Photo credit: Jon-Mychal Cox

You needn’t be a cynic to know that times are tough, both in the East Bay and across the nation. And you needn’t be a starry-eyed optimist to believe that our communities are poised for a comeback.

But how, in the immortal words of Langston Hughes, do we “Let America be America again?”

The answer is in our stars.

Or to be more precise, our Rising Stars.

The third annual Rising Stars Leadership Gala on June 2 recognizes 20 East Bay youths and young people who represent the next generation of leadership in the East Bay. In another era, we might have described these young people as precocious, but the challenges they must stare down, every day, are far too gritty, too grave, too adult, for such an innocent word.

What our Rising Stars have accomplished is at once banal and transcendent. Virtually all of them are from poor or near-poor households in the East Bay; many are, or have been, homeless. They have been shot, jailed, incapacitated by injuries and illness, fired unfairly, and even abandoned, for a time, by their parents.

And yet, with uncommon grace, grit, and guile they persevere, managing the daily chaos that is their lives, mapping out strategies for survival and healing, and recalibrating the trajectories, not only of their own futures, but that of their families and communities as well.

They garden, they paint, they write poetry. They study in the homeless shelter or perhaps on the BART or the Alameda County Transit line number 20. They make the honor roll, graduate high school and attend colleges from California’ coastline to New England’s.

They counsel other youths who have lost their way, tend to siblings who are struggling with mental illness, raise their own young children, massage a mother’s stiff wrist, or rescue a father from despair with a joke or song.

One young man refuses medication to treat his gunshot wound because it leaves him too lethargic to play with his toddler son. A teenage girl, her two brothers and their disabled father walked 25 miles from a homeless shelter in Union City to Berkeley when they were evicted from the hotel where they were staying, pushing everything they owned in two abandoned shopping carts they found on the way.

She plans to be a doctor someday.

“Don’t stop,” Harriet Tubman is famously said to have exhorted the fugitive slaves as they embarked on their trek northward to freedom. “If you hear the dogs, keep going. If you see the torches in the woods, keep going. If there’s shouting after you, keep going.”

With their dogged persistence, and their big, soul-stirring dreams, the Rising Stars exalt us, and challenge us all to be better.

“I just want to be a resource to my family and community,” says one Rising Star..

“I want to tell the kids that they can make it,” says another. “Just never, ever give up.”

For if these children, our children, can defy meager expectations and turn back any challenge with a steely that seems far beyond their years, then is there any barrier we cannot hurdle, any heights to which we cannot soar?

We think not.

The sky’s the limit.

 

 

 

Story produced by Communications Team
Photo credit: Jon-Mychal Cox and Haku Production House