Growing up in a predominantly black, low-income neighborhood, I have witnessed how society fails communities like mine. I attended a public elementary school in my neighborhood, but in middle school I entered a very different environment: private school. I was forced to find my way in a school where the kids were almost all white and wealthy, when I had never been around this demographic before. Every single day, I was code-switching and living two separate lives. It wasn’t until high school that I realized I did not have to split my identities. In tenth grade, when I attended the National Student Diversity Leadership Conference, I was introduced to concepts that helped me understand the roles that privilege and oppression had played in my life.
These were important lessons for me to learn, and once I became aware of how they affected me, I wanted to find solutions for kids who hadn’t had the same access to opportunities that I did. I began to dream of a more equitable education system for America’s youth—one where it is normal for young people to be self-motivated to pursue knowledge in an environment that feels welcoming to them. A place where kids are given the resources to apply for and attend a four-year university, and where any self-doubt or insecurities that might hold them back are deconstructed and replaced with positive reinforcement.
When volunteering at Boys & Girls Clubs of San Francisco’s Visitacion Valley Clubhouse, the middle schoolers I work with often hold many negative perceptions about their future. They believe that private institutions and higher education are for “other” kids, and for good reason. While I had the privilege of a private school education for most of my life, I was the only kid from my neighborhood to have that privilege. Families coming from similar financial backgrounds as mine usually don’t even see private education as an option. Barriers such as cost of tuition, the academic rigor expected, and the amount of parent involvement needed, often deter kids in my community. But this doesn’t mean it always has to be this way. I can serve as an example of how each and every kid from my neighborhood can succeed, if they are given the right opportunities. I recognize that I have the chance to open doors for others, as was done for me. Giving back to the Club is central to this, since I could not have achieved my college dreams without the support and guidance of Club staff and mentors, including encouraging me to attend private school. Boys & Girls Clubs provided me with the support I needed to break the cycle of oppression for my family, and helped me comprehend the value of a good education and the importance of giving back by sharing the lessons I have learned.
I believe that knowledge is the most valuable thing any person can possess. I believe that the more educated we are as a society, the more inclusive we inherently become. This can only take place if we provide accessible quality education to all youth, especially youth from historically marginalized communities. It is important that they have the tools to learn to speak up for themselves and their communities. Before I learned how to talk about my experience with oppression, I suffered in silence. Eight years ago, I was in an underfunded, packed classroom waiting to be challenged. Then, I started traveling forty-five minutes across town to a private school to gain the tools I needed to cultivate my voice and develop my academic abilities. This should not be the norm. My vision for America’s youth is that every student in every neighborhood is provided with a high-quality education.
Finally, America’s youth should attend schools that support them in finding positive outlets, especially when they may be going through emotional adversity. I’m ecstatic to be in my first year at Barnard College of Columbia University, pursuing my degree in Political Science. I plan to run for public office and use my career to fight against inequity in the world, specifically within the United States education system. Youth deserve the tools to become pioneers of change in the world and it is my goal to ensure that happens.
Learn more about 2019-20 National Youth of the Year Sabrina M.
This essay was originally published on the Boys & Girls Clubs of San Francisco website.