Heather is a former SEA student and was one of our keynote speakers at the Annual Benefit Breakfast this month. Here is the story she shared with us that morning. Heather is now completing her PhD at Berkley.
I’d first like to thank Seattle Education Access for inviting me to speak at this morning’s benefit breakfast. I’d also like to extend my heartfelt gratitude to all of you who have gathered together today in order to celebrate the achievements of SEA – both the achievements of the organization itself, as well as those of the students that SEA aims to serve. With particular consideration for the current economic climate, your presence today is especially appreciated – these are surely rough times for everyone. However, with hefty budget cuts to education, increased college tuition, and reduced federal financial assistance, youth from low-income communities who had already been facing nearly insurmountable challenges in pursuing higher education, or in other words, in pursuing the opportunity to overcome poverty, are experiencing a particular blow. Therefore, the vision of ensuring access to education for these communities is a timely and urgent one.
As feminist educator and social activist Bell Hooks insists, “Being oppressed means the absence of choices.” Access to and the obtaining of an education, in contrast, generate the presence of choices. The access to higher education, this opportunity for choice about what one can manifest in his or her life, is exactly what SEA works so diligently to provide through an array of indispensable services for disadvantaged young adults who have incredible potential and valuable life experience yet very little resources.
I have known and have been involved with SEA since 2002, when the organization consisted of founder Polly Trout as its sole staff. At that time, Polly worked with very little resources, holding tutoring and mentoring sessions in cafes and providing small scholarships to homeless youth eager to overcome poverty, transform their lives, and attend college. Since then, I have had the honor and the privilege to witness Polly’s vision grow over the past ten years into a thriving organization that serves over four hundred well-deserving young people with the dedication of five staff members and dozens of volunteers. I have personally seen how SEA’s continued commitment to this vision has sparked major transformation in the lives of many of these young people, including my own.
My involvement with SEA began during my first year in community college in 2002. At twenty-four years old, it had been ten years since I had received any formal education; the eighth grade was the last year I had completed in school before becoming homeless for the following seven years. Life as a homeless teen meant both inspiring encounters with intellectuals, artists and activists as well as harsh lessons in survival. I continue to be inspired by the many brilliant people I met during this time. From them I learned about a variety of political ideologies, spiritual beliefs and social justice issues. I involved myself with artists and did street performance as part of political theaters, traveling to gatherings that taught workshops on cultural and political expression through art and performance. Life on the streets and on the road was an immensely valuable education – these life experiences have contributed toward the development of critical thinking, self-discipline and inner resources, qualities that I continue to draw upon in my academic endeavors. However, I grew exhausted of struggling to survive in often-dangerous environments and longed for further intellectual stimulation. I aspired to attend the university, to create a meaningful career and to make significant social contributions.
Because of these personal and academic aspirations, I worked hard to obtain stable housing and, by spring 2002, I completed my G.E.D. and enrolled in community college classes. As a non-traditional, first generation college student who had grown up as low-income, higher education felt extremely foreign and difficult to navigate. It was as if I had immigrated to an entirely unfamiliar culture, with its foreign language and words, its complicated bureaucracy, its assumptions that somehow I should already know how to operate within it, its assumptions that I was a ‘have’ rather than a ‘have not.’ Throughout my time in the community college and up until I received my Bachelor’s Degree with Honors from the University of Washington in 2008, SEA provided me with practical guidance, tutoring, scholarships and invaluable moral support sensitive and respectful to my experience with homelessness and poverty. Furthermore, the organization provided me these things in a unique manner that felt truly empowering as they fostered a relationship that encouraged me to be proactive and accountable. Most importantly, the SEA community of staff and students continues to inspire me, particularly in the ways that my experience with the organization has strengthened my own commitments to social justice. I truly believe that all of these combined experiences with SEA have been a significant factor in my success today, evident in the fact that, as I stand here speaking to you all today, I am currently entering my third year as a PhD student in UC Berkeley’s department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies. I have infinitely more choices as to where I want to take my life than I had ever imagined upon first meeting SEA founder Polly Trout in a small café in Seattle’s University District almost ten years ago.
In addition to receiving a variety of services from SEA, I was also a volunteer for SEA’s Scholarship Review Committee during my last year at the University of Washington. I was extremely impressed with the level of organization and dedication of the SEA staff and volunteers. The most striking thing from this experience as a volunteer, however, was the incredible stories of strength and perseverance I had heard from the youth who were interviewing for SEA scholarships. I learned that my own story was not unique and was awed by the sheer numbers of young people who displayed amazing tenacity and potential.
In closing, I concur with American philosopher and academic Allen Bloom, who insists that “Education is the movement from darkness to light.” Seattle Education Access provides invaluable support for low-income young people attempting to tread this difficult pathway from darkness to light, from poverty to meaningful careers and empowerment. Because of this, I believe that SEA is also immensely worthy of support, which will, in turn, open doorways for well deserving young people to enter the classroom, a place that Bell Hooks refers to as a “location of possibility in which to labor for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries.”
Thank you for your presence today and thank you for listening with an openness of mind and heart.