"I want young people to remember that youth have always led the way in bending the world towards justice, being at the forefront of movements that shift society and culture."
When I was in high school, I always tried my best. But one day, I realized that no matter how hard I worked, I wasn’t going to get the same opportunities as my classmates and friends. I remember being called to my guidance counselor's office because I left out my social security number on college scholarship applications. I didn’t know what that was. Later that day I spoke to my mom and found out I didn’t have a social security number. I learned that I was undocumented.
I remember feeling deeply alone, isolated, even angry. It seemed like everything I had done up to that point in my life amounted to nothing! No matter how hard I worked, no matter that I graduated at the top of my class as valedictorian, I wouldn’t get into the schools I wanted or have the life I thought I could have. I felt worthless, and my whole perspective on life shifted - why was I even here and where was I going?
Then, one of my classmates gave me a flyer for DRUM’s Summer Youth Organizing Institute. I read something on the flyer about fighting for immigrant rights. At that moment I knew this could be an opportunity for me to figure out what I could do to fight for myself.
I interviewed for the program and was surprised to discover that DRUM was made of many people just like me - undocumented, immigrant, working-class. We shared similar stories and I didn’t have to explain my experiences to them - they just got it. For the first time, I put aside that gnawing feeling of being alone. DRUM was somewhere where I could belong because of, rather than in spite of, my struggle.
Taking part in DRUM’s Youth Organizing Institute was a life-changing experience for me. It put all my experiences into perspective and I began to see how the issues that faced me as an undocumented Indo-Caribbean youth were bigger than just me and my family. I met other DRUM members and families, some of whom had been in detention and targeted by surveillance and Islamophobia. I realized I wasn’t just fighting for myself, but for a whole group of people that I began to see as my community.
But DRUM didn’t just shift my outlook on the world, it also moved me as a person to become a leader. The summer I joined DRUM’s Youth Organizing Institute, I remember being really shy. Being a part of the program allowed me to have a voice I never had before. I never in my wildest dreams imagined myself sharing my story in front of thousands of people, testifying before city council to pass policies to improve the lives our communities, or getting to tell President Obama in person that our work fighting for immigrant justice is nowhere near done.
I know as young people, we’re often told that we can’t really do anything. Yet the Youth Organizing Institute at DRUM was - and continues to be - a place where young people are able to find themselves and do powerful things, for ourselves as well as for our people. It was liberatory to be around other young people and learn about the struggles we faced, and also be working to make change happen in the long haul. To this day, I still think that for young people to experience that is incredibly rare and precious.
That’s what makes DRUM’s Youth Organizing Institute so powerful. The program wasn’t just a one-time thing for me - I stuck around, as you all know! I felt passionately about creating the same kind of space I had for other young people, a space that nurtures their power, a space in which they can belong, and a space where they can do anything they put their mind towards - from changing policies to transforming ourselves - and be supported in that process.
There’s a lot of hate going on in our world right now. While the government passes policies that directly attack our communities and unleash anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim sentiment everywhere, there is so much that young people experience in their schools and neighborhoods on a daily basis. We have a choice - we can sit around and pretend that things will get better on their own or we can work together to really find our own voices, refusing to let fear prevent us from realizing our true potential.
Each one of us has something to contribute to making the world a better place. I want young people to remember that youth have always led the way in bending the world towards justice, being at the forefront of movements that shift society and culture. I want to provide the space for folks to continue to do that. Seeing young people find their true selves and grow in the leaders they truly are is why I continue to do this work. Join the movement, apply for the Youth Organizing Institute!
- Rishi Singh, Director of Youth Organizing at DRUM
DRUM's Summer Youth Organizing Institute is a six week long internship for South Asian and Indo-Caribbean youth ages 14 - 21 years. Young people learn about issues that impact their communities from racial, immigrant, education, gender, and worker justice. Through interactive political education workshops, participants begin connecting their lived experiences and struggles to systems of oppression. Participants then learn how to collectively challenge those systems through hands on skills building workshops, trainings on community organizing, and arts and cultural projects.