Like many students in urban communities across America, I grew up surrounded by violence, poverty, and failing schools. The messages I received told me I was set up for teenage pregnancy, prison, and an early death. I was born to a young mother. My teenage father was murdered down the street from my home. I have more cousins in prison than have graduated from high school. By age ten, I was very conscious of who I was supposed to become.
I was also blessed with a mother and grandmother who believed I could be more. My mother worked three jobs to support our family. When I was in third grade, she asked me if I’d learned anything in school. I told her I hadn’t and that it had been that way since kindergarten. She sprang into action, and a year later, I was attending a charter school that my mother—with other members of our community—had rallied to open.
It was there that I fell in love with learning. It was also there that I learned what I was up against as a young black woman in East Oakland. I remember vividly the day my sixth-grade class was lined up for P.E. and a car rolled by and opened fire. Instantly I began to question—“Why did they shoot at us? What did we do?”
My family moved to Stockton to try to get away. Stockton remains one of the poorest communities in America, yet it was far enough from Oakland that I felt I could be myself. Most days, I spent my lunch period reading. I asked my teachers for extra assignments and got good grades. By sophomore year, I was involved in the poetry club, debate club, and the mayor’s youth advisory committee. I was even elected president of my class—three times! Malcolm X once stated that “education is the passport to the future.”
My senior year, I remember getting a call from a friend asking what colleges I would apply to. I had a high GPA and had done lots of community service, but my guidance counselor encouraged me to attend community college. It was her doubt that pushed me to apply to a four-year university. I wanted to prove her wrong. I decided that I would be the first in my family to attend college.
In 2008, I entered the University of the Pacific, a private school in Stockton, majoring in political science. Four years later, as I made my way across the floor of the gym to receive my diploma, my family stood and cheered, waving homemade signs. There were thirty of them, from ages seventy to one. Looking out at them, I could see the tears streaming down my mother’s checks. And it hit me: my college graduation was more than a celebration of academic achievement; it was a celebration of my mother’s hard work, my grandmother’s prayers, and my family’s protection.
During college, I focused my studies on understanding the role that education plays in building communities and creating leaders. I wanted to understand who gets what in this country and why. Through my courses and my engagement with the broader Stockton community, I began to see the complexities of a system that creates a glass ceiling for women, minorities, and the poor. I realized the difference between agency and structure: that there are some situations people can control and others created by the system. I began to see academia as a great connector between theory and practice. At the same time, I became so frustrated by the constant listing of problems—and the lack of action—that I knew I had to do something.
Today I am the proud cofounder of a program that empowers teens to become agents of change. Our students are not those you might consider traditional “leaders.” Some are at risk of dropping out of high school and have had disciplinary problems. Like me, many of them were told they will never amount to much. Our goal is to prove those voices wrong. Through skills training, organizing, and mentorship, we try to reach the students who wouldn’t ordinarily have the chance to experience life on a university campus. We’re taking children who’ve been labeled “problems” and training them to be thinkers and leaders.
My life did not begin under perfect circumstances, but I had a family who believed I could persevere. I am blessed to know I can be that positive voice and source of support for others.