On learning how to be a change-maker in school

Zahir Mbengue

Student, Village Leadership Academy


Zahir, you and your classmates at Village Leadership Academy succeeded in renaming a public park in your North Lawndale neighborhood. Why and how did you do it?

“At first it was named for Stephen Douglas, the slave holder and senator who ran against Abraham Lincoln. North Lawndale is a predominantly black neighborhood, and it really felt like an insult that the park was named for a white slaveholder. [The park is now named for famed abolitionists Frederick and Anna Douglass.] It took about four years of public meetings with the Chicago Park District. We also got close to 5,000 signatures through canvassing in North Lawndale on Saturdays.”

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You need to have an ideology that you’re going to change things. You have to work hard and expect to have pushback from people.”

How can schools help kids who want to make change in their communities?

“In our school we have a GRC, or Grassroots Campaign, where every class from kindergarten through eighth grade chooses a problem in their community to change. Now we’re doing housing discrimination. My brother’s third grade class is working on littering. Another class is doing anti-smoking. Essentially, the whole point of the curriculum is to build up kids’ belief that they have the power to change the world around them. The other day one of my friend’s friends littered, and my little brother was like, “Pick it up!” At eight years old, I just thought about gummy bears and stuff. So that really shows the curriculum is working.

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What’s your advice to kids who see problems they want to solve but aren’t sure how to get started?

“You need to have an ideology that you’re going to change things. You have to work hard and expect to have pushback from people. At some point, if the government or elected officials are against you, just know that they are there to work for you.”

What did you learn about the power of your voice?

“Anyone can do anything they set their mind to. This campaign happened because kids as young as 10 or 11 were actually going out talking to strangers and asking them for their support. One person can get hundreds of signatures. It was inspiring to everyone. Being able to see the light at the end of the tunnel and knowing that we’re destined for greatness—the thought of that was what kept me going.”