First Person

Our star student was honored by Michelle Obama, but he felt like a fraud. Now, we’re rethinking everything

PHOTO: Generation Citizen

On a Monday in January 2015, we were thrilled to find out that Anthony Mendez would be First Lady Michelle Obama’s personal guest at the State of the Union address.

Anthony had been a star student with Generation Citizen, the nonprofit where we serve as the CEO and a board member. The news felt like validation that our program worked — it had propelled a young person from not caring about politics to being a political star. Anthony was about to show its power to the entire country.

But the reality differed from the narrative. We didn’t know it then, but Anthony was actually about to drop out of college. He spent his moment in the sun feeling like a fraud — an experience he recently detailed in a powerful piece published on Vox.

We’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on the ways we used Anthony’s success to our own benefit. We’ve also spent time thinking about Anthony’s own feelings of shame at not being able to cut it in college, despite years of hard work.

We recognize now that our own glamorization of Anthony’s story demonstrates something subtle and dangerous: our collective tendency to elevate exceptions to the results of inequality in our society. This is a call for others in positions of power to question how we tell those stories.

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Generation Citizen is an organization that works to make politics real for young people. Over the course of a semester, students in New York and elsewhere choose local issues they care about and take real action. They present issues to community leaders. They ask local council members to push legislation for body cameras to curb police brutality, advocate for increased funding for teen jobs, and talk fluently about the school-to-prison pipeline. Our goal is for young people to recognize their own voices by using them to make a difference in their own communities.

We work with thousands of students each year, but Anthony, who is from the Bronx, was a stand-out. After his semester with Generation Citizen ended, he traveled to Albany to lobby for a bill we were pushing, received one of our fellowships, and interned with a City Council member. Before long, he became the face of our program. He was charismatic and articulate, and his passion for politics as a young person embodied everything we believed in.

As soon we found out that he would be at the State of the Union, the organization sprang into action. We sent an alert to let all of our supporters know that Anthony was the First Lady’s guest, and sent press releases to reporters touting Anthony’s experience as an example of Generation Citizen’s impact.

That night, our team watched President Obama’s address. As the cameras panned to the First Lady, we saw Anthony sitting directly to Michelle Obama’s right. The smile we knew so well was beaming at millions of American households across the country. He was a star — our star.

Anthony called us that night, thanking us for the opportunity and telling us how excited he was. “I’m going to be back here one day,” he said. We didn’t doubt it.

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Anthony Mendez, left, appears with First Lady Michelle Obama at the State of the Union in 2015.
PHOTO: The White House / YouTube
Anthony Mendez, left, appears with First Lady Michelle Obama at the State of the Union in 2015.

Over the next few months, Anthony’s story became Generation Citizen’s story. We used him in our materials we sent to our biggest donors. He was the keynote speaker at our Civics Day, regaling other students with stories of meeting the president and walking through the West Wing. And Anthony, by all outside appearances, continued to prosper. He started school at Hartford College and visited the White House again to talk about “beating the odds.”

In August, Anthony came back to visit us. But he wasn’t there to celebrate his latest success.

It turned out that, in a story all too familiar for first-generation college students, Anthony had been struggling mightily. He was not adjusting to college life and not receiving adequate mentorship. He’d almost failed out of college his first semester. In fact, on the night of the State of the Union address, his grade point average was 0.8.

He told us that, two days before the invitation to the State of the Union, he had been crying on the phone with his mom, thinking he would have to drop out of college. He prayed that night. And when the White House called with an invitation to the President’s address, he thought it might have been an actual response from God.

Hartford had no warning that one of their students would be a guest of the First Lady, and officials were further baffled when they checked Anthony’s academic record. When he returned from the nation’s capital, Hartford’s leaders, including the president of the college, met with him to provide support. Because of his academic standing, he technically should not have been invited back for the second semester.

Just like everyone who meets Anthony, though, the entire administration was taken by his charm and his efforts to engage with his studies. They loved him, and did everything they could to help him succeed. They boosted his financial aid. They provided tutoring. But nothing worked. His GPA continued to falter, and Hartford eventually asked him to leave.

How do we reconcile the fact that Anthony was our organizational success with the reality that he ended up feeling like a failure?

And what does it mean that we propped him up and essentially exploited him — as so many nonprofits do with the individuals, mostly poor and people of color, who go through their programs?

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Most of us enjoy a real-life Horatio Alger story in which someone, especially a young person, rises above the direst of circumstances to assume a position of fame or wealth. Such stories affirm the idea that hard work and a strong will are sufficient to overcome otherwise insurmountable obstacles, including centuries-old systems of oppression.

They also give life to the seductive myth that those who have not risen above their circumstances have only themselves to blame. The rags-to-riches story makes invisible the power of privilege and the devastation of systemic oppression.

Even well-meaning defenders of a democratic and inclusive society are susceptible to the appeal of a story of a nearly impossible triumph over great odds. They are drawn to the notion that a moment of stardom, or a powerful single act directed at a young person born into discrimination and oppression, is sufficient to set her or him on a path of triumph.

Remember, for those who labor to mitigate the effects of poverty and injustice in the lives of the nation’s youth, the rewards are few. And so when it seems a victory has occurred, it is easy to succumb to the temptation to crown a new superhero — without realizing that could give new life to a myth of rugged individualism that makes young men and women of color believe they alone are responsible for their perceived failures.

