Do adults listen when kids speak out?
30 friends two weeks ago. But when the 17-year-old talked about access to higher education to the crowd of 300, he nailed it.
The American dream for immigrants, in his mind, is dying.
“Most college doors for low-income students like me remain half open,” he said.
Phu, a senior at a public charter school in northwest Washington, came to America from Vietnam in 2004. And he knows that, like so many of his peers, he’s going to have to work to support himself while going to George Mason University, and he’s probably going to graduate with crippling debts.
“I know that education is the great equalizer,” Phu told me after his speech. “But I really don’t think it’s there for all the low-income kids like me anymore.”
These kids are painfully aware of where they stand on this country’s priority list.
Nyla Thomas, a seventhgrader, was appalled when her cousin in preschool was suspended for more than a week for misbehavior. So she researched suspension rates, which confirmed what she thought was happening.
“Suspensions are biased against minorities in America,” she said. After her presentation, she told me that it feels like too many teachers make quick judgments before getting to really know kids. “That’s what it looked like when it happened to my little cousin.”
Amora Campbell, a sophomore, won first place in the contest. Her oratory about health care was clear, passionate and personal.
“I live in a low-income neighborhood,” Amora said. “And I see people who can’t afford medications.”
There was a teen whose speech on mental health in the black community was underscored by her own depression diagnosis and how difficult it was for her to get care.
A ninth-grader spoke about how her mom ended up in jail after being beaten up by her father.
A sixth-grader wants to be a doctor, but worries that her journey will be much harder because she is female.
And a sophomore sees how hard it is for the folks in her neighborhood who come home from prison to re-enter society.
Most of the kids I talked to said it feels like adults aren’t trying to help them or do much for their futures.
This contest was aimed at helping kids work on their writing and public speaking, and they did their jobs on that front.
But it was the kids doing the teaching, too.
And their stories were a compelling reminder to the country’s divided, bickering adults that it’s time we do our jobs, too.
McKenzie Turner, 15, won third place for her speech on gun violence at the One World Education contest.