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By Social Justice Learning Institute, 08/08/2014

Dylan Gray Meets President Barack Obama

Last Thursday, July 24th, I got to meet the President of the United States, the man who holds the most powerful position in the World, Barack Obama! That experience was one of the most exciting and inspirational moments of my life, and I feel very grateful and humbled to have been given the opportunity to do so. Before I can begin to detail my experience meeting the President, I think it is important to share the journey that led me to this opportunity.

In 2008, my mother lost her job because she was told that she did not have the proper educational requirements to maintain the position she had held for many years. Soon after, our home was also taken away. We were devastated. Our future was uncertain. After months of searching and living with minimal resources, a small opportunity arose on the East Coast, and my mother had no choice but to accept the offer; an offer that did not guarantee stability.  My mother did not want to drag me through another period of challenges, and she thought it was best for me to live with my father. So, I moved from the white-picket fenced suburbs to the concrete surroundings of the inner-city.

I attended Morningside High School in Inglewood, and joined the Black Male Youth Academy (BMYA), which is a part of the Social Justice Learning Institute’s Urban Scholars program. The BMYA helps prepare students for college through conducting community-based research. The goal is to find tangible solutions to the most challenging problems facing our community. Because of this research, my brothers and I have become self-determined social agents of change.

For the past two years, the BMYA has helped me build a peer and adult support network by building a community of brotherhood with those who face similar challenges. Before I joined the BMYA, I was not aware of all of the barriers that boys and men of color face in inner-city communities like Inglewood. I learned it’s important for youth to be fully aware of the issues in their communities, so that they can play a vital and active role in creating solutions.

This past winter, some of my BMYA brothers and I banded together to create a mobile social media application called “First Cam(era).” The point of the mobile application was to focus on addressing two very prominent and important issues we constantly experience in our community: police brutality and unemployment. We were intentional in using mobile phone technology as a tool to encourage social entrepreneurship, as technology provides an avenue for youth to develop their skills to compete, acquire, and maintain higher quality and impactful careers.

It did not take much convincing when the Social Justice Learning Institute extended an offer to participate in the Brothers, Sons, Selves (BSS) Coalition, which is a partnership with twelve organizations throughout Los Angeles County, all of which focus on improving the lives and education of boys and men of color. In the past year, BSS has helped to pass the School Climate Bill of Rights, in both LAUSD and LBUSD, which supports Restorative Justice as an alternative to suspensions, and promotes a bill AB420 to remove the option for teachers or schools to suspend or expel students for small non-threatening behavioral issues. High rates of suspension for minor acts prevent students from receiving a proper education. How will they be prepared for the future if they are being forced to miss school? There are better ways for schools to address this issue, ways that bring about healing and repair tension. That is why students, like myself, participate in the Brothers, Sons, Selves coalition, and it was because of my participation as a youth leader in the BSS space that I was afforded the opportunity to meet President Obama.

Meeting the President, and the first Black President at that, has given me more motivation to succeed and contribute to the legacy of Black male achievement throughout history. He reminds us to know that even though there are large barriers that surround us, with enough courage and perseverance, our potential is endless and there are no limitations on our success. With his My Brother’s Keeper initiative he is helping to lay a stable foundation for young men of color to receive the support that is needed to build a successful life for ourselves and family. I thank him as well as leaders in our community, such as the Executive Director of SJLI D’Artagnan Scorza, and SJLI staff, all of whom have served as mentors to me and my brothers, and helped to stabilize and deepen our foundation. When I was in that room, standing inches from the President, I was excited for myself, but I was more excited that I was representing SJLI, BSS, family, friends, brothers from the BMYA, and all of the young men of this country and potential we have inside of ourselves. I am my brother’s keeper, and together, we will hold our heads up, stand strong in moments of great challenge, and fulfill our destiny.

Lastly, that moment had brought my life in full circle. When my mother had lost her job and shortly after lost our home, we felt powerless. It felt as if life was crumbling around us. We don’t speak much about those days, but I am certain that my mother felt embarrassed and carried a large burden of shame as we all struggled from day to day. With what she could not offer she would replace with a hug. And that small gesture brought a sense of deep love to our situation. The physical hug itself did not bring us out of the pit, but it gave us hope that we will one day overcome. As I stood shoulder to shoulder with the President Barack Obama, I thought about my mother. I thought about our struggles. I thought about our journey: from the lowest rock-bottom point of our lives in losing our stability, to the highest Mount Everest point of lives in meeting the president. When the president made his rounds shaking hands, and he came to me, I moved past his hand and I embraced with a hug. I wanted him to understand that we are here and we are overcoming.

–Dylan Gray, Urban Scholar

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