Inspired by MLK, scholarship winner wants to improve the lives of others | Education

David Beckam

DANVILLE — It was in junior high that Clara Graham realized she wanted to be like the activists who paved the way for greater opportunities in the Black community.

Now a senior at Danville High School, the 18-year-old Graham said she has studied the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a great deal.

“I’ve looked up to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. my whole life, his view and vision for equality. It’s always been a part of my personal activism and the work I do with the Black Student Union, where I serve as president. His whole dream and goals were important to me in what I want to do in my life.”

Graham’s essay on Dr. King’s “I’ve Got a Dream” speech was selected the winner in a Martin Luther King Celebration Committee-sponsored contest. Her prize: a $4,000 scholarship.

Graham, a daughter of Abigail Graham and Damon Graham, said her essay outlines the inspiration that Dr. King, Rosa Parks and others have been and how she wants to pursue a bachelor’s degree at Illinois State University in urban and sustainable agriculture to one day be an urban farmer specializing in community outreach, starting nonprofit organizations that set up community gardens in lower-income communities and food deserts.

Another possibility in Graham’s future is to become an environmental science teacher in an inner-city school “to bring that career to some of the places that don’t really see that or do things like community gardens to help advance marginalized communities.”

Graham became interested in sustainable farming her freshman year when her teacher, Ms. Walker, taught environmental science, botany and biology.

“She really sparked my interest in the idea of saving the world, saving the planet,” she said.

“Sustainable agriculture is going to be the more long term, taking the farming techniques that have been used forever and making them more for the future, more long-lasting as well as bringing farming more into cities.

“People are moving more out of the rural areas to the cities, and sustainability for the future” is important.

In addition to her involvement with the Black Student Union, Graham plays soccer and is a member of the Danville High band, playing the tuba and sousaphone, and plans to join the Illinois State University marching band.

Graham read her essay at a celebration at St. James United Methodist Church.

Also speaking were E. Anne Henning Byfield of Nashville, bishop of the 13th Episcopal District and president of the Councils of Bishops of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and Danville Mayor Rickey Williams Jr.

Williams said of Graham: “Clara Graham is a bright young woman who represents the best of our future. With her intelligence, history of service and desire to make the world a better place, I have no doubt she will.”

Clara Graham’s award-winning essay:

“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was an intelligent and assertive leader. Through his acts of selflessness, bravery, and confidence, he paved the way for students like me; students who are witness to social, economic and political inequality. I see the needs that need to be met in my community as well as globally.

“Daily, I strive to bring awareness to those needs and find ways to fill them. I’ve looked up to figures like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Maya Angelou, and so many more my whole life. I hope to follow in their footsteps and help their legacy continue through my generation.

“Since arriving at Danville High School in August of 2018, I have been a member of Black Student Union and served as president for two years. As president, I lead a group of black students and allies in raising awareness about inequality not only in our school, but globally. Black Student Union organizes several events throughout the year that bring students from all different backgrounds together.

“We keep in mind the lessons which we received from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. such as, judging people not by the color of their skin but the content of their character. It is important to me that I lead activism that is inclusive and considerate.

“After high school I plan to pursue a degree in sustainable agriculture and get a bachelor’s degree in science. I want to one day be an urban farmer specializing in community outreach. More specifically I want to start non-profit organizations that set up community gardens in lower income communities and food deserts.

“I want to eliminate the stigmas around healthy living and food choices in black communities. It is important to me that black youth get involved in environmentalism. Careers in environmental sciences are heavily polarized by white faces because black people are being judged not by their education and skill level but by their skin color.

“According to Zippia, a demographics and statistics for Environmental Scientists organization, less than 3% of environmental scientists are black. This statistic is staggering. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned a world with equal opportunity, where black students don’t have to feel intimidated walking into a college classroom full of white students or job interviews with all white panels. I want to help black youth overcome these issues.

“Throughout college and my career, I hope to continue to have opportunities to be an advocate for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dreams. I hope to see a world with true equality in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and political, social and economic equality. I will work to bring awareness to issues that face black youth and reverse the heavy stigmas around health in the black community.”

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