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Anthony’s story contains some of these familiar themes.

On the surface, his State of the Union invitation appeared to be the opportunity of a lifetime for a young Latino man who grew up in poverty in New York City. Anthony had “made it.” In reality, the limelight thrust upon him, and the responsibility to represent the elevation of young people like him, was premature.

It is important to keep in mind what identities Anthony did and did not bring with him to the State of the Union Address. He did not enter it having accomplished an outstanding feat like Malala Yousafzai, who understood the source of her oppressed status and courageously stood up against it, carving out an identity in the process. Anthony did not attend with the identity of a Muhammed Ali, who too had confronted his own oppression and forged his own identity as a black man in America through that struggle.

Anthony had worked hard. But he came to this major event primarily as a star-struck attendee, grateful to be invited. Anthony was there because someone else had determined that he symbolized hope for a more inclusive and democratic America.

We must acknowledge that at its core, bestowing the status of superhero upon someone is in itself an act of oppression, denying him or her the opportunity to claim one’s own humanity through purposeful struggle. That status also means that, when Anthony did fail, it was perfectly logical for him to blame himself.

Anthony will always bear responsibility for his life and his decisions. But life has not been difficult for him because he was not smart or had not worked hard enough. His failing out of college was certainly not because of a lack of desire.

Students like Anthony do not realize that segregation and poverty mean that they have had grossly inequitable opportunities to learn. It’s heartbreaking to think that, as he sat next to the First Lady and worried about having to leave college and being “found out,” he blamed himself for systems in place long before he was born.

To be clear, the First Lady is not a villain in this story, and we don’t think Generation Citizen is either. We see now that our response wasn’t wrong, but it was premature, and perhaps naive. It came from the need to validate the hard work of building a democracy, brick by brick and youth by youth. Reflection by both parties may reveal that we may have needed to raise Anthony to superhero status to validate our work more than Anthony needed this experience.

His story has made us ask important questions. How can we tell the story of Generation Citizen with integrity while still proving that the program works and attracting resources? What does success for us, and our students, actually look like?

For now, we hope that Anthony’s life story is one of success — of his own definition. Our job is to try to tell Anthony’s story with all the dignity and veracity that it deserves. We have not done so yet.

First Person

How I navigated New York City’s high school admissions maze in a wheelchair

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Students at the citywide high school fair at Brooklyn Technical High School.

Public school was something I had been thinking about for years. It seemed like an impossibility when I was younger. Reliant on a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy, I was too disabled. So many didn’t have an elevator. How could I keep up?

So for the last eight years, I have been at the Henry Viscardi School. It is a private school for kids with severe disabilities. The majority of the students are in wheelchairs and many use assistive technology to communicate, as I do. I am nonverbal, which means I cannot speak, so I use computers and switches to write.

While Henry Viscardi is a good school, as I went through middle school, I felt like I had plateaued in what I was learning. I was bored in school and it wasn’t fun. So I approached my parents about going to a public high school. My mom has been very involved in the educational world, serving on different committees throughout my life. She could also tell it was time for me to go to public school, but she knew it would be a difficult road.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Abraham Weitzman
The technology Weitzman uses to communicate

Most kids start to look at high schools by picking up the big book of high schools the Department of Education gives out. That wouldn’t work for me. Probably 80 percent of those schools couldn’t work based solely on accessibility.

I wanted a small school, a shorter bus ride, and academics that would prepare me for an Ivy League college. My siblings wanted a safe school because I am vulnerable. My dad said we needed the right principal. My mom used the School Finder app and found about five schools that might work.

I went to the high school fair with my brother, Izzy, and my best friend, Oriana. It was a maddening experience. We needed to go in the back entrance because it had the ramp. The specialized high schools were down a few steps, but we found another ramp. I wasn’t going to take the SHSAT [specialized high school admissions test], but Izzy and Ori were interested, and we always stay together. We found our friend Mav there too.

After we had our fill of the crowd, we got on line for the elevator to the Queens floor. We were welcomed wherever we went.

Everybody said I could go to their school. It felt good, but I knew they didn’t all have what I needed or what I wanted. Tired, we visited the Manhattan floor but gave up before we hit the other boroughs. My mom had a cocktail at lunch.

After the fair, I visited School of the Future with my parents and my assistant, and I thought it was perfect. The kids seemed nice. They didn’t stare and they made room on the ramp. I met the teachers and the principal. The classes and clubs sounded interesting. Bathroom? Fail! My wheelchair didn’t fit and my mom had to carry me into the stall. Clearly this was a problem.

I was disappointed, but my parents had another plan. They wanted me to apply for Bard High School Early College Queens. I don’t like standardized tests because my disability makes me tired before I can finish, so I never do well. My mom worked with Bard to make sure the test was printed large with one question per page. Bard gave me quadruple time over two days. I was able to finish all of the test parts. I cannot speak, so I interviewed by email. Bathroom? Awesome! Plenty of room and privacy. I ranked Bard first and waited.

This week my letter came. I’ll be going to Bard in September. It is exciting to think of all the people I’ll meet and the courses I’ll take. I know the workload will be much greater and I will be the only nonverbal person in the building. Mom, I’m ready.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.