This essay is part of the Student Agenda Essay Series, where students are sharing the pillars of the National Student Agenda that resonate most, and why they take action.
Madison, pictured in the middle interviewing Jerry Hawkins, Executive Director of Dallas Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation, with a fellow Equity Ambassador, Fathia, for Black History Month at their high school. Madison is currently a first year student at Howard University.
Have you ever felt like one in a million? Not in a way that makes your soul smile and makes you feel unique, but the one in a million that makes you feel isolated and unseen. That is the story of so many BIPOC students in schools, and I’m one of them. I went to high school in Dallas, Texas, with around 3,000 students, and it sure felt like it. I was one of two or three Black people in AP classes or dual enrollment. I was the only Black person on the golf team, and I felt like one in a million. I want to share how I changed my perspective of being one in a million and call on schools and school boards to change their students' experience and perception of what it means to be one in a million.
Going to school felt like checking a box for me — I wasn’t invested, and I felt like for my school, I was checking off a box for them, too. My abilities within my AP classes were questioned. I, along with numerous other BIPOC students, felt like our school was not proud of the diversity within our campus. Even though I was used to this experience, I began to imagine what it would look like if that weren’t accepted. I imagined what AP classes would look like if counselors in schools encouraged, instead of questioned, the ability of BIPOC students in advanced courses. I wondered what it may look like if I was just as invested in as white students. I wondered how students' experiences would change if every teacher was equally invested in each of them. I wondered what it would look like if my school was proud of its diversity and how that could transform school culture, so I began to take steps to make what I imagined a reality.
The summer before my junior year, I met an organization called Young Leaders, Strong City, that changed what it felt like to be one in a million and set me up with the skills and tools to do the same for others. Soon, I saw more BIPOC students within AP and dual enrollment classes. I saw more students wishing to get involved and hold leadership positions within student government. Even if people ran and didn’t get seats, that didn’t stop them from creating change outside the capacity of those roles.
I was so happy until I encountered an even more terrifying reality. In my AP US History class, despite the class being full of students of color, I felt isolated when my teacher said this, “For our next project, I need everyone to write a paper about what their experience would be like living in the 1800s,” and my heart dropped. She couldn’t have possibly looked around this room and thought that was ok. My friend and I made immediate eye contact, and my email has never opened so quickly to contact my principal.
I realized there was a deeper issue. Even with diversity in the classroom, AP teachers were not equipped to teach a diverse classroom. AP teachers lacked training and were unadaptable to change curriculum or lessons. The reality was that even if there had been one student of color or none, that prompt was centering a terrible lens and experience. Teachers lacked diverse experiences and interactions, and that broke my heart. I wondered what I could do or how this issue could be changed. We are in a teacher shortage, and the education system is crying for help. How could I work with the limited resources I had to make change? Numerous questions, experiences, and so much hope led to the creation of an Equity Coalition on my campus.
In this organization, our mission was to center student experience and student needs and offer a space for them to choose how they spent their time. An even bigger push in our organization was that teachers and administrators were allowed to be a part of the organization and attend meetings, but they were there to listen and learn from students. It was a call to action to teachers and administrators to do something about their lack of understanding and investment. They got to choose what kind of teacher and administrators they wanted to be and could apply what they learned from students in their classrooms. During our meetings, we facilitated discussion around the topic of students choosing. We talked about consent, mental health, self-care, we centered BIPOC history, we talked about what it would look like to transform our world, we challenged students to think critically about their experiences and how they could turn that into action, and we put together an event on campus that built community. Nearing the end of our school year, we hosted a World Day. It gave every student on our campus the ability to display their culture and experience. Local restaurants donated food, students wore cultural clothing, we had students doing cultural dances, and it was a beautiful moment that displayed the connectivity that diversity could bring to our campus. That day made me feel one in a million, in that make-your-soul-smile kind of way, because I knew I changed what it felt like to be one in a million for many students on our campus.
We set a precedent with our organization and event. During our World Day, the focus was inclusivity, and we made it happen. We hosted the event during school so students had transportation; everything was free so cost wasn’t a concern. We gave back to the community by representing the local restaurants who donated food; we included students in the decision-making process; we let students choose what they wanted to see and learn. Through our investment in our students, students invested in themselves and in their education. They learned from others, connected from others, and were eager to see it happen again.
Students, you have the power to create so much influence and change.
You deserve to be invested in and seen. You deserve to have a voice in your schools and to be told the reality of your choices and decisions. Never limit yourself or place yourself in a box because you deserve so much more. Always look beyond what you are told in search for more possibilities and paths. Use the Student Agenda to aid you in building a world, education systems, and future, you imagine and deserve. Engage in conversation with those around you to work together to stand up and build communities and schools you imagine. It is possible and you deserve it.
Teachers, administrators, school boards, and superintendents; you have the ability to make students feel like one in a million.
You have the ability to fund diverse experiences and communities. You have the ability to give counselors training to combat implicit and explicit bias when working with students. You have the ability to be an ally and encourage students beyond the classroom. You can make school exciting and create campus and district cultures that are inclusive and representative of the many diverse experiences and cultures within your schools and communities. It took a group of students and me with a dream and a vision the ability to create a day and a space to make students feel invested in and seen. Students deserve that investment and opportunity. You can lean into students and work with them to build an environment that meets their needs. Students deserve to feel like one in a million in a way that makes their soul smile and makes them feel unique.