“Civic engagement is an opportunity for anyone to be pushing for any sort of change — whether it be big or small. It means that anyone from any community can get engaged, whether it’s going to a school board meeting or pushing the Council to do the things you’re asking for.”Tafari Lee
Tell us about your work and why you do what you do?
I am civically engaged today because I was able to learn more about my own heritage. In eighth grade, my mom forced me into Fillipino cultural dancing classes. This was the first time I became interested in a history lesson; the class taught me a lot about my own history and culture. I began to be more self-aware about how one’s background can shape their environment, and that they have the power to shape their community’s future.
Currently, I am involved with various civic engagement initiatives at the city and local level through Little Manila Rising in Stockton. As a grantee partner of the California Funders of Boys and Men of Color, the organization was recently selected as one of 12 grantees to lead the education equity blueprint work for the Sacramento / San Joaquin Region. The goal isto ensure that boys and men of color have the supports they need to access quality education and pathways to a career that fuels their spirit, and their futures. Being part of this organization continues to drive my advocacy for education equity, ethnic studies and the wellbeing of my community.
In 2018, as part of my work with Little Manila, a group of students and I presented at the All-American City Awards about what makes Stockton, and its youth, so special, diverse and unique. I also participated in the Filipino American Youth Leadership Conference, a national conference that brings together Fillipino youth to develop their leadership skills, and the Pilipino Youth Conference (PYC), which focuses on getting youth in touch with our history and culture. And, most recently, I met with Governor Newsom, Michael Tubbs, community based organizations and youth about the current state of our city, what we want to see, and, more specifically, what police reform can look like — how we have a statewide police standard for oversight and a set curriculum and how we hold people accountable. The Governor was shocked that someone as young as I am is talking about police reform.
Tell us about the community you live in. What are some challenges, opportunities or attributes that make it unique?
I grew up in the middle of Stockton, but went to school in Lodi. When I was younger, I didn’t notice much of a difference. It wasn’t until I looked around and realized there were more students of color than white kids, that I knew I had to advocate for an ethcnic studies curriculum. To me, ethnic studies is a history class for everyone. For those who are learning about their own ethnicity, it is a gateway to the history and culture that makes up their story and heritage. For others, it’s a way to learn about other groups of people and understand their perspective and life experience better. From that, I went to the Capitol to talk to state representatives to push what is now the AB 331 bill to make ethcnic studies a requirement as a standard in high schools across the state.
What does civic engagement mean to you and why, particularly in this moment, is it so important?
Civic engagement is an opportunity for anyone to be pushing for any sort of change — whether it be big or small. It means that anyone from any community can get engaged, whether it’s going to a school board meeting or pushing the Council to do the things you’re asking for. Community members speaking up is so important right now because the people who are making decisions need to hear from the people they are representing. You can’t just complain and not do anything about the change you want to see.
What does leadership mean to you and how does that show up in your work? Why do you feel like it’s important to support the leadership and voice of boys and men of color?
A leader is someone who is able to be both firm and flexible at the same time. They are in the front, taking feedback and understanding the strengths and weaknesses of everyone around them, seeing the best in everyone. It’s so important for boys and men of color to be in leadership roles because then they become mentors for someone else. I didn’t have role models that looked like me growing up.
How do you define education equity, and why is it important?
Everyone deserves equal access to schools and quality education, no matter if you’re able to afford that or not. It shouldn’t matter if you’re from an affluent or low-income part of town. Students who attend schools that are underfunded deserve to shine as bright as those who attend schools that have access to a lot of resources. Students should also feel empowered through things like ethcnic studies that teach them about their history. I truly believe if people are empowered with information and are learning about their ancestors, they will feel empowered to be more engaged in activism and advocating for the change they want to see.
What would your call to action be to policymakers and leaders to call for education equity, particularly for boys and men of color?
Make ethnic studies a high school standard nationwide. I’m lucky to live in Stockton, which is the most diverse city in the United States, and know about so many cultures. Through ethnic studies, other students will learn about their own identity and the culture that they are not exposed to. If ethnic studies was standard nationwide, it would be a major change for what we consider common knowledge across the country.
Tafari Lee is a senior in Lincoln High School and an activist for a statewide curriculum for ethnic studies as part of Little Manila. He was part of the All-American City presentation for Stockton in 2018 to talk about how young people are making his hometown the unique and diverse place that it is.
- Little Manila Rising’s After School Program
- Tafari from Little Manila Rising Shares How It Felt To Be On The AAC Stage
- California to require ethnic studies to graduate high school under bill headed to Gov. Newsom
- California Funders for Boys and Men of Color Awards $300,000 to 12 Organizations Focused on Educational Equity in Sacramento County and San Joaquin County