Why I Do This Work
Amarilis Pullen, Program Officer
I owe who I am today to my younger self.
I am the eldest daughter of immigrants from the Dominican Republic who settled in Washington Heights, New York City during the 80’s. These parts of my identity are all relevant to the story. My father would say to me “your only job is to be a good student and get good grades, I will take care of the rest.” Education was central to upward mobility in the American Dream my parents sought to attain. My grandfather, who I affectionately called Papa Ché, had a 3rd grade education. My father worked at a sponge factory and went to college at night. From birth, it was ingrained in me that my family worked very hard so that my life could be better than those that came before me. As I navigated who I was and who I wanted to be, I often felt this weight on my shoulders to “get it right” for the sake of my future self and to not let down my ancestors and family.
My family was not wrong to dream of a better future for us. But they missed something really crucial about the road ahead. It was not always up to me. The American Dream focuses on a narrative of individual success and neglects to address the landmines of systemic oppression laying at the feet of Black and Brown youth. When something is systemic at the root, it is a life journey to dismantle.
There were formative moments in my youth that built my analysis regarding social justice and the impact of systemic racism on individuals and communities. When oppression is a part of the fabric of your environment, it‘s hard to see that things should not be this way. As a young person in NYC, over-policing of Black and Brown people was all around me; the NYPD school safety unit were the first people I saw when entering my school building, the truancy unit on my walk to lunch and the subway unit on my commute to and from school. It was so normal, I became desensitized to it.
In 1999, I was 16 years old. That was the year Amadou Diallo was walking home from work and was brutally murdered by NYPD right outside of his apartment building in the Bronx. He was shot 41 times. Amadou was an immigrant working the night shift to make a living for his family. His murder shifted my entire view of justice and oppression. Before Trayvon Martin, before George Floyd, there was Amadou Diallo. He was not the first or last to be violently murdered but he was the first that made me pay attention. At the time, I had no one and nowhere to process my thoughts or trauma, and didn’t know how to take action.
I do this work for the Black and Brown young people fighting for systemic change and forging their own path. We may be generations apart but we have skin in the same fight. As funders, we cannot disentangle education from the criminal justice system in this country. The Perrin Family Foundation provides support to organizations like the Connecticut Black and Brown Student Union’s — Community First Coalition (CFC), a group of youth-led or youth-centered organizations fighting to reimagine public safety without police or policing in our communities. According to CFC:
“Racial discrimination and inequities have long been documented in our nation’s system of policing, and the impact of uneven policing continuously falls on the heads of our Black and Latinx communities. Research shows that the presence of SROs in schools increases the likelihood of discipline and arrest for Black and Latinx students, without providing measurably better educational or safety outcomes. This in turn can lead to worse outcomes for students, as research also shows that students who were diverted to social services or school officials rather than arrested were 2.4 less likely to offend than students who were arrested for engaging in similar behavior.”
When I think of the journey we have taken to deeply support Black and Brown youth shifting the conditions in their communities, I am filled with hope. I want young people to know that their current experiences and conditions may be formative but are not a determinant of who they will become. Systemic oppression has been centuries and decades in the making, our communities have come too far to give up now.
We are standing on the shoulders of our ancestors, and deserve to not just be our ancestors’ wildest dreams, but our own. Pa’lante!