Is the American Dream at risk? To mark the 20 anniversary of America’s Promise Alliance – and to support our campaign to encourage people, organizations, and communities to #Recommit2Kids – we asked our youth leaders to reflect on this question. This perspective is the first in a special series on the topic.
I am a low-income, first-generation college student. My Vietnamese parents work strenuous hours in factories as assembly workers, rolling paper to adorn the windows of stores and making batteries to power electronics, all to make ends meet for our family.
At 20 years old, I know that I am already on my way to achieving the American Dream of having a better life than my parents. But I also recognize that I am only able to live it because of the adults who encouraged me, every day, to keep on pushing to rise above immense obstacles in my life—and that not everyone can say the same.
Growing up, my parents did their best to help me be successful in school, from helping me with my homework to attending parent teacher conferences. But they didn’t know what the future could hold for me or possess the resources to get me there.
Fortunately, other adults did.
Learning to Be an Advocate
In high school, I had a guidance counselor who helped me find programs in the summer to keep me learning and engaged. She always made herself free for me to talk about issues I cared about, and she helped me when things were getting tough for me and I did not know where else to turn. She advocated for me when everyone was against me.
It was her willingness to care about me, although she had many other students, that inspired me to make a difference in other students’ lives as well.
Over the past four years, I have worked with roughly 300 students, most of whom are students of color and low-income. I mentored them, taught them, listened to them. I heard stories of students with traumatic home lives and without books at home to read. My job was to make it a safe space for them by encouraging them to not only make the best of their education, but to advocate for an educational system that works for and with them.
A Dangerous Era
Education in our schools these days is rapidly changing. The old notion of a classroom where the students are sitting silently and gracefully in their seats, while the teacher is up front spewing facts at students, is woefully out of date. Students are now more inquisitive, enthusiastic to learn, and prepared to do whatever it takes to learn. Students also want to have their voices and ideas heard for a collaborative learning process.
My role as a mentor and teacher last summer was to find resources for my students to keep striving and persevering, but I learned as much from them as they did from me.
My students told me that they wanted to read about characters they can relate to, black and brown people that looked like them, and real life issues that were happening in our society. My most unforgettable interaction was when a student asked me, “Miss Julie, I don’t understand why the police arrest so many people that are dark-skinned. Why do I see more news about a 15-year-old boy on TV every day?”
I learned that many students of color have internalized negative images of their race through depictions of media, articles of police brutality in many places like Ferguson, and prevailing stereotypes. These damaging images, upheld by the greater society, impact how students perform in school. However, schools are uniquely situated to help students understand and radically change this negative depiction through curriculum and teachers that validate their culture.
My students taught me that in 2017, when we are slipping back into an era of hate, racism, and sexism, America needs to reclaim spaces for their ideas and experiences to be heard. Today, we need students advocating for what they believe in. And adults can help these growing activists be heard, not silenced, in and out of the classroom.
Empowering Young People to Empower Young People
The American Dream may seem like it is at risk for young people, but there is hope. There is hope that is buried deep within youth—seeds of hope and aspirations. Across the nation, young people are becoming the first in their families to go to college. They’re using their voices to fight against oppression through activism and art.
In all of us, we have perseverance and resilience, others may call it “grit.” However, if young adults feel that they have no one supporting them in their everyday struggles, youth may feel disempowered to keep on chasing the American Dream.
Young people are more likely to succeed when they have access to a web of supportive relationships. The empathy of teachers, the warning signs that guidance counselors can spot, the harsh discipline policies that district administrators have the power to rework, diversity initiatives and scholarships that include and empower students—young people need these things to reach their potential.
We need caring adults who advocate for us, adults who care about our mental health, adults who continuously fight for diversity and inclusion, and adults who inspire us to reach higher, to not only achieve our own American Dream, but to continue the work and fight for other young people to reach theirs.
Now is the time to recommit to youth—the American Dream builders of tomorrow.
Julie Pham, 20, is a sophomore at Brown University, majoring in political science and urban studies. She currently serves on the America’s Promise Alliance Board of Directors.
Ready to #Recommit2Kids? Learn more here.