone has a seat at the table,” she illustrates. This means fostering inclusivity in spaces and empowering people as a whole. Mandy strives to achieve this and to bring positivity wherever she goes, much like what her late older brother Miguel did in his life. She treasures his memory and attitude by sharing happiness—the kind that comes when everyone’s rights are respected and are on their way to achieving their dreams.

Photos KIERAN PUNAY of STUDIO 100
Art Direction ROCHELLE PADILLA
Hair and Makeup CATS DEL ROSARIO of ARTIST AND COMPANY MANILA
Styling BONITA PENARANDA
Shoot Coordination FAITH LOUISSE LIÑAN

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