To change the world, start with local communities

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Anna Sapozhnikov/Staff

Senior year is turning out to be everything I hoped it would. I finally optimized my schedule so that I didn’t have 8 a.m. classes, I got into all the classes I wanted to take, and of course, the new Student Union has opened and been worth the wait! The only downside to this school year has been the fact that it will end in May.

If you’d asked me two years ago where I was headed after graduation, I would’ve laid out my plan in full detail. From the moment I arrived on campus, I’d been preparing for a career in politics. I’ve interned for a former secretary of the Navy, lobbied several times in Sacramento and completed UC Berkeley’s semester in Washington program, UCDC. I was dead set on moving back to the D.C. area after graduation.

Then, before I even noticed, things started to change. I still wanted to make an impact, but my vision was beginning to look different.

Much of this, I owe to the elementary school students at Sankofa Academy in Oakland. I work with them as a member of Berkeley United in Literacy Development, or BUILD, with a focus on developing their literacy and reading skills. The students I’ve been lucky enough to build relationships with have access to a set of opportunities that look very different from the ones I had as a public school student in the suburbs of northern Virginia. They’ve taught me about persistence, tenacity, hope and a national injustice I want to be a part of making right.

My experiences with BUILD helped me realize that schools in low-income communities face challenges they’re not given the resources to handle. Some of the kids I worked with struggled to focus because they were hungry. One of my tutees had trouble concentrating one afternoon because she missed her mom, who’d spent the previous night in jail. These are heavy burdens for our young people to carry. Often, they can’t.

I came to realize I couldn’t go off to work in politics knowing there were things I could do right away to support students who’d been dealt a tough hand. So I changed my plan and submitted an application to join the 2016 Teach For America Corps. As I wait for an admission decision, I am more nervous than I was awaiting my decision from UC Berkeley. Knowing the inequities that exist in our society sickens me. I’m chomping at the bit for a chance to help chip away at them.

Nothing about teaching will be easy. The problems in our schools didn’t start there — they reflect deep, systemic, overlapping injustice across race, class and geography. A family that can’t access health services struggles to keep both parents employed. Those working multiple jobs need after-school care but don’t live in communities with the resources to provide it. Each inequity makes the next one worse. But when we choose to teach, we choose to disrupt this cycle.

When we come together to help kids change the way they think about their own abilities and futures, we create classrooms full of students who are dreaming big. When we equip them with the skills and tools to thrive in and out of the classroom, we cultivate boundless potential — the future scientists, politicians, writers, artists, doctors and attorneys who shape the world we are all going to share. It won’t happen overnight. It will take sustained, thoughtful effort. I want to be a part of it.

UC Berkeley has always been a place where students are encouraged to fight for what they believe in. Our school has cultivated activists who have joined the fight for social justice for generations. The movement for educational equity for all is the civil rights fight of our generation. By getting directly in the fight as teachers, we can lead our students to the bright futures they deserve.

Megan Weitekamp is a UC Berkeley junior studying political science and education. She is also a director for Berkeley United in Literacy Development.

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