Raising enough money for a group of teenage girls to take a trip to the Caribbean isn’t easy. But Derrika Hunt made it happen.
She’s a Ph.D. candidate in education at UC Berkeley. She started a nonprofit in 2017 called Dreamers4Change Foundation. One of its programs, Passports4Change, brings teenage girls of color from economically disadvantaged communities on trips to somewhere new in the world.
“Many of our youth have never left their communities,” she says. “There’s an idea of meritocracy, that you have to work hard to get out. And I think the girls understand that, “No matter how hard I work sometimes I literally cannot get out.”
She makes it clear that it isn’t a study abroad experience or a destination vacation. In fact, it’s hard work. It’s a chance for them to see new things, taste new foods, smell new aromas, touch new things — to expand their view of the world. It’s an opportunity for them to begin to see and visualize a new world. To begin to realize that change is possible.
“We often instill in the girls, ‘The world that you want will not happen. You will not wake up in a world that will be instantly better or somehow this place of equality or equity. You have to create that world.’”
For Derrika, that message began with her mom, who taught her to dream big and fight for what she believed in.
Derrika grew up in South Florida. She says her schooling experiences often felt disempowering as she says they often do for youth of color in low-income schools.
“I lived in a community that was predominantly black and brown and predominantly poor, and so you have us going to these schools where we’re learning nothing about ourselves, nothing about our own empowerment,” says Derrika. “And so I think it really creates a distress in the youth and it creates an uninterest in school.”
In third grade, when all the other kids stood up to say the Pledge of Allegiance, Derrika stayed sitting and silent.
“I remember telling my mom, ‘This doesn’t feel right to me. Why am I saying this pledge and then going home every day to this community, seeing people suffering. Seeing people marginalized. But I’m pledging to this country that doesn’t pledge to us?’”
Instead of enforcing the school’s rules, Derrika’s mom stood by her daughter’s decision.
“I could tell my teachers, ‘I don’t do that.’ And it definitely created some friction. Some teachers didn’t like that, or I would be disciplined. My mom always said that I could do what felt best and she would 100 percent support me.”
Instead of reading Romeo and Juliet or the Great Gatsby, Derrika read The Color Purple by Alice Walker and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou.
“Those stories represented me,” she says. “I saw myself in them and they were literature that was beautiful. My mom’s premier focus was, “I want you to know yourself first and then we move outside of ourselves.”
Her mom encouraged her to learn different languages, write poetry, create artwork. “So I think my mom helped me create learning experiences that made me interested in learning. I thrived in school because she did that.”
Derrika’s mom died when Derrika was only 13. Derrika says it’s her mother who inspires her work today, that her mom buried her dreams within her so they could bloom.
As a doctoral candidate at Berkeley, Derrika is working to create a pathway to give youth a new kind of education beyond the kind that traditional schools offer their students today.
Last year, Dreamers4Change traveled to Trinidad and Tobago, an island in the Caribbean.
To raise the $7,000 needed for the group of 15 girls to go on the trip, Derrika had to get creative. She applied for small grants, organized group bake sales and car washes, and worked longer hours to cover the rest. The funds paid for everyone’s airfare, lodging, meals and day trips once they arrived.
Derrika says the girls found it especially fascinating to be in a country where most of the population was of African or East Indian descent, or indigenous to the area. “They somehow felt seen in a different way where everybody looked like them, not in a homogenous sense, but people were overwhelmingly people of color. They didn’t feel so different or ostracized. They were the majority and that majority entails a range from the good to the bad.”
The experience in Trindad and Tobago impacted each of the girls deeply in different ways. But one thing it did for all of them, says Derrika, was inspire them to begin to create change in their own communities.
After they got back, a group of girls began to attend their local city council meetings. They wrote letters about how the school they attend treats them unfairly. They’ve even talked to the mayor about it.
“Many of the girls prior to that had said they never had any interest,” says Derrika. “They didn’t feel invested or connected and I think now even if that doesn’t continue long term, there is an awareness and understanding of local government.
Being in a new place, says Derrika, helped the girls to imagine what a different world could look like beyond what they’ve known. And how to begin to create it themselves.