How Community Involvement Transformed Me

By: Ryan Graham

I am a Black male who grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin — arguably one of the worst cities in America for African-American males to grow up in. Just in my zip code alone, more than half of the males here have been behind bars, making my area have one of the highest incarceration rates in America. A study in 2012 concluded adults in my area had low high school graduation rates and an even lower percentage of adults held a college degree in the metro area. The cause? A vast majority of Milwaukee’s inner-city populations are still drinking from different fountains; fountains of education, food, housing, job opportunities, healthcare, and many more. We also top the list for being one of the most segregated cities in the United States.

Growing up in my neighborhood, I have been inspired to think critically and question: What does it take to get away from the incarceration rates and oppressive statistics that say I’m not supposed to make it? Well, conversations help. I have participated in discussions with students from the University School of Milwaukee, a private tuition-based high school located in the East suburbs of Milwaukee. The 5C’s of Awareness is a discussion that covers color, class, culture, context, and character. The discussions are held in small groups of about seven people, and everyone must speak about their experiences in each ‘C’. The goal of the discussion is to tell your story, see how we are all different from each other, and brainstorm how we can all work together to change the communities in which we live. The most powerful aspect of the discussions is witnessing how most of the students, despite what neighborhood they’re from, feel strongly about the city’s segregation and recognize it as a pressing issue.

“Being a role model in my community — especially for other kids of color — has brought me joy and made me truly believe in the power of community involvement.”

I soon realized that simply having conversations was not enough to change Milwaukee’s situation, there needed to be action. I started to seek out leadership opportunities in my school and became more involved. My most impactful experience has been my community involvement through Teens Grow Greens, which I joined as an intern in 2015. This program allowed me to research, discuss, reflect, and work towards embracing the diversity of Milwaukee and motivate others to do the same. There, we combined discussions with hands-on opportunities to make a difference in our communities. We hosted neighborhood events, mentored youth, volunteered, and donated fresh food we grew ourselves.

After graduating from the program, I wanted to stay involved. That’s when I was asked to be a board member and education coordinator, something I never thought was possible for a high school junior without any certification. For the rest of my high school career, I was responsible for co-creating and co-facilitating all the education sessions at Teens Grow Greens. I also conducted interviews every year, stood as the ambassador for the program at various networking events, and helped reorganize the mission and goals of Teens Grow Greens.

Being able to foster innovative teens and serve as a role model in my community — especially for other kids of color — has brought me joy and made me truly believe in the power of community involvement. The politicians and school board directors in Milwaukee are no doubt highly intelligent, but they are not solving Milwaukee’s issues fast enough. Being an Educational Curriculum Coordinator and Board Member for Teens Grow Greens has allowed me to work directly with the group of people — the youth — who can make that positive change happen faster than any one governor or person in power could. I find that educating, empowering, and allowing youth to grow through these first-hand experiences will set them up to be creative leaders and diverse thinkers who will challenge the status quo, and through their diverse thinking, will inspire a change in Milwaukee.

And with the help of others, I get to continue giving back. I was recently selected by U.S. Cellular as part of their “The Future for Good” program, which is helping to give youth groups, like Teens Grow Greens, expand and inspire other youth. I’m so proud and honored that there’s now a scholarship fund in my name for Teens Grow Greens, established by U.S. Cellular. I’m the first recipient of the Ryan Graham Scholarship for Excellence, worth $3,000, and I will have the liberty of awarding this scholarship to one teen each year who is doing great things inside and outside of Teens Grow Greens!

“My hunger for involvement and my commitment to serving, diversifying, and representing the CSBSJU community keeps me going every day!”

In America, a person’s zip code often predicts their educational attainment fairly accurately. But as I write this, I am sitting in my dorm at Saint John’s University, which is one of the four universities I got into with a full-ride scholarship. This was all possible because I was empowered and equipped with the skills to push beyond statistics. Here, I am majoring in Computer Science and minoring in Communications. I want to combine my creativity, humanitarianism, and passion for computer science to create apps that support community efforts to provide socially and economically disadvantaged youth with the necessary training, motivation, and equal opportunity that is needed for them to rise above oppressive stereotypes and statistics. In Milwaukee specifically, there are some community efforts that are geared towards setting youth up to have success in their lives, but the problem lies in the awareness of such programs. That is where I will come in with an app that could bridge the gap between these youths and their local opportunities.

“I made a commitment to get as involved on campus as I could — even if it meant being uncomfortable and challenging myself to try new things.”

Before arriving at CSBSJU, I made a commitment to get as involved on campus as I could — even if it meant being uncomfortable and challenging myself to try new things. I believe this is how I will get the most fulfilling college experience. In just my first year here at CSBSJU, I have already become involved with Up ‘Till Dawn, the marketing club, communications club, first-generation student advisory board, Senate Leadership Experience, and as an event planner assistant. I am also a project leader, web developer, and on the presentation team for Enactus. My hunger for involvement and my commitment to serving, diversifying, and representing the CSBSJU community keeps me going every day!