In high school, I wasn’t that different from most kids my age. I wasn’t popular, and it didn’t feel like I really fit in anywhere; I was shy, quiet, and spent a lot of time trying to find myself. And even though I rarely spoke up in class, I had so much I wanted to say.
I finally found my voice when I opened my eyes and saw what was happening to my generation.
We were the generation of millennials facing gang violence, teen motherhood, growing dropout rates, drug use and juvenile delinquency incarceration. As products of a deteriorating public education system, my peers and I received a poor education and very little hope that things would ever get better. Going to school every day was like entering a battlefield; far too many students were slipping through the cracks of the public education system and falling into a cycle of poverty.
Recognizing that our circumstances were merely symptoms of structural oppression, I joined my school’s student government and began testifying in front of my county school board about ways to improve schools. I decided to study political science when I got to college, hoping to one day run for office. And I interned at the White House, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi’s office and the Democratic National Committee.
Eventually, my desire to hold a seat on Capitol Hill evolved into a love of charitable work. I wanted to work on the ground to give kids from my neighborhood the chance to go to college. So I started the Project ASCEND College Scholarship Program for women and girls from disadvantaged and underrepresented groups. My work with this organization eventually brought me to America’s Promise Alliance, where I currently serve as a youth member of Alliance Trustees. Comprised of national leaders from all sectors who shape America’s Promise strategies, Alliance Trustees champion the organization’s initiatives, advise the Board of Directors and help support the GradNation campaign, a national movement working to raise the national high school graduation rate to 90 percent by 2020.
By showing me how community organizing can improve public education, America’s Promise has empowered me beyond measure. As an Alliance Trustee Youth Member, I am given the platform to speak about issues affecting young people in the public school system. I’ve received a seat at a table with some of the most prominent education leaders of our time. During our spring and fall meetings, we analyze data and research surrounding opportunity gaps and brainstorm how to close them. We also devise mechanisms and propose community programs to reduce high school dropout rates. I am often the youngest person in the room, bringing a unique perspective and more recent life experiences to these conversations.
The lessons I’ve learned at America’s Promise are enabling me to press forward to change public school systems across the country. One of the most frustrating parts of being a millennial is seeing destruction around you and feeling powerless against it. When I finally found my voice back in high school, I realized that silence is the enemy of progress. I can influence change if I refuse to remain unheard. Every voice matters. How will you use yours?
Ola Ojewumi, 24, is an activist, journalist, and a community organizer based in Washington, DC. She founded two nonprofits, Sacred Hearts Children’s Transplant Foundation and the Project ASCEND College Scholarship Program. Ola was elected as an Alliance Trustee member last year. Learn more about the Youth Leadership opportunity with America’s Promise.