According to a survey on the finance website WalletHub, four of the top 10 most ethnically diverse cities in America are located in Montgomery County in Maryland—a Washington, D.C., suburb and one of the highest-income counties in the country. I never saw the effects of these stats growing up in Montgomery County because the area was—and still is—marred by the systemic issue of de facto segregation. There was diversity and wealth in my county, but accessing it was dependent on where you lived.
Because of the neighborhood I lived in, I attended a majority Black and Latinx Title I public elementary school (Title I schools receive federal grants due to having a high percentage of students from low-income families). My public middle level school had a similar demographic makeup and was nicknamed the “prison on the hill” because of its crumbling facilities and the fact that, on a few occasions, students had been arrested in the school building.
After my first year in middle school, too many students had failed to meet early Obama-era No Child Left Behind Act requirements (which were later repealed), and our principal, Ms. McClain, was pushed out of her job after serving the school system for 26 years. Community members were outraged at the decision to replace Ms. McClain. According to a local newspaper, one mother said to a crowd back then, “Something is not right about the system, and it shows in this room that something is not right.”
While I was too young to attend that meeting or even understand what was discussed (I was probably playing Call of Duty with my friends when it happened), I would land upon that same truth during the next phase of my life: Something about the system was not right.
A Turning Point
In 2013, my school counselor and my parents urged me to take a countywide test for magnet high schools due to my strong academic performance and their apprehension toward me attending my similarly underfunded local high school. I tested highly and, that same year, I was accepted into a science, mathematics, and computer science (SMCS) magnet program on the wealthy, white side of the county. The differences between Poolesville High School and the other two schools I attended were stark. For starters, Poolesville was consistently ranked the No. 1 high school in the entire state of Maryland based on standardized test scores and graduation rates. Also, the school had a new science building with state-of-the-art engineering workshops, biochemistry labs, and computer science software. But among all of these contrasts, one stood out to me the most:
Out of the 60 students in the SMCS program in my class, I was the only Black student. By the time I graduated, I was the only Black student throughout the 240 students across all four class levels. I was also one of very few students who had not previously attended a magnet middle level school.
The transition into a school where I was “the only one” came with a set of challenges unlike any I’d faced before. Around this time (in the late 2010s), the Black Lives Matter movement was sparking in cities across the nation. My classmates—many of whom were white and East Asian and had mostly conservative beliefs on the topic—would consistently disparage the victims of police violence and make racist jokes about Black people being criminal, unintelligent, and fatherless. Not all of them would do this, but no one ever stood up against the substantial minority that did. But even in the first week of school, when I told classmates that I was in the SMCS program, most would respond, “But you don’t look like you’re in SMCS” and then ask, “Why are there no other Black kids in SMCS?”
I never had an answer, but these negative interactions did motivate me to prove my worth by getting into a college that my classmates coveted. So, I invested all of my free time into improving my grades, leading meaningful extracurriculars, and raising my SAT score.
At the time, I was a member of my high school’s engineering team, which won a competition hosted by MIT after we designed a wallet for people with blindness. I was also on the varsity track and field and varsity co-ed volleyball teams. My tight schedule required utmost discipline and organization, and my involvement in multiple competition-based organizations sparked a unique tenacity that made me successful in multiple areas of my life—from tests to talent shows.
As a senior in high school, I was admitted into Yale University. My original goal was to continue building upon my SMCS education by studying computer science, but in my sophomore year of college, two instances made me pivot my career path.
A New Path
First, I took a class titled American economic history and learned the term “de facto segregation.” For the first time ever, I had the vocabulary to describe the experiences I witnessed growing up—how racialized economic policies throughout U.S. history pushed Black and Latinx families into poorer neighborhoods and underresourced communities. Unlike the segregation of old, there are no “whites only” signs in de facto segregation. This evolved form of discrimination is caused by the accumulation of the effects of America’s explicit racist history and the collective bias of wealthy, white communities. The issue’s invisibility provides a rationale for questions about why certain groups are underperforming when there is no clear mode of discrimination. This was the answer to the question I was so often asked in my magnet high school.
Second, I ran for Yale student body president and became the first Black student ever to hold this position. Though I had never done student government or anything similar in high school, on a whim I successfully applied to be the treasurer of the student council the year prior, citing my magnet training in mathematics as a credential. After a year in the organization, my tenacity drove me to outperform other council members in the organization. I created a new financial accountability system after the previous administration was exposed in an embezzlement scandal. No other students felt a strong claim to becoming student body president, so I ran uncontested at the end of junior year.
During my tenure, I highlighted the institutional issues on campus by investigating the history of Yale, as my American Economic History course prepared me to do. This skill set made me a much more effective advocate. When students were protesting Yale’s investment in fossil fuel companies, I had to advocate on their behalf by bringing in Yale’s history of harmful investments in apartheid-era South Africa and Puerto Rican debt. When pushing for Yale to finally acknowledge Juneteenth in 2020, I brought up how Yale needed to atone for their legacy of honoring and educating staunch supporters of the Transatlantic slave trade. Halfway through my term, I decided to switch my major to the history of social change and social movements to hone my research capability in the classroom.
Now that my term is over, I apply these learnings to the advocacy that I do independently, whether that be writing an op-ed in The Washington Post to protect affirmative action or making a viral TikTok video supporting Juneteenth becoming a federal holiday. When I reflect on my life circumstances, I incorporate comprehensive research into understanding my personal situation and that of my regional community: For decades, Montgomery County officials have underfunded the parts of the region where Black and brown residents lived. Firing a principal was never going to fix this dire issue. Ten years later, I have taken the words of that parent to heart: “Something about the system is not right.”
The difference is that now I make it my personal responsibility to understand the system and to fix it.
Kahlil Greene is a senior at Yale University where he is studying the history of social change and social movements and served as the school’s first Black student body president. He is also a social media educator with more than 450,000 followers across his TikTok, Instagram, and LinkedIn accounts.
Sidebar: Succession Plans
I urge everyone to use historical context to diagnose particular problems as a part of systemic issues. Implementing these general tips into your own work might seem daunting, but this framework will aid you in your journey.
You can remember my alliterative framework by just memorizing three words: history, hurdles, and healing.
History: When you see a present-day problem manifest, dig into the series of historical events and decisions that led to that outcome.
Hurdles: Identify exactly what barriers exist that impede changing the system.
Healing: After your diagnosis, determine creative ways of using your influence to break down those barriers and implement fixes to the broken system.
When it comes to that last point, no resource will be more comprehensive yet digestible than You’re More Powerful Than You Think by Eric Liu, co-founder and CEO of Citizen University. In regard to developing personal discipline and general life and leadership capabilities, I recommend thoroughly reading The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey. Lastly, you can largely educate yourself about specific prominent issues by using the power of social media. My account, @kahlil.greene, and those of other advocates such as @theconsiouslee are made to convert large issues into bite-sized pieces of content.
And with that, you are on your way to identifying—and fixing—issues that are generations in the making.