My Ancestor’s Wildest Dreams
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far go together” was a saying often repeated throughout my childhood. From a young age, my siblings and I were taught the importance of community– not just for the sake of individual success, but as a necessity in order to survive and thrive while navigating systems and institutions not designed for our benefit. Being Nigerian immigrants with no family in the United States, my parents made sure to build a strong community of fellow Christians and Africans around our family to be that community away from home they knew our family would need. It is the love, support, and prayers from this community and the community I have built throughout my schooling, that has carried me through my educational journey and provided the foundation for my professional career as a teacher.
As the second-born of Nigerian immigrants, success has always been expected and failure has never been an option. Following a wave of immigration to the United States from Nigeria, my father immigrated to the United States in 1982, with my mother following eight years later, in pursuit of educational and career opportunities that were unavailable to them in Nigeria. My parents, along with several other Nigerian and other African immigrants from that time formed tight-knit communities to fellowship together, share resources, and raise their children. I credit much of my success in academia and my professional career to the support of this community of African people that helped cultivate my belief in God and my academic skill set. When it came time to apply for internships and schools, I was fortunate enough to have several people within my community that I could always reach out to for help with essays and applications. Applying to colleges first showed me the true value of the community I grew up with and how necessary it was as Black people and immigrants to have the strength and support of a community behind you. While I had a community around me, I grew up in a predominantly white suburb and, as one of the few Black families in the area, my siblings and I were often faced with discrimination and microaggressions. Despite evidence of our capabilities, we continuously had to fight to be included in spaces like GATE, Honors, and Advanced Placement programs. I still remember my father marching down to my elementary school to demand I be placed in the GATE program and, years later, marching down to my high school to demand my placement in the Honors program. Prior to talking with a family friend in our community about the tracking systems in education, my father had no idea that by not being placed in the GATE program in elementary school, I was being tracked towards lower achievement despite being at the top of my class. A similar situation almost occurred when I was not placed in Honors classes in high school, which provide weighted GPA credits that impact overall class ranking, thus impacting my chances of attending top tier colleges. Having our community of other families sharing resources, knowledge, and support was important because through it, my family knew what to advocate for and how to advocate for it. Their prayers and support guided me throughout high school where I graduated with a 4.3 GPA and on to UC Berkeley, where it would become even more important for me to lean on them as well as my family for support.
I headed to UC Berkeley in the Fall of 2011 with a zest for knowledge and an eagerness for success. I was quickly humbled as it became clear to me that success in college was not going to come as easily as it had during my K-12 experience. It was here that I, again, saw the value of having a community of people to offer love, support, and resources. I found myself floundering as I attempted to navigate through UC Berkeley on my own and for the first time I found myself not only failing a class, but also seriously doubting my own capabilities for the first time. I remember calling my mother, crying, and she said to me: “Busayo, you know your family and your community are here to be your cheerleaders and support you. You have to lean on us if you want to be successful.” After my first semester at UC Berkeley, I shifted course. Instead of hiding that fact that I wasn’t doing well from my family and my community I began to reach out. I asked for prayers, I would send out essays to people to read and edit, and I would ask for resources in classes I struggled with like Pre-Calculus and science courses. My time at UC Berkeley was marked by periods of high success and those of lower achievement. As I learned to navigate the institution I also learned that not everyone I chose to commune with were positively contributing to my journey, and I learned to be mindful of who I spent time with and how I spent my time. Through it all though, I graduated from UC Berkeley with a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science, and my learning of the political systems in the United States as well as the various injustices faced by Black people and people of color in the United States, led me to pursue a career in education post-graduation where I hoped to disrupt a historically inequitable and unequal system.
I began my teaching career in East Oakland at Frick Impact Academy Middle School where I saw first hand the effects of a broken educational system on the youth. Frick is one of the lowest performing schools in Oakland Unified School District and it had become a place to put students who had been kicked out of other district schools and had nowhere else to go. Additionally, Frick was located in a lower-income part of East Oakland where it was not uncommon for students to witness drug and violent activities on the way to school. Despite all the negative factors in the neighborhood, I witnessed strong community at Frick and, though the school did not have much, we did everything in our power to take care of our own. There is a stigma in urban education that parents are “unresponsive” and students do not “care about their success”, but the reality is that people rarely give the families they encounter at these schools the love and respect they deserve and these negative experiences often prevent them from being invested in their school communities. I had to work to form relationships with families and students at Frick and, as a first-generation American child of two Nigerian immigrants that grew up in a more affluent neighborhood, there was a lot I had to learn and unlearn in order to impact my students in a positive way. Though I was not able to reach every student and family I encountered, I built relationships with families, students, and staff there that I still maintain today. While I was unable to stay at Frick, the lessons I learned there about community and resources I took with me to my new placement at Lighthouse Community Charter School, also located in East Oakland.
My experience at Frick led me to pursue a Master’s Degree in Urban Education Policy and Administration while teaching at Lighthouse Community Charter School, in order to better understand and influence policies that have negatively impacted the educational experiences of Black and Latino students in inner cities. As a teacher, I strive to instill a value for community and taking care of each other in my students. Like at Frick, I have witnessed the beauty of a community that, despite having little, takes care of and looks out for its own. As a Master’s student I studied how innovative behavior interventions like Mindfulness Meditation can improve the behavior outcomes of Black and Latino male students at my school and reduce incidents of physical aggression and violence. The physical and mental toll of teaching full time while also attending graduate school and writing and researching for my thesis, made leaning on my growing community of family, friends, loved ones, and colleagues even more important to my success.
Throughout my journey through education I have learned so much about community and allocation of resources. As Black people having a strong community to pull resources with and provide love and support is so important. These institutions and systems were never meant for our benefit and as Black people in the Diaspora it is vital that we are loving and supporting each other and providing for future generations rather than focusing on our differences. I am fortunate enough to be surrounded by people who have continuously offered me support, prayers, and shown me love over the years and I will forever be grateful to them. As someone who owes their success to the support and love of my community, I try to offer the same to everyone I am fortunate enough to encounter on my journey. Generations of family and community have contributed to my success and I will always be grateful. Teaching has brought me great joy, and the lessons I have learned through my academic career as well from the people I have surrounded myself with along the way, has prepared me in many ways for my future. I know that I have only just begun my journey, and that God has much more in store for me. As the Yoruba say: “ara mbe ti mo fe da” meaning “all things considered, there are wonders I will perform,” and I can only hope that I will bless others, the way so many have blessed me, along the way.