By Guest Blogger: Sikirat Mustapha, incoming freshman at Columbia University, Director at IntegrateNYC
In order to tell the story of who I am, a young Black girl who grew up in the bustling streets of NYC, I must first tell the story of how I came to love the educational equity work that I do. My identity has been shaped by my own lived experiences as the daughter of an immigrant and first-generation college student.
When COVID-19 first hit, my family and I were devastated. We experienced a long period of financial hardships and instability. Shortly after, we were hit by an electrical fire which caused our home to be uninhabitable which then deemed us homeless. From hotel to hotel, I attended zoom classes, happy that my online classes were still accessible to me virtually. Taking my fate into my own hands, I acquired a part time job at Claires to support my mother financially, started a virtual Etsy business to sell our African Clothing online, developed a virtual resource-list to support NYC families in need and continued to advocate for equity and access in all aspects of education. All of this was occurring in the prime of college application season, but I managed to pull through with the support of family & friends and got accepted into most schools I applied to. Finally, I committed to my top choice school, Columbia University.
My own future livelihood and well-being has been intertwined and shaped by the educational opportunities available to me, starting in my preteen years where I navigated the turmoil of being a student at a school that was under-resourced. At this former school, archaic books passed down by each graduating class was considered the norm, with the occasional crossing out and rewriting of text due to “outdated information” the common everyday sport. Eventually, due to a winning slot in the well-known district lottery system, I was able to attend a new school that was effectively resourced, challenging, and a good fit for me. I know I was one of the fortunate ones.
Despite the pandemic being the largest obstacle I have ever faced, it has also played a huge role in my growth as a fully aware person. I was honored to serve as an Executive Board Member of the Chancellor’s Student Advisory Council and help represent NYC’s 1.1 million students. Facilitating the first ever citywide virtual town hall with the former Chancellor Richard Carranza and with hundreds of students in attendance, I was able to join with others, highlighting numerous injustices that have prevailed in our school systems, such as the school to prison pipeline and the over criminalization of Black and Latinx youth. It was empowering to create room for much needed, yet difficult, conversations, all the while challenging a schooling system that was not created for students that look like me.
As I look back on my experiences in pre-K12 public education and yearning for change, I hope to create new worlds where education is multidimensional. I have become an advocate for policies and practices that eradicate disproportionality impacting historically marginalized communities. To change unfair access to education, I believe in a youth driven, authentic decision-making process for our ultimate pursuit of liberation.
So, what are some of my wishes for more equitable schools and practices? Simply put, all students need access to high quality and well-resourced schools. Students need teachers who reflect their colorful array of experiences. We need inclusive schools that uplift the voices of communities of color, immigrant communities, and LGBTQ+ communities. And we need student identities and experiences reflected in both teacher and leadership roles.
I am hopeful for the day that all schools are made more accessible to the students they serve. In this time of nation-wide division, coming together around something as fundamental as education will only make us stronger and more vital as we face the future and its many unknowns.