CTY Civic Leadership Institute in UC Berkeley

Without the sky, the ocean would not be blue.

I felt that I have lived inside my own bubble for the majority of my life and only came to realize that there was so much going on in the outside world once I moved back to China. This past summer I attended the Civic Leadership Institute, a program dedicated to helping youth understand the problems of the real world and experience what it’s like to be a leader in civic engagement and leave a mark solving the issues in society today. I entered a whole new world, I realized the many truths of life, and I became inspired to do my part in making the world a better place. Problems such as hunger, poverty, and social injustice were discussed and I learned many other things about life itself, such as where I stood in the world as of there and then as well as how I am impacting the world around me. I would say that my summer vacation was based around experience – through feeling, understanding, and interacting with the people and infrastructure within my reach. It was both tangible and intangible to say the least and I believe that I have matured mentally throughout the journey – like a dragonfly nymph breaking the water’s surface, I feel as though I have broken a barrier in the understanding of how the world of today works and that now there is no looking back to the ways of the past. I can only move forward.

Entering a “new world” so to say seemed like a difficult thing to do, especially since I felt like I have seen all I needed to see or will see; luckily for me, taking a step outside the bubble was literally a step away – a step onto an airplane. It was my first time travelling around by myself on an airline; previously, I had always travelled with my parents and other family members. To compensate for the lack of adult attendance, my parents signed me up for the under-age minor service in which the airline assigns someone to look after you before boarding and after landing at destinations. I didn’t feel any immediate change like breaking free of any shackles or restraints of any kind but my mind did wander at the numerous possibilities that opened up in front of me. It was not only the fact that I was like a free spirit and that I could do anything that I wanted to but ironically, the burden (or rather responsibility) of taking care of my luggage presented itself as a form a freedom per se; I had the rights to it and I had the power to control its fate – whether or not I lose it is because of me. I have a say and I can impact it so to speak. This was the moment when I discovered the power that humans hold in their hands: we may be feeble beings who with one accident may perish but we are the beings that domesticated livestock, created religions, and built pyramids. I realized then that I needed to experience the world more for I have seen not even 0.01% of the “world” (I say world because Earth is only physical and geographical) and luckily for me, the place where I was headed had all the opportunities to expand my horizon and knowledge base.

Throughout the duration of the summer, I came to realize the many cruel and unfair truths about life whether it was seeing the police brutality and prejudice on the homeless or living a day in the life of a minority in a hostile neighbourhood. The summer camp itself was based on field experience-based learning so I ended visiting a colourful myriad of communities including but not limited to Fillmore where I learned about cultural segregation along with the gentrification of older neighbourhoods in the Bay Area, Chinatown where I volunteered at a food bank started up by the Chinatown Community Development Center while learning about the SRO (Single Room Occupancy) Programs started up by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the HUD, as well as East Oakland where my classmates and I discovered the existence of food deserts/swamps: places which are devoid of any produce for at least a few miles out and the nearest food available is either of no nutritional value at all or is detrimental to your health. We then worked with the non-profit organization Acta Non Verba which grows organic gardens to bring food to communities incapacitated by these conditions. At Quesada Springs, California, which is south of San Francisco city, my classmates and I met two NGO workers who were barely scraping by everyday just to make the community a better place by starting a ‘peace garden’ that involved the whole community extensively, encouraging people to work together. Quesada Springs was formerly just another sketchy neighbourhood on the outskirts of San Francisco. Crime rates were high and drug deals were being made on every block of the community. Over time, the change spread from one small garden to a community garden. The once quiet neighbourhood got together to form an actual community. They planted gardens around town and sold home-made strawberry jam just so the project could be prolonged for another week. Another location I happened to chance upon was the Tenderloin, which is considered by many to be the slum of San Francisco; there I saw the children of new immigrants, drug abusers, and sex workers. It really opened my eyes to the contrast between the middle class and the extreme lower end of the socio-economic spectrum. Unfortunately my adventures into the field were limited only to the scope of the Bay Area and California in general; however, on weekends our camp would have guest speakers come in and talk about a-day-in-the-life experiences. There was a panel of homeless people who advocated basic rights on behalf of their peers through a newspaper titled the Street Sheet, a young entrepreneur who lost all of her possessions, an advocate for ecofeminism, etc. and for once, I saw the real world for what it really was and the true social injustice that inhabits it. This gave me a lot to think about during the night classes in which we usually spent time reflecting on the day’s events and each student’s reaction to them. Looking back, I wish that I had been able to visit and understand more places.

Whether it was in the field or in the dormitories, the discussions held with my fellow campers invoked the most meaning and passion for learning – not only what the world is and why it is such a way, but also how to change it for the better and make it a place in which everyone wants to live. At such times I had heard my fellow classmate’s proposals for change: talk groups for promoting self-esteem and confidence in self-image, community help to tackle the issues of poverty-based drug abuse and violence, etc. A lot of the issues today are not only caused by communities but by ourselves. Convenience breeds complications and other consequences. It is our individual duty as inhabitants of the planet to clean up our mess and take action. During class, the teacher told us the starfish story by Loren Eisley which goes as follows: “One day a man was walking along the beach when he noticed a boy picking something up and gently throwing it into the ocean. Approaching the boy, he asked, “What are you doing?” The youth replied, “Throwing starfish back into the ocean. The surf is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die.” “Son,” the man said, “don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? You can’t make a difference!” After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it back into the surf. Then, smiling at the man, he said, “I made a difference for that one.”” | In retrospect, I feel that this experience inspired me to become a proactive agent of change. I feel the desire to fight for the environment and much more. The air pollution in Shanghai not only threatens myself, who has mild asthma, but also a large portion of the city’s population which are not limited to infants, the elderly who are prone to secondary health complications from inhaling polluted air, as well as everyone else in the city from the effects of acid precipitation and the like.

I have learned many important lessons over the sixteen years of which I have lived but this experience was definitely one of the most memorable and indispensable; through it I learned to take that step forward and stretch out my hand, to discover something new and understand more about the world I live in; through it I learned that the world will never be perfect and that empowered people must put in the effort to protect the world; through it I learned that I have the power as an individual to impact change upon the community and every little bit of effort will collect together like a piggy bank and make change (Yes? No?). At the end of the day I ask myself if I have done any good, if I have contributed to society in some way in hopes that I can build the momentum for change. Have I started the petition against the ever so prevalent bus idling that occurs in the parking lots everyday at school? Have I planted some trees to combat China’s ever-so-increasing carbon dioxide emissions which are never checked because the UN labels the country as a developing nation? Have I done my part in making sure that there is no discrimination based on ethnicity, age, sex, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, religion, skin colour, nationality, and physical or mental ability going on in my neighbourhood? I believe that it is time to start and create change so with that I end this with an exclamation mark and not a period!