Syed Ardhi came to the front of the room, a few nerves apparent as he looked up, and dozens of expectant faces looked back. As the audience grew quiet, any trace of fear seemed to leave his body. His voice became stronger and louder with each word of his poem “Blind.”
Eyes close, breath asleep
Racism, gun violence/don’t let these words just be words in our dictionary
Staying quiet makes you worse than the oppressor/open your eyes
Wednesday evening, Ardhi was one of several students to perform at the first-ever fundraiser for Students For Educational Justice (SEJ), a youth-led and peer-facilitated group that advocates for culturally responsive education in New Haven and across the state of Connecticut. A few dozen gathered for the event, held in the Afro-American Cultural Center at Yale University. As of Friday morning, the group did not yet have totals of how much it had raised.
SEJ began as People for Race and Ethnicity Studies Today (PREST) several years ago; the organization changed its name in 2017. Hillary Bridges, who co-founded PREST, still serves as its executive director. At the event, she lauded the work of students in the group, noting that “I’m seeing young people lead and navigate things better than I would.”
Her words hit home. In the past year, SEJ has helped pass legislation around the development and implementation of courses on African-American and Latino studies in Connecticut public schools. Now students have been looking at how to make sure those courses are justly implemented—by teachers who understand the material—across the state by 2021.
The organization has weekly meetings on political and educational justice and advocacy each Thursday from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. at the Institute Library. But students also have fun together, with opportunities to express their creativity in poetry, written testimony, and multiple art forms. Wednesday, that came to life as students danced, sang and performed between mixing and mingling.
“The young can surprise you,” said Deputy Director Briyana Mondesir, who later read Maya Angelou's "Still I Rise."
Marleny Nieves and Marquise McCullough, both members of SEJ, said that they are grateful for the organization because it connects to them to new knowledge and to each other, helping them learn about history that is not taught in school as well as a space to meet new people.
“If you want to learn more about your culture, this is the space for you,” Nieves said.
Jaleel Harris, who is a new member, said that he attends weekly meetings as a way to stay busy, and meet other students his age. He said he sees connecting with the community as a way to “keep off the streets.”
“It’s a great thing to be a part of,” he added.
Wednesday, the fundraiser blended mission and celebration. Orange, yellow, and white balloons and streamers decorated the walls. A string of flags representing different countries unfurled behind performers, turning the front of the room into a sort of makeshift stage. Orange tablecloths and little pumpkins and autumn leaves winked out from the tabletops. As attendees filtered in, they were welcomed with the sound of music, warm greetings, and the delicious aroma of foods.
Mindi Englart, who teaches English and creative writing at, Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School, said she is proud to see the work organization’s work in action.
“I am a big fan of Hillary [Bridges] and her work,” she said. “The organization benefits students and their society and helps them create a better understanding of things.”
To find out more about Students For Educational Justice, visit their website. To donate to the organization, a system for monthly and one-time donations also exists on its website.