Often, you hear about leaders, far earlier than you meet them. Sitting in a café near the school where I lead as principal, Mastery-Shoemaker, I was approached by a beaming waitress. “My granddaughter, Tatiana, is coming to Shoemaker soon. She is an amazing leader and student. She’s only in the fifth grade, so she will be there in two years.” I told her I couldn’t wait to meet her. I would realize, deeply, that grandma told no lies.
Tatiana has established herself as a fierce advocate and a dedicated student who is eager and poised enough to lead and serve in her community. Tatiana was one of the founding members of Raised Woke, a group of student activists with more heart and zeal about social justice than many adults I have met. Tatiana is our school’s salutatorian, attends our full-time dual enrollment program at the Community College of Philadelphia, and will attend Claremont McKenna College.
Below is a conversation I had with Tatiana about her passions and goals.
What are you passionate about? How will you use this passion to lead and serve in your community?
I have many things that I am passionate about, but the one that is of my utmost importance is getting student voices from all backgrounds to have a seat at the table talking about local politics, education reform, voting and any other thing in the world that they are passionate about.
THERE ARE SO MANY YOUNG PEOPLE IN THE WORLD WHO HAVE SO MUCH TO SAY, BUT DO NOT HAVE A PLATFORM TO SAY IT. I WANT TO FIX THAT.
I will continue to build a positive reputation of young people by serving as living proof of it, as well as by opening up spaces for young people to have the chance to speak their minds because there are so many young people in the world who have so much to say, but do not have a platform to say it. I want to fix that. By doing this, I believe opportunities to have a seat at the table will come and I hope that when they do, as a community we will help guide them to be successful in speaking about the issue at hand and do so in a way that is effective and shows the power of young people. I will also use my passion to lead and serve by using the platform that I do have to bring more youth engagement.
Who is a hero of yours and how have they impacted you and your life goals?
One of my heroes is my grandmother. She has not only supported my dreams and goals, but has helped guide me to take the steps needed to get there. I have always seen her as a person with amazing character and strength and told myself that was something that I would love to acquire when I grow up. I think she did a pretty good job helping me become that. I know as I continue to explore my pathway to follow my passions she will continue to be there supporting and rooting for me every step of the way. I will never have to question her commitment to molding me into the person I was meant to be. I am thankful for her and I know she will be proud to see me flourish in California next fall.
You attended a public school. What have you learned about educational inequity through your experiences?
I have learned a lot about educational inequity in the public school system. I have begun to understand that when discussing education you have to discuss economics because a lot of the problems and issues with public schools now, and always, has been because of the lack of funding— particularly funding for schools that are filled with Black and Brown children.
They don’t believe in us enough to invest in us and that’s the issue. That is why we have the school-to-prison pipeline and that is why we are building more prisons than schools. The inequity comes when schools in the same district are not given the same resources and funding, yet we are put into a world where we have to compete against those that have been given more. We can do it, yes, but it just becomes more challenging and takes a much longer time to accomplish.
What would you tell your younger self?
What I would tell my younger self is that every time someone told you to be quiet or stay in a child’s place they were only trying to stop you from becoming the powerful and forceful young lady you are today. I would tell my younger self that everything is going to be okay and although you missed out on an opportunity there are so many more things and doors opening for you. I would tell my younger self that I believe in you, I love you, I hear you, I see you and I have faith in who you will become.
What are some great things about your community that is overlooked? Why do you think these positives are ignored or denied?
Often times we focus so much on the bad that we never really focus on those young people who go to city council folks to talk about issues important to them or those young people who create non-profit organizations to help tackle some of the gun violence happening in our community. No one really focuses on the poets who went to nationals in D.C. or the music artists who produce their own sound or the artists who create extraordinary work. No one focuses on the teams, organizations or internships that help teach leadership skills, keep young people out of trouble, give advice, teach self-love, peer build and even teach young people about who they are.
No one talks about these things and it becomes overlooked because of the way Black and Brown children are portrayed in the media. It’s not talked about because all people ever think is that Black and Brown children go through struggle, which we do, but never about the success, never about the way they overcame the struggle.
Please share a meaningful, memorable experience from high school.
One of my most memorable experiences from high school was working with Raised Woke and the Mastery network to encourage the city council to pass a fair charter renewal. I was exposed to local government and able to build a great network, in addition to seeing the success that came after all the hard work. I thank the Mastery network for actually listening to our inputs on things that affect us as students. That has been one of the most influential events that has caused me to become passionate about getting more young people at the table. I understand the power of it.
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.