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My Journey of Discovery

My Journey of Discovery

On Monday, July 7th, I joined MDC as the 2014–15 Autry Fellow. For me, accepting the offer to work at MDC was a natural continuation in what has been a seven-year “journey of discovery” in finding my role in the fight for social justice across the nation. I am deeply inspired by the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that remind us “change will not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.” So for the last seven years, I have been intentional about living my life in honor of those words and in service to a struggle. Although the injustices plaguing our world are great in number, I am dedicated to expanding educational and economic opportunities for America’s most under-served families.

It was not until I graduated from high school in 2007 and found myself unable to attend the colleges I was accepted to that I began to think more deeply about access and opportunity. I was not an all-star student. I made my share of mistakes at the beginning of my high school career and had to play catch up as an upperclassman. Despite these early mistakes, I was accepted into seven colleges and universities. But as the son of a single mother and the youngest of five children, my family did not have the economic means to send me to any of them.

This disappointing reality rocked my adolescent world just as I was beginning to truly understand and hone my own academic capabilities. For the first time in my life, I felt like I belonged at a great institution of higher learning but found myself barred from these institutions because of my family’s economic situation. Even at 18 years old, this fact rattled my sense of fairness. I could not understand how someone who wanted to better himself and excel academically could be so close and yet so far from accessing higher education because of exorbitant costs and lack of meaningful financial aid. Ultimately, my family and I decided that I would attend a local community college and I worked a part-time job to pay my way. I promised myself that I would not replay mistakes from my high school days. For the next two years, I studied tirelessly—all in the hopes of earning an academic scholarship so I could continue my studies without restraint.

In 2009, I transferred to Cornell University on a need-based scholarship. Despite this blessing, I carried with me a deep curiosity about what, if anything, I could do to change the education system in order to open up access to all children who were willing to work hard but did not have the resources to afford higher education. I had secured two internships—one with the U.S. Department of Education and one with the New York State Senate—that let me see firsthand how federal  and state government shape education policy.  Both internships were rewarding, but policy seemed a bit too removed from the achievement gap that was brewing in classrooms across the country. From my dorm room in Ithaca, I yearned to be on the ground, in a classroom. I wanted to do work that was more direct, more tangible, than analyzing policy outcomes. These sentiments convinced me to apply for Teach for America.

Teaching would prove to be the most challenging, but also most fruitful, experience of my life. Working at KIPP Gaston College Prep affirmed my belief in the power of a high-quality educational experience to radically change lives and unlock potential. But living in Halifax County, N.C., challenged my preconceived notions about the ease with which social problems associated with poverty could be overcome. In conversations with friends and family, I emphatically expressed my frustrations about a system that seemed so large and cyclical and difficult to reverse. I bemoaned how there was no economic mobility solution without a functioning, high-quality educational system for all children. But I knew there could be no meaningful educational reform that ignores the crippling effects of poverty. As a teacher, I felt limited in my ability to address these issues in a way that leveraged my interest, curiosity, and prior skills. I wanted delve directly into the issue of poverty and learn, study, and engage in related issues such as employment, health, mobility, and economic security.

That’s why I applied for the Autry Fellowship. I was deeply intrigued by MDC’s strategies for promoting economic and social justice. I, too, believe that in order to create true pathways to opportunity, people must first be engaged on the community level. As a fellow, I hope to learn strategies for creating lasting relationships within communities to bring about systemic change in our educational and economic framework. Although I do not know how my year at MDC will ultimately influence my journey of discovery to find my place in the collective fight for social justice, I do know that MDC will leave an indelible mark. I am confident that the MDC experience will expand my understanding of how to create and implement community-based anti-poverty initiatives.

Follow Joshua Mbanusi on Twitter: @JoshuaMbanusi