This article first appeared in Kidsburgh.org. which is published by NEXTpittsburgh.
A few years ago, Benjamin Gutschow was so shy that he found it hard to communicate with his soccer teammates.
Ben was so quiet that his coach, Adam Brownold, decided to show the Winchester Thurston School freshman that he not only had a voice but that he needed to use it. One day during practice, Brownold instructed Ben to go to the center of the soccer pitch and scream in front of his teammates.
“As a 15-year-old on a team with entirely all seniors — and at that point, I was still in the closet and was afraid that something would happen or somebody would find out I was gay — that was difficult,” Ben remembers. “Those were the fears in my mind. But at that moment, when he made me scream in front of my peers, after that there was not much I was afraid of.”
Ben, now 18 and a senior, has become a prominent voice for social justice in Pittsburgh. Currently a community organizer for social and civic engagement with Casa San Jose, he’s spoken at rallies across the country, including appearing before United Nations members in Washington, D.C., to advocate for human rights.
Monica Ruiz-Caraballo, executive director of Casa San Jose — a resource center for Latino immigrants founded by the Sisters of Saint Joseph in 2013 — hired Ben after meeting him at an event. She says Ben is not only able to connect with young Latinos in the region, he has become an ambassador for the organization’s mission.
“He’s a dedicated young man,” Ruiz-Caraballo says. “His passion is there. He lives it, he feels it, he’s been through it. And he can verbalize it so well and bring so many people to understand everything from the most basic to the most complex concepts that he’s navigating on a daily basis.”
A native of Guatemala, Ben was adopted by a Pittsburgh family when he was an infant along with his sister, who is three years older. Since coming to Pittsburgh, he’s faced discrimination both blatant and subtle, like being taunted while walking in his neighborhood and told to go back home and being patted down at airport checkpoints when he was very young.
Overall, Ben points out that his generation has faced numerous challenges: growing up in the aftermath of 9/11, the global financial crisis of 2007-2009, and dealing with school shootings.
“These are things I don’t necessarily think make me feel empowered,” he says. “They more often make me afraid, and I don’t want to be afraid. I don’t think my generation wants to be afraid. And that’s a lot of our motivation.”
One of the first times Ben witnessed the power of youth activism was during the 2018 March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C. Witnessing the students who spoke, including Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students David Hogg and Emma González, caused Ben to reconsider the possibilities of activism.
“That was something that was so incredible to see because it made me realize that I had power,” he says.
Before the March for Our Lives event, Ben was involved in Winchester Thurston’s student union. He subsequently started the Latinx Student Council at the school and embraced opportunities not only to attend events but to also speak out about issues, especially climate change.
“We understand very well that’s what we’re going to inherit,” he says. “We don’t have the power of policy. We don’t have that ability yet. Not to sound existential, but with the amount of time before climate change is irreversible, at the point when things really can’t be done to make it that much better, we won’t even be able to hold office.
“So, when adults say `Oh, you’re going to be such leaders when you’re our age,’ when we’re their age, it’s going to be too late.”
Ben plans to attend Columbia University in New York this fall where he’s considering a concentration in Human Rights, Urban Studies or Political Science.
Ruiz-Caraballo thinks Ben has only just started to tap into his potential.
“I can’t wait to see what else he does,” Ruiz-Caraballo says. “The kid is going to do great things and he’s already done great things, and he’s going to do even more amazing things for this world.